Last week, upon my daily stroll through the internet, I found myself reading an article. The subject was a swimming pool in Iceland and the chances of it temporally closing on account of Corona. Now I’m not here to discuss the correctness of the article, nor whether the presumed measures are responsible. I do want to elaborate on my initial response to reading such a headliner. It was a one of sadness.
You see, I’m quite fond of the pools. To the extent that I research pools before my trips to Iceland. I’m positive that I will fancy one when I’m there. In my next trip to the Westfjords, I have two overlay days in Reykjavik. Planning my swimming pools is as important to me as planning my hostels. Which one should I go to? Or should I go the geothermal beach for once? Very important questions.
In my home country I barely go swimming anymore. But Icelandic swimming pools? Yes please. It must have something to do with their unique vibe. It’s much less about the sport as it is about the social aspect. Although I must admit, I do enjoy my share of lap-swimming when I’m there. Silly me.
The pools often have warm water and a great share of them are outdoors. It is this relaxing environment as a background that the Icelandic come to socialize. A meeting point. Look at it as a healthier option to your favourite bar. While I was living in Þingeyri, I got to know the local pool club. Residing every morning in the local swimming pool. Mostly retired folk in bathing attire, sipping on coffee and having a random refreshing plunge in barrel outside, Wim Hof style. Now that’s life!
It doesn’t matter how small or remote the village, it will have a swimming pool. The origin of this social meeting habit lies in those amazing hot springs lying around in the Icelandic nature. It is the middle way between two Icelandic extremes, the weather and the searing hot volcanic activity. Now and then you find that sweet spot that is a hot spring with just the right temperature.
While hiking I have encountered hot pieces of ground to sit on or random escapes of steam to warm my hands. All in the middle of nowhere. That sweet spot could be a metaphor for Icelandic life. A sweet way of balancing all the external extremes with taking advantage to the maximum of the gifts and opportunities of life.
But what I love the most about this swimming pool culture is maybe not the pools in and of itself. It is the culture of body neutrality that is a direct consequence of it. The male and female dressing rooms are open and communal. The shower is also open and communal. On top of that, everyone is required to shower and wash thoroughly before entering the pool. Naked. Considering the frequency Icelandic people go to the pool, it means that they see each other naked a lot. Mother and daughter. Grandson and grandfather. Nieces. Schoolchildren and their teacher. Friends. They grew up with this being a normality. There is no shame. A body is a body, without any unnecessary connotation.
I love the confrontation this brings to tourists. A confrontation that hopefully makes them question their own belief systems and the cultural habits of their upbringing. There is no need to have shame for oneself. And a good starting point to practice this is with your own body.
The discomfort that is brought to said tourists is forcing them to come out of their comfort zone and face oneself. It is something to contemplate while enjoying the warm water. This is the personal growth that comes with a visit to an Icelandic swimming pool.
So, once in a while, skip a psychology session, come to Iceland and get naked.
Text: Ellen Wild