At Stadtbad Neukölln, the water is very cold. In the shower room, middle-aged ladies stand under hot water, all lobster flesh and happy sighs. I stand wilting under a heavy stream of cool water, enviously watching the steam rise from their corner of the white tiled room. When they leave I step over and enjoy the remnants of their hot water.
But the pool itself is cold, too. I go down the steps and crouch, water up to my waist, then my armpits. The room is grand – pillars, marble, spitting statues flanking the staircase, but the water is darker and murkier than I’m used to. And after so many laps in rigid lanes with other stressed, serious adults, all of us eager not to transgress, eager to ignore each other even when we stand inches apart, breathing hard, barely clad, spitting and sucking in the same water, the lack of order here alarms and delights me. I watch a woman – in cap and goggles, like me, though no one else wears either – plow up and down the pool amidst the frivolous bathers, the slow, relaxed men with their paunches and the chatty girls in bikinis. She makes a space for herself in the calm, the chaos, and no one collides, no one seems bothered; it’s like watching ducks flitting across a pond, their paths erratic but deliberate.
I begin a gentle breaststroke, occasionally lapsing into a subdued crawl. There is no room here for the private competition I regularly engage in back home (can I beat her, in the next lane over, the faster lane, even if I give her a head start?). I don’t count how many times I swim up and down the pool. I don’t look at the clock. I don’t feel out of breath.
[full, original version here]