Melbourne City Baths
PICTURES \ EDDIE MORTON
Attention seekers are everywhere, but nowhere are they more annoying than in the fast lane of whatever public swimming pool you like to splash in.
Imitating traffic conditions, every pool has a fast and a slow lane, and we need to be vigilant by keeping an eye out for suspicious behaviour.
The fast lane is for the executives. They’re swimming in designer goggles with teensy smart phones clipped
to fluro bathing caps sending and receiving emails. Their stroke is fluent, parallel arms slicing speedily through chlorine.
These swimmers make tsunami splashes. They’re releasing anger and seeking attention, each load of water chronicling an unhappy experience in their hollow lives. Inevitably, in less time than it takes to say “psychiatric evaluation”, they’ll be bored with swimming and choose another activity to gratify their lust for getting attention.
I like to play it safe, so I swim in the slow lane, where incompetence rules and dog paddling is the irresistible masterstroke. Those with injuries, the infirm, the loners who loathe attention and wannabe swimmers like me are bonded by our lack of ambition.
My first public-baths experience was on a primary-school excursion to the City Baths. I felt uncomfortable on all fronts, from the nose-biting smell of chlorine to my inability to slip my bathers on and off with a towel wrapped around my body. It was obvious I didn’t belong here.
I envied the grace with which other girls managed this disrobing voodoo but, try as I did, I’d always end up standing stark naked with the towel and my bathers twisted around my ankles.
I thought the building was old and a little creepy. The exterior was fine but the interior was strange, with its secret passageways, forgotten corners, frightening depths and disappointing shallows. Everything was damp yet somehow electrified.
The Melbourne City Council opened the first Melbourne City Baths in 1860 to stop people from bathing in the Yarra River. I wonder whether Melburnians dared to touch the bottom of the river with their feet back then?
In 1904, new baths were opened on the same site with modern facilities but archaic rules. Strict separation of men and women was maintained, right down to separate street entrances! Class distinctions were also apparent, with second-class baths in the basement and first-class baths on the main floor.
The facilities were luxurious; two swimming pools, 16 slipper baths and six spray baths each for the men and women. There were also Turkish and vapour baths, a Jewish ceremonial bath (Mikvah bath) and a laundry. Our first spa in the middle of the CBD!
Regrettably, segregation remained until 1947, when mixed bathing was finally introduced and, whaddyaknow, the popularity of the swimming pool increased.
I still can’t slide my bathers off discreetly from under a towel but I love the City Baths. There’s a swimming pool, spa, sauna, squash courts and four swimming lanes. Look out for me, I’ll be one of the alarmingly Disneyesque shapes paddling in the slow lane, which is referred to as the “aquatic education” lane because that’s where swimming lessons take place. Classy!
Tooth-care terror, numb tongues and inhaling substances
The Royal Dental Hospital
On a recent visit to my dentist, what frightened me most was the lump he was about to cut out of my savings account. As a child, whenever the school took us to the Royal Dental Hospital I didn’t expect the worst, I knew the worst was happening right there and then! I know the dental hospital provides excellent general and emergency care to all eligible Victorians, but I remember all those years ago huddled together in the bus on our way there; we’d be grim-faced and twitching compulsively. No noise in the universe could penetrate as repulsively as the dentist’s drill.
Fisherman’s Friend lozenges
The Fisherman’s Friend website tells us that if you laid all the Fisherman’s Friend lozenges eaten in one year end to end they would stretch around the world four times! I wonder what the figure is for those that slip out of our mouths because our tongues are anaesthetised? These extra-strong lozenges were created for fisherman in the frigid North Sea, but my mother insisted that I suck one before going into a public pool. I’m certain they stopped me from coughing, but if I breathed on any one they’d get disoriented.
The scent of Vicks VapoRub takes me back to those school trips to the City Baths. My mother would smear it on my chest before every excursion to the baths in case I came close to someone carrying a virus. I never got sick because the smell of menthol kept everyone away. Vicks has been around for more than 100 years and is one of the most widely used over-the-counter decongestants. It works. I smear it all over my chest whenever I’m feeling like last week’s birthday-party balloon.