Icelandic Baths

Every Icelandic town, no matter how small, has its own pool. There are ramshackle cement rectangles squatting under rain clouds in the sheep-strewn boonies. There are fancy aquatic complexes with multilevel hot tubs and awesomely dangerous water slides of the sort that litigious American culture would never allow. All told, there are more than 120 public pools — usually geothermally heated, mostly outdoors, open all year long — in Iceland, a country with a population just slightly larger than that of Lexington, Kentucky. “If you don’t have a swimming pool, it seems you may as well not even be a town,” said the mayor of Reykjavik, Dagur Eggertsson.

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Above: Different pools across Iceland.

These public pools, or sundlaugs, serve as the communal heart of Iceland, sacred places whose affordability and ubiquity are viewed as a kind of civil right. Families and teenagers and older people lounge and chat in sundlaugs every day, summer or winter. Despite Iceland’s cruel climate, its remoteness and its winters of 19 hours of darkness per day, the people there are among the most contented in the world. It seems that Icelanders’ remarkable satisfaction is tied inextricably to the experience of escaping the fierce, freezing air and sinking into warm water among their countrymen. The pools are more than a humble municipal investment, more than just a civic perquisite that emerged from an accident of Iceland’s volcanic geology. They seem to be, in fact, a key to Icelandic well-­being.

For a country that is below freezing most of the year, a propensity for swimming pools seems odd. The weather made it naturally impossible for proper plazas in the Italian or French style; and beer was banned in Iceland until 1989, so the pub tradition of colder European countries like England or Ireland has not taken hold here. The emergence of public pools is closely related to Iceland’s economy – shipping and energy play a major role.

For centuries, Iceland was a nation of seamen who regularly drowned within sight of shore. One local newspaper reported in 1887 that more than 100 Icelanders had drowned that winter alone. In 1931, a boat carrying four farmers capsized while they tried to row a panicking cow across Kollafjordur fjord. Three of the men died; one, who had studied swimming, survived.Incidents like this fostered an enthusiasm for swimming education. At the time, the only place to learn was a muddy ditch downstream from the hot spring where the women of Reykjavik did laundry. Inspired by that hot spring, and using a heavily mortgaged drill that had been brought to Iceland to search fruitlessly for gold, the city soon tapped the underground hot water generated by Iceland’s volcanic underbelly. Iceland’s first geothermal heat flowed into 70 homes and three civic buildings: a school, a hospital and a swimming pool. The national energy authority offered no-risk loans to villages across the country to encourage geothermal drilling, and within a generation, the ancient turf house had nearly disappeared from Iceland, replaced by modern apartment buildings and homes, all of them so toasty warm that even on winter nights most Icelanders leave a window open. With hot water flowing through the country and a populace eager to take a dip — swimming education was made mandatory in all Icelandic schools in 1943 — pools soon popped up in every town.

The pool is Iceland’s social space: where families meet neighbors, where newcomers first receive welcome, where rivals can’t avoid one another. It can be hard for reserved Icelanders, who “don’t typically talk to their neighbors in the store or in the street,” to forge connection;  but in the hot tub, you must interact, there’s nothing else to do. The pools are also great equalizers: when people are in the swimming pool, it doesn’t matter if you are a doctor or a taxi driver, no one knows, everybody is dressed the same.

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PUBLIS SCALE: B+

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Iceland’s pools score high on access – everyone is welcome and everyone, across the country, has a pool somewhere close by. The pools are extremely universal – people of all ages can be seen using and enjoying the pools – from toddlers to septuagenarians.

The pools also score high in terms of atmosphere. They have phenomenal benefits for the communities. Having a pool is a point of pride for any Icelandic town, and they are hubs of local community. With their diverse range of patrons, they highlight the diversity of this tiny Nordic nation. They also lead to two hugely beneficial civic behavioral patterns – hygiene and body image. Most Icelanders have a story about taking visitors, often American, to the pools and then seeing them balk in horror at the strict requirement to strip naked, shower and scrub their bodies with soap from head to toe. Men’s and women’s locker rooms feature posters highlighting all the regions you must lather assiduously: head, armpits, undercarriage, feet. Icelanders are very serious about these rules, which are necessary because the pools are only lightly chlorinated; tourists and shy teenagers are often scolded by pool wardens for insufficient showering.The high standards of hygiene lead to not only citizens taking good care of their own bodies but also extending this notion to the public space itself. Cleanliness of the public pools is essential, and every Icelander does their bit to promote this. Strong positive body image, especially amongst women, is another intangible benefit derived from the pools. Whilst growing up, girls see all kinds of real women’s bodies buck naked in the pool. Sixty-­five-­year-­olds, middle ­aged, pregnant women, not just people in magazines or on TV, leading to widespread acceptance of women’s bodies as more than just a size 0.

Where Iceland’s pools struggle is in their one-dimensional nature. The pools are built as community centers focused around bathing. There is one physical form of engagement. While the pools have kickstarted geo-thermal energy in smaller towns, and government funding for pools has helped build infrastructure, the pools do not spur economic and real estate growth or new culture and art. There is a set means of interaction and marginal emergence that arises from the pools.

Overall, Iceland’s pools act as a great unifier. They are public spaces where everyone is welcome, everyone is naked – and in that shared experience, a community and culture is built. While their one dimensional nature might not be conducive to political protests and they might not be the site for regime changes, the pools might well be the reason that there is no real reason for any political upheaval, that Icelanders are nakedly happy.

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