Notes from an afternoon in the Upper Reading Room

In Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur, I read of the poet Rupert Brooke that, “When working at the Bodleian he would get up in his country cottage long before dawn and bathe as he walked down to Oxford in the streams among the Cumner [sic] hills once favoured by Clough.”

I think about these young white men, striding across the land (land they seem to “own” as soon as they step on to it, whether or not they actually own it), suddenly having an urge, stripping down, getting wet, communing with nature: “bathing”. I think: to read about the (romantic) history of swimming, as rendered by Sprawson, is fascinating enough, but it doesn’t really get close to why I find it such a compelling subject. True, I’ve been known to plunge semi-impulsively into bodies of water – ice-melt lakes in the Sierras during camping trips, oceans, rivers, reservoirs – but I don’t have quite the same reverence for these encounters that I do for the highly regulated experience of going to the pool. For me immersion is not the same thing as swimming, exactly, though there’s obviously shared territory there. And surely man-made pool environments are as varied and compelling as the ponds and streams of the British countryside. Even ugly, reeking, creaking municipal buildings have their own particular charm. If nothing else the inhabitants of these environments invite interest: here the elderly, the very young, the fit, the fat, the disabled, the old pros, the just-learnings, are all united by a desire to transcend the apparent limitations of the human body. They’re here to float, to breathe. This is where the fizz of excitement is, to me. Who are these people, how have they come to be here, what brings them back, again and again and again, repeating the same old routine in the same old ugly, reeking, creaking building?

The other thing, if I’m honest, is that sometimes the nature-ness of nature alarms me. The thought of fish or reeds brushing up against me as I swim makes me shudder. To read some of Roger Deakin’s accounts in his “swimmer’s journey through Britain” is a difficult exercise: “Reaching down, I felt soft mud and ancient fallen branches, and sensed giant pike and eels”.

Perhaps mine is a “girly” reaction: perhaps I need to man up, strip down, learn to happily glide “downstream, brushed by fronds of water crowfoot that gave cover to trout”. But I remember, as a child, paddling a surfboard across a saltwater pond that had formed near our local beach, and feeling the rush of a scaly fish-like creature moving against my submerged arm, and screaming, my body rigid on the board. My father came to the edge of the water with something like concern on his face. “A fish!” I wailed at him. “Help! There’s a fish!” – and it wasn’t so much the presence of the fish (I wasn’t afraid of it in a conventional way, I wasn’t worried about what it might do to me) as the thought of the encounter, a visceral memory playing over and over again – the way it slithered, the way it was unlike me. My father wandered away, down the beach again, bemused, and I paddled frantically to the sand and pulled the board out of the water. I don’t much like the squishiness of riverbed beneath my feet, either – you never know what you might encounter. I remember walking in the shallow part of a river near a friend’s house and treading on a dead fish; there went the same shiver of unknown fear down my back, the same sense of the body of water as haunted.

For swimming “in the wild”, I prefer the ocean, my native habitat, the kind of open water with which, growing up on the California coast, I’m most intimately acquainted – but I respect it greatly, its fickleness, its waves and tides, and I’m not sure I can ever be a swimmer in the sea in the same way that I’m a swimmer in a pool. In the ocean I’m just briefly part of something much bigger. I’m intensely aware of the danger, and therefore of my self in relation to that danger. I’m treading lightly, paying constant attention to my (physical and emotional) limits. It’s good, it’s important, but it’s different. (Though maybe not so different: what did I say I liked so well about the pool? Partly the limits, the sense of/need for control…)

[originally here]

More notes from Berlin, October 2012

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]

Notes from Berlin, October 2012

Stadtbad Mitte, Gartenstraße. Built in 1930. Survived the bomb raids of the second world war. Renovated in the 1990s. The roof and the walls are covered in squares of glass, and even on this grey day the light comes pouring in and the big room is warm and inviting.

This is the first time I’ve been in a 50-metre pool since I was a kid, when we used to spend long summer afternoons at the Coral Casino in Santa Barbara, practicing our dives and our cannonballs, making up games, peering through the sauna steam at the naked old ladies, their skin folding and drooping, fascinated and horrified by this glimpse of what we would, if we were lucky, someday ourselves become.

I enter at the deep end, standing on the ledge that runs around the perimeter of the pool. I press my goggles against my face. The seal is weak and soon I’ll need to replace them. I push off from the wall. For most of the length, it seems as if I’m not moving at all: then, suddenly, I’m approaching the other wall. The pool is shallow here, so shallow that my knuckles are practically grazing the floor, and I am moving, and I have no sense of time; it might have taken me seconds or years to go from there to here.

I think about the particular and universal language of the pool. It’s a relatively recently acquired language, for me, but I feel fluent here, even though the only German word I know is the one for thank you. Thank you, I keep saying to everyone, even when what I really want to say is, “sorry” or “excuse me” or “yes” or “no” – as if hoping to somehow convey a kind of gratitude for being allowed to bumble along.

Anyhow, once I am dried and clothed again and out on the street I am back to being a foreigner. We walk towards the S-Bahn station. The day had started out cold and wet but now, in the early evening, it has brightened, and the shadows are long on the grass.

[full, original version here]