The Long Street Baths
Saying that you don‚Äôt love Cape Town is a bit like saying you don‚Äôt love babies or dogs: it makes people think that you are weird, or lying, or compensating for something, or that you have had a Bad Experience. There are many good reasons not to love this city, or even like it very much, but still: a lot of people look at you funny when you say this out loud.¬† I have lived in Cape Town on and off for ten years, now, and I have had mixed feelings about it for much of that time. I‚Äôve always liked living here, but the reasons for this have not always been site-specific. I liked Cape Town because my friends lived here, and then my work was here, and because I fell in love a million times here. The point of falling in love, though, or of having friends or a job is that these things can be accomplished in all kinds of places. You do not need to be in a city famed for its natural beauty and its appalling race relations to do them.
It‚Äôs only very recently, as in this year, that I have examined my feelings and seen that they have changed. It‚Äôs not exactly love, yet, but I would say that it is getting there. I have figured out that in order to really fall for a city, you need to find a bit that feels as if it belongs only to you. It doesn‚Äôt matter if lots of people feel the same way. There is plenty of infatuation to go round. I have found my bit. I have a mega crush on the Long Street Baths.
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Name: Long Street Baths
Age: 108 years old/timeless
Family: It is descended from a long line of fine public spaces. Its father is an Olympic pool; its mother is the emotion nostalgia. No siblings, but its favourite cousin is the Zoo Lake Pool.
Vital Statistics/Personal Life Section on Wikipedia: 25m x 12m pool, natural light, heated, open twelve hours a day. The pool was built in 1908 (the Turkish Baths were added in 1927, and will probably get their own Crush of the Week section at a later date), and is administered by the City of Cape Town. Like all indoor swimming pools, it is probably haunted.
Entrance is R21 for adults, R10.50 for children, and free for pensioners. Tuesdays from 10 -2 are for women only. It is unaccountably empty a lot of the time, which is more than can be said for the Sea Point Pools. At Sea Point Pools, people guard their lanes with an unsmiling ferocity and if you get kicked in the head well then that is your problem, friend. This would never happen at the Long Street Baths. It should go without saying that the two pools are not friends, and in fact are barely on speaking terms. They avoid each other at parties.
Star sign: Most people would guess Pisces, but that is because they have no imagination. The correct answer is Virgo. Virgos are rule followers, but they are also secret weirdos. In a similar way, the Long Street Baths seems to be a fairly orderly place, but odd stuff happens there all the time. My friend Nick once saw a whole group of pals hanging out in the pool, fully clothed. I saw a woman the other day astride a pool noodle like a queen, doing slow laps and talking to her trainer about her allergies for forty-five minutes. She said that she was allergic to grass and to certain spices, and that she got it from her father, who was allergic to the soap at his sister‚Äôs house. See? Weird.
Also, Virgos are friendly and apparently open, giving the false impression of emotional availability. Think about it for two seconds, and you realise that in fact they are giving almost nothing away, and that there are great tracts of their inner life which you will only be able to access with a great deal of effort and acquiescence to arbitrarily enforced rules. The similarities to the Long Street Baths are obvious. It seems always to be open and accessible, and yet the conditions for entry are in fact quite strict, or at least not terribly cheap, and it is closed at strange times, only open to women at others, and really once you start to notice the TREAD CAREFULLY signs, you see that they are everywhere.
- This band of incredibly surly old women who take over the pool at about 9am. They do not greet or even look at each other, but they are united via disposition. Whether or not they admit it, they are a mighty and terrifying tribe. They all have absolutely hair trigger tempers, and give the very strong impression of despising everything that they see. They are keen on raising their voices, and they know the right way to do everything. They are ready to put you in your place. Do not tarry at the ladder going into the water, because they will shout right at you and you will think well who is it here that is abandoning all social norms and conventions, hollering away like this ‚Äì it is not ME who should be humiliated but THEM. You will think this, but it will make no difference and you will have to put your face into the water for a while in order to cool the burning of your cheeks.
- Echoes, voices bouncing off tiles, other startling acoustical phenomena.
- Appropriate bathing attire.
- Potted plants
- Extremely hot showers
- Bewilderingly dark entrance foyers. Is it dark for reasons of ambience, or because of the high cost of electricity these days? Unclear.
- Peeling murals
- Muted pastels
- An A+ atmosphere of faded gentility
- Persistently wet floors
- People who take long in the shower
Favourite Food: NO FOOD IS ALLOWED IN THE POOL
Trivia: The Long Street Baths is deathly afraid of spiders. It has never been on a rollercoaster. It played the trumpet in the youth orchestra, but please don‚Äôt make a big thing about that. When it was a kid, it had a birthday party where there was a guy doing balloon animals. He made an elephant for the Long Street Baths, which thrilled it to death. However, the elephant burst almost immediately, and the Long Street Baths cried for ages, until way after all its friends had gone home.
Favourite Movie: The Long Street Baths tells everyone its favourite movie is ‚ÄúThe Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie‚Äù‚Äì a lie. It watches exactly the same movie that you do when you feel depressed.
Smoking Y/N: there is no smoking allowed in the pool
Drinking Y/N: there is of course no drinking allowed at any time
Celebrity Crush: Someone far out and old and ‚Äúclassic‚Äù in a way that no one can care about, such as Robert Redford. You will encourage the Long Street Baths to update this, but it will turn to you blankly, confused. It is perfectly happy with this terrible choice, and if you are to persist with your crush, you must accept it.
Most Memorable Holiday: A trip it once took from Cairo to Luxor with an old lover. The holiday turned almost immediately into the exact plot of Death on the Nile¬∏ with the Long Street Baths in the role of Hercule Poirot.
Favourite Season: Autumn ‚Äì the Long Street Baths is just like everyone else in this regard
Favourite Book: The Secret History
Perfect First Date: Take the Long Street Baths out of its comfort zone, like for instance to an art exhibition, or perhaps to an empty field out of town where a large and out of control fire is burning. The Long Street Baths will be uneasy at first, but it will thank you later.
What is next for the Long Street Baths: A low and constant murmur persists around the subject of the Long Street Baths. It is clear that some kind of upgrade is needed, and that it would be selfish to wish that it stayed exactly as it was. There is talk of refurbishment, and of coffee shops on mezzanine levels. This would be very lovely for the City, but very terrible for everyone who likes that it is kind of falling apart, a little bit. Who knows what will happen? We cannot predict the future, and no one is more aware of this than the Long Street Baths.
Rosa Lyster is a writer living in Cape Town. She writes an essay a week at¬†rosalyster.com.
Photography by Paul Wallington