Swimming in Iceland

An Outlander in Iceland

The Icelandic word for foreigner is "útlendar”, literally “outlander”, which neatly encapsulates their distinct island mentality.

The following piece is one of a series of observations from an "Outlander in Iceland" intended to run consecutively as a column.

An essential ingredient of any holiday is to sun yourself in the pool and that is exactly what I did today; I went swimming, Icelandic style. Since they have to find something to do with all that geothermally heated water, Reykjavik has an abundance of swimming pools.

I am not known for my appetite for exercise but Icelandic swimming is exactly my cup of tea. Basically you don’t really swim, it’s more of a wallowing process, sort of lolling around looking simultaneously pensive and relaxed. This idling however is the end of the process, there is a whole performance to go through first before you even hit the water, which if you’re in anyway shy could be somewhat less relaxing.

In the spirit of forewarned is forearmed the Visit Reykjavik website explains to grubby outlanders that a “high standard of hygiene is required” acknowledging that “showering naked with strangers may be a little off-putting for visitors”.

The swimming pool routine is as follows:

1. Pay for your entrance to the pools and receive a locker token.
2. Undress at your locker and take your towel and swimsuit to the showers. Soap is provided, but you may want to bring your own soap and shampoo. If so, take it to the showers too. Stash your towel etc. in the rack provided.
3. Shower (without a swimsuit), put on your suit, and head for the pool.
4. When you return, shower again, and dry off before you go back to your locker: wetting the floor in the locker room is frowned upon.

So? Naked showering happens in gyms and pools all over the world. Icelanders don’t have a monopoly on immodesty, right? Wrong. What the website does not show is the helpful posters indicating exactly the areas that must be scrubbed thoroughly. Backing up the posters are attendants posing as hygiene police, and one gets the feeling that other swimmers have signed up to a sort of hygiene neighbourhood watch patrol in case the attendants miss anything. The guide for visitors says you can be “rest assured, nobody is looking”. Well maybe not in a pervy way but they’re certainly looking to see if you’re clean enough to share their pool. The upshot of all this is rather than being painfully shy, the conscientious outlander performs an exaggerated scrub of his nether regions completely overdoing the whole process lest he be mistaken for a Frenchman.

There are many different pools in Reykjavik, apparently each with their own character, a bit like your local pub; fortunately I discovered a handy guide in the Grapevine. Predictably enough I plumped for the one populated by people who are “sometimes intimidatingly attractive.” So not really like your local pub then. The guide mentions that “Children and people interested in making children most frequent this pool” which seemed more appropriate than the one with “a reputation among some as a gay pool” particularly in light of the “Don’t worry, no one is looking” shower performance. What really swung it was the typical quote from the banter in the hot pots:

“I’m sorry, did my handsome child bump against your well-formed abdominal muscles? His father and I are not living together so he sometimes acts unruly.”

Disappointingly the people were not intimidatingly attractive, though that might have helped me be less self-conscious as I publicly scrubbed my wiry frame. Incidentally having passed the hygiene patrol, and enjoyed a relaxing swim I still managed to get into trouble. I’d forgotten the instructions to dry off before returning to the locker, since “wetting the floor in the locker room is frowned upon.”

Frowned upon? It is positively outlawed as I discovered after wringing my shorts out.