Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 15

After that we went for a quick dip at another neighbor’s house. It was one of the first properties in town equipped with its own swimming pool. Now there are scores of them. But not as many as you would imagine.

          You’d think that, considering the intense summers that pummel this land, these makeshift lakes would be even more widespread, but the Spanish have always had a weakness for the seaside. Most don’t realize it, but they do. Swimming pools are a necessary evil when there is nothing else left, but when given a choice, nothing compares to a leisurely wade in a sea of salt water. The Spanish are the first to tell you. “Salt water is better for you. Chlorine is for the Nordic people who don’t know any better.”

          Chlorine, it should be noted, is one of three universal taboos in Spanish society. The other two are air conditioning and antibiotics. According to popular lore, the first does something like flay your skin, the second gives you chronic pneumonia, and the third prevents you from having beer for two whole weeks, an insurmountable challenge for many.

          Chlorine is somewhat understandable. Anyone who has felt the consequences of a pool laced with a heavy dose of chlorine crystals can list for you some of the obvious drawbacks, which run anywhere from your eyes looking as if you are a victim of voodoo, to the characteristic chest soreness from spending an entire day in the water playing Marco Polo with your friends and breathing in too much of the noxious fumes. But those are fairly extreme reactions. Other reports regarding the negative side effects of chlorine include stripping away the color of your bathing suit. While I like to make sure my trunks retain their vibrant tones at the poolside, if losing them (the colors, that is) means I can go home knowing I haven’t just contracted E. Coli, then so be it.

          However, when you live in an area where the nearest body of salt water is five hours away by car, as is the case with Cebolla, you have to search for alternative sources for cooling off. Rivers occasionally slice through the landscape, but one can never quite say that water is abundant resource. Plus rivers tend to be rather slimy at the bottom and suitable only for those animals whose young undergo metamorphosis. So, the Spanish generally settle for the next best thing, which is obviously the swimming pool. True to the austere Castilian frame of mind, owners rarely get bogged down with fancy designs. The classic rectangle is the traditional geometric shape of preference. Diving boards are often superfluous extravagances and slides are for people who enjoy watching the Eurovision Song Contest or walking poodles. Basically, an ideal place where the mob could settle its debts with people who owe them money. The pool we were visiting that day included a bonus feature of steps to ease your way in, but many don’t even bother to get that decorative.

          Spanish pools can also be also excruciatingly frigid. Inexplicably lacking in thermal abundance. It defies all logic. I am at a loss as to why the water is so cold. I really am. It’s about two hundred degrees every day for about 90 straight days in La Mancha in the summer. Clouds depart sometime around June and don’t show up again until September. The whole countryside gets baked into a piece of pottery. You should be able to poach an egg in one of these watering holes. There’s no excuse for it not to be whirlpool spa hot around the clock. Meteorological rationale demands it.

          The Spanish claim to enjoy the chilled temperatures, though I have my doubts. “It’s refreshing!” they squeak several pitches above their normal voice as the cells in their bodies have contracted to half their normal size. Then they paddle underwater frantically to avoid succumbing to acute hypothermia. “Don’t you just love it?!” Usually by then, their heads have submerged.

          “Let me get in first and I’ll let you know.” I usually start with a toe test to confirm what I already fear, and then stare down at the surface of the water and realize that it takes a fast sinking ship for people to want to plunge into those temperatures. The only comfort was that I could pull myself out whenever I wanted, as long as the feeling in my hands hasn’t disappeared. But my friends insist that it’s just the temperature difference with the air that we’re noticing. Of course, this, by definition, is known as denial.

          “Yes, that must be it,” I reply so as not to hurt their feelings, though I’m sure their sensory nerves have been numbed by then, so it shouldn’t matter. It’s important to be kind to your hosts. “Just a thought. Have you ever considered installing heating?”

          “Sorry,” said Eugenia, the owner of the pool. “We rely on the natural elements. Weak people need artificial heating.”

          “I get the message,” I said. Damn, I thought to myself. These are tough people. I smiled at her. “I’ll deal. Let me just go to the bathroom and change into my wetsuit.”