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Swimming Pool Culture

Listen with RealAudio: Swimming Culture

In which country does Speedo sell the most swimsuits per capita? You might be surprised at how far north we'll take you to answer that question--to Iceland--but this tiny island nation, home to around a quarter of a million people, sits in the warmth of the Gulf Stream. With so much ocean all around, swimming lessons are a compulsory part of the school curriculum and more than half the population regularly visits a swimming pool--indoor and out, all year 'round. And if you're a tourist in Iceland, as Ellen Bikales recently was, you'll probably find the swimming pool culture worth checking out.


The boy doing cannonballs in the shallow end of the pool is several hours from his home in Rejkyavik, but he'd be at ease at any of Iceland's 150 swimming facilities. His mother, Jenny (yenni) Einarsdottir (ay-nars-daw-ter), sits nearby, ruddy in the sun, but out of the wind that blows non-stop off the ocean. She says many Icelanders on vacation visit the local pools.

Jenny: You get sort of yicky after traveling for a whole day so it's very good to stop and camp or have a house where there are swimming pools.

Iceland's Pools Iceland's pools are stocked by a water supply that's fresh and unlimited - running cold from glaciers and boiling hot from natural mineral springs. Most towns have lavish public complexes with 25-meter indoor and outdoor pools, towering water slides that wrap around each other like double helixes and saunas. Icelanders seem to breathe in water as they breathe in air.

Long dark winters and frequent rain don't keep Icelanders out of the pool, but it's sunshine they really love--in the town of Borganes, a dozen people bask like seals, without sunblock or sunglasses, in a pool with six inches of body- temperature water. Indridi Josafattson is the town's athletic manager. He says the shallow pool is intended for young kids but adults use it as well.

Indridi: It's very popular on sunny days like today for grown up people to have some water on the back and sun on the stomach you know (laughs) It's very popular.

Most popular, though, in summer and winter are the outdoor "hot pots." Shaped like blue cement commas, they gurgle with massage jets at temperatures from 100 degrees Farhenheit--like a bath--to a heart-pounding 107. People chat here for hours, climbing out of the water to cool in the breeze, then dipping in again. Saebjorg Kristmannsdottir, a schoolteacher, watches through steamed glasses as her two-year-old and her mother-in-law paddle about in the next pot. She says a stranger--and even a tourist--can join the conversation by talking about the weather.

Saebjorg: Didn't you know that? In Iceland we never say how are you? Or I'm fine, how are you? We say, oooh, what a nice day, or it's not very nice today, it's raining. We always talk about the weather because in Iceland we were always farmers once, and everything depended on the weather.

The "farmers" in Iceland were mainly fishermen. In this century the fish industry raised the national standard of living from poverty to middle-class - bringing amenities like pools and long work hours. To help take the edge off the workplace, many people take pool breaks at lunch or in the afternoon - Jenny Einarsdottir's husband, Thorudr (thor-dar) Marcus (markoos) Thorudrson, says some Icelanders keep regular hours at the hot tub just as they do at the office.

Thorudr: In some pools you have people meeting at certain hours always so it's almost a club. Some members of Parliament in Reykjavik they go to certain pools and you can see them there at certain hours. Then everybody can talk to them.

The extremes are special in Iceland--six months of darkness, six months of light, volcanoes and glaciers, and mountains that rise from the ocean. Icelanders do not live in as close contact with nature as they did in the days of the Vikings--but from their swimming pools, they've made a ritual of experiencing these extremes, comfortably.

A booklet available at the tourist center in Reykjavik gives the locations and generous hours of 120 pools; you can get a list by region online.

Ellen Bikales for The Savvy Traveler


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