Leafing through a brochure that advertised "Activities for French Children," my wife came across an odd photograph. She held it up. It showed an infant and an adult swimming together underwater. It's hard to believe that a 6-month-old baby could be taught to hold its breath and flap its arms and propel itself along the bottom of a swimming pool. But there it was, in black and white. The ad, so far as I could make out, went on to explain the importance of acclimating babies to water before they learned to be afraid of it. To that end, it offered 30-minute private sessions in a womb-temperature pool. Bébé Eau, the company was called.
This struck me as a French twist on the business of preying on the insecurities of new parents. If you have a gift for frightening new parents, your fortune in this world is secure. New parents are not rational; they worry about all sorts of things that it makes no sense to worry about. For instance, I am at this moment worrying about when Tallulah will learn to walk. I'd like to assume that our child will walk when she walks and that she'll do it well enough to get around. But my wife will not let me. She believes our child will walk only if we worry about it. Still, when was the last time you saw a full-grown adult crawling around the streets on all fours?
As I read the ad for Bébé Eau, it occurred to me that I never had any trouble learning how to swim. And I don't recall, as an infant, anyone ever treating me to any 30-minute private sessions in womb-temperature water. But Tabitha's mind was already years ahead of mine. "What if she is afraid of water and never learns to swim?" she said. "What if she fell into a swimming pool?"
After a lot of phone calls, she finally got through to the authorities at Bébé Eau. We needed to fill out some forms, they said, which they'd send along. This sounded ominous. It was. A week later, a thick envelope arrived in our mailbox. Among other things, it contained one form that needed to be signed by a French pediatrician to prove that Tallulah had been vaccinated, and another by a French GP to show that we adults had no rare skin diseases. Even back home this would seem like more trouble than it was worth.
But no: The life of our child was at stake. Tabitha became even more intent on gaining entry to Bébé Eau. If it required a great deal of effort, that was only because it was so desirable. She tried to persuade me that in addition to saving Tallulah's life, it would also be fun. A private session in a giant pool brimming with womb-temperature water. She conjured up a vision of the three of us swimming happily together, underwater, released from the ordinariness of our daily lives.
It took two months of awkward phone calls in French and visits to the various doctors' offices, but she finally compiled the required paperwork and sent it to Bébé Eau. A few days later the authorities at Bébé Eau called. We were in. A private session.
On the appointed day, at the appointed hour (Sunday, crack of dawn), we climbed into a cab. Bébé Eau's neighborhood was curiously down-market; the address itself was merely a door leading to a long alley damp with mildew. We walked the length of it and emerged in an empty room lined with hard wooden benches. Paint flaked from the walls, an empty desk was stacked high with unopened mail. We sat on the bench and waited. Exclusive, perhaps, but in the wrong sense of the word.
After about 10 minutes we heard, from a great distance, a splashing sound. It came from the end of yet another long corridor. We walked down it and found a closed door. It opened upon a scene. In a pool not much bigger than a large Jacuzzi frolicked a dozen scantily clad Frenchmen—two, I couldn't help but notice, with bright red rashes on their backs—and a half-dozen children, several with snot running down their faces. A Frenchman in a snorkel and mask and not much else floundered about, hollering instructions and waving plastic bathtub toys. Any sane person who wandered into the room would ask: Why are all these people crammed into this little tub?
I looked over at Tabitha. Tears pooled in her eyes. "They said it was private," she said.
"Who are you?" shouted the Frenchman in the snorkel. I explained, but it rang no bells. "Come on in anyway!" he shouted.
There wasn't much else to do. And even though there hardly seemed room for three more bodies, we squeezed ourselves into the Jacuzzi. In doing so we entered the realm I have come to think of as Weird French Expertise. The French, of course, are famously expert on all sorts of rarified subjects: Wine, food, lovemaking, etc. But they are also expert in designating some slender body of learning as a "subject" and in establishing themselves as its sole authority. In the Luxembourg Gardens there is a woman who is a connoisseur of swings. Around the corner from our house is a club devoted to the scribblings of some obscure anthropologist. Our next-door neighbor holds meetings for those who are interested in Christopher Columbus' letters to his son.
It is no accident that Jacques Cousteau was French. The French know how to find categories ignored by the rest of the world and colonize them. Here, at Bébé Eau, was another example: baby dunking.
The point of what occurred during the next half-hour remains a mystery to me. But there was, evidently, a point. The Frenchman in the mask and snorkel could not have been more earnest about his job. He ignored everyone else in the pool to focus on the newcomer. First he draped Tallulah over a triangular flotation device. Then, just as the look of terror came into her eyes, he swooped her away and dragged her through the water on her back. Then, finally, as she began to howl, he dunked our only child's head under the surface of the womb-temperature water. Tallulah came up spluttering and reaching desperately for her mother, who reached desperately back for her. But the Frenchman seemed highly pleased with the result. He asked if we would all come back next week, when we would make further progress.
But the strangest thing about this strange experience was how it ended. It is rare, even in a family of three, for everyone to be feeling the same emotion. But on the way out of Bébé Eau there was no question about it. We shared a moment. And the emotion we all felt was: satisfaction with a job well-done.