Reflecting on a return to swimming | July 16, 2021 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - July 16, 2021

Reflecting on a return to swimming

by Donia Bijan

The first pool I went to was a bus ride away from my house. I was 6 but I still know the smell of it and I carry with me the shame I felt for not knowing yet how to swim. At home, I was smaller than everyone else but I was the biggest kid on that bus to my first swim lesson, too old for the songs they were singing. I was angry at my mother for signing me up for swim school with babies without asking me and I went without knowing why.

Of the lesson itself, I remember this: the smell of chlorine, the sound of a whistle, and my surprise at finding the water clear and colorless, not blue as the tiles. There was no instruction — that would come decades later. The instructor would swing the children out onto the water, count to three, and drop them. My name was called with the others and I fell flailing into the deep end. Before I knew the words for it, my legs were fluttering, my arms were sculling, and I had swallowed a gallon of water. Hugging the wall, I avoided the gaze of the man who had thrown me into the pool by ducking my head beneath the surface to that echo chamber that was underwater and private, where his whistle warbled a weak warning. I made no friends that day — that, too, would come decades later — but I was hooked on the weightless wet embrace of water.

Now, 52 years later, I am driving to the pool at dawn on a mild summer day. I'd know the way to it with my eyes closed — down Valparaiso, across El Camino, right on Laurel. I can smell it like I could smell it then. Ten minutes and I'm standing in it, listening to instructions. I still carry the shame, only now it's for being mad at my mom all those years ago, and taking for granted our pool, our masters team, our extraordinary coaches, and my swimming buddies — the best I ever had. For the past year, I've been a lone swimmer in a lane I reserved at midnight a week before. I have no other way of telling what I've missed, what I thought was lost forever in 2020, and the near-miracle of its return last week on July 5.

Donia Bijan is a Bay Area chef and writer who lives in Menlo Park. After graduating from UC Berkeley, she attended the Cordon Bleu and ran her own restaurant, L'Amie Donia, for 10 years. She is the author of the memoir "Maman's Homesick Pie," and the novel, "The Last Days of Cafe Leila."


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