Vernet-Les-Bains, a green oasis among steep rock walls deep in the Pyrenees. The first real rain in five weeks makes us decide to drop the hike that Rudyard Kipling used to undertake take when he taking the waters at this genteel spa popular with Victorians. Instead, we would try the thermal pool.
A huge building with the sign Thermes. No one at the entrance. A bystander says: “Just go in. They are at lunch.” Downstairs, we are handed fluffy bathrobes and heated towels. Undress, leave clothing in cubicles. Enter pool area, luxuriate under slightly sulfurous shower.
A friendly, bearded fellow appears: “Monsieur, you cannot dress in this sort of swim trunk.”
“It is against regulations in the entire EU, except Spain, because you could wear unclean underpants underneath.”
“I am not incontinent and always wipe my bum.”
“Monsieur, I know, but there are regulations. I can find you a legal, tight pair of trunks.”
I comply, after all if it is an EU regulation, you must obey.
“Monsieur, where is your bath cap? You need one before you go in the pool. Our establishment does not allow hairs or follicles to get into the pool.”
I go up two staircases and through a long corridor to acquire a legal cap for a subsidised two euros, now eager for the warm pool. I cannot help myself and say to the young, bearded fellow, “If you go in the pool, what do you do about a beard?”
“There is an exemption for beards under EU law.”
As I am about to immerse myself, he asks: “Didn’t they tell you at the entrance about these regulations?”
“There was nobody there. They were at lunch.”
“Oh, then you have not bought the required insurance slip for yourself and your wife.”
“You need this insurance immediately. If one of you had a heart attack, I would be liable and ruined.”
Although I feel a choleric attack coming in, I climb up two floors, walk the long corridor, buy two 24-hr insurance policies, also cheap and EU-subsidised.
Now at long last we can join the fat, the meagre, the shapely and unshapely in the pool and the Jacuzzis. Bliss.
My friendly tormentor is back almost immediately: “You know that 95% of guests come here paid for by social security. That is why did not think immediately to inquire about insurance. Are you a social security guest?”
“Well, then you cannot get your insurance reimbursed. So, you come from the hotel. They should have explained the regulations to you.”
“No, we just parked in the rain and rushed in to get warm again.”
“Make sure you check in immediately. Meantime, we have to transfer your clothes from the social security cubicles to non-social security cubicles two floors up.”
I go, accompanied by him, gathering my wife’s and my gear, happy to become more and more legal. When I want to put all our clothes into the assigned locker, my friend says: “You cannot put female clothes in these male lockers. It is not allowed.”
When I obediently go to the empty ladies locker room, he is horrified: “Men cannot enter here.” He gets a friendly female colleague, who helps obligingly. As we descend again to the pool floor, he inquires whether I have a hotel reservation.
Now, I abandon honesty at long last and say yes.
The lie allows me to wallow in luxurious spa waters among the 95%, who are privileged social security free-riders, most comatose in Jacuzzis, some still pretty young, but obviously with friendly doctors. It’s the French system.
Eventually, we dress, bid farewell to our friendly tormentor. “Now, s’il vous plait, go immediately to the hotel check-in desk, and let them know you already had a bath.”
We make a hasty retreat from the thermal establishment, sure we had an illegal dip. But to be sure we drive across two mountain passes to get to the safety of Andorra.
This is my conclusion:
Liberte — long abolished by the EU and lesser autocrats, but hardly anyone has noticed.
Égalite — those who get government and social security money are more equal than those few who want to pay their own way.
Fraternite — our amiable, well-spoken tormentor demonstrated that this at least still exists.
What might Charlie Chaplin have done with this material? Or Kafka?
Wolfgang Kaspar (above) contributed Small Change at Huge Cost to the January, 2015, edition of Quadrant. He is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of New South Wales and former Senior Fellow of the Centre for Independent Studies, a profile by Julia Novak can be found here