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"Decadent and a little bit dirty"

The author Sally McGrane took part at the 2nd Flussbad Berlin Cup and wrote a beautiful text about her experience, first published at "10 nach 8" on Zeit Online.

Growing up, in San Francisco, every couple of years my aunt Linda would drive up from Santa Cruz, spend the night at our house, and “escape from Alcatraz” in the morning. She got up at “the crack of dawn,” as my mother put it, and, with the other swimmers, took a boat out to the dreaded former prison island in the middle of the freezing cold bay. A few hours later, we brought them hot coffee as they emerged, trembling with mild hypothermia, back on the city’s shore. Some wore wetsuits, which my aunt said was wimpy. For “such a short swim,” she just smeared a little Vaseline under her armpits.

So when Sophie announced she was going to swim in the Spree—from Bode Museum to the Schloss bridge—it didn’t sound entirely crazy to me. My friend and co-author had already done it once, last year: the first-ever “Flussbad Pokal” was part of a grass-roots campaign to clean up the canal along Museum Island, and turn it into a public swimming pool. Ok, Sophie said, as the party at her boyfriend’s art studio grew more crowded, she did get completely sick afterwards. But she didn’t really think it was from the Spree water. And, sure, going down into the river, especially on a gray day, in the rain, in a bikini, was a little spooky. There’s one part, she said, where you swim under a long, low bridge, where the trains run, and it’s almost totally black, under there, like a passageway in a dream. But it’s magical, you can’t believe it. There you are, swimming through the heart of Berlin, and you look up, and there’s the Pergamon! This year’s “Flussbad Pokal” was July 3rd, she added. Maybe you and Frank want to come?

“Oh ja,” said Frank, a painter, who started swimming in the 90s, when the water stopped working in his apartment. He began showering at the public pool, and figured, as long as he was there, he might as well do a few laps. “We're doing that.”

The Sunday of the swim Frank, my ex-boyfriend’s mother Uli, and I walked over from our respective apartments, all a stone’s throw from Museum Island, and registered at the Maerchen Hutte. Uli, who after years of waitressing finally retired and moved from her somnolent town deep in Brother’s Grimm territory to Berlin last year, had signed on as soon as I told her about it. “I'm tough,” she said, when I asked her if she was worried there might be rats in the canal. “When I was a teenager, at one of our swim competitions, I had to swim past rats in the river, and a dead pig.”

Afterwards, while Frank and Uli lit cigarettes in the sunshine--something that, unlike escaping from Alcatraz, would shock any reasonable Californian getting ready for an open water swim--I looked through the information packet. Along with a map and a bright yellow swim cap, there was a copy of an article from The New York Times, where I also sometimes write. “What makes the soul of a city?” began the piece by the paper’s architecture critic. “Not long ago, Berlin advertised itself as poor but sexy; now rapid gentrification has contributed to an identity crisis, partly symbolized by the fake Baroque palace under construction in the middle of museum island,” Michael Kimmelman writes. A Flussbad, he argues, would be a viable alternative to the Schloss, as a symbol of the city’s modern identity—“a whimsical, environmentally friendly Flussbad-for-the-people” instead of a “behemoth of weird Prussian nostalgia.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. A few weeks before, Frank and I went to the Schloss’s open house, and wandered through the raw concrete structure, past sightseers with selfie sticks, stands selling meat balls from cities starting with “B”, and big plastic donation boxes, with sad little mountains of 5 euro bills. As we surveyed the cavernous, Berghain-esque entrance hall from above, Frank observed that, if they really wanted to raise money, they should throw a techno party here. With lots of drugs.  Maybe he should suggest it? I agreed that they needed a new approach—it was going to take a lot of 5 euro bills to recreate the Kaiser’s castle, as if nothing in the 20th century had ever taken place.

The day of the Flussbad swim was warm, and sunny. Just before 5 pm, we met Sophie, smiling in bright red lipstick, and at the signal the four of us made our way with the other swimmers down the stone steps across from the Bode Museum. The water was cool, fresh and pleasant, and it smelled like one of the lakes. The high, scarred stone walls of the Bode rose across from the start flags, and we swam over to them. Then we lined up, treading water, until the start sounded, and we were off. The thousand meters were as magical as Sophie promised. One after another, the museums rose up from the water, their familiar stones closer and more intimate than usual.  Then under that bridge—just like Sophie said, there was something eerie about it, visceral, like passing through some sort of canal of the subconscious. “Hey Sandman!” Frank called up, when he swam past the art market behind the German Historical Museum. “How’s business?” A startled friend peered over the railing, into the river, opened his eyes wide, then shrugged. “Like always! Bad!”

Approaching the turning-point buoy, floating just in front of the Schloss bridge, with its alabaster nudes--depicting the hero’s journey--even the new Schloss, whose still-concrete entrance always looks to me like a mask with no eyes, seemed kind of dynamic, against the blue skies. I swam more slowly, on the way back, trying to draw out the experience. It was the kind of swim that changes you, a way of being in the city that imprints itself somewhere deep within you, something you don’t forget—like swimming in the Aar, but more urban. If the Flussbad were to happen—if this was something you could do, everyday--I’m pretty sure it would change your life. This swim alone was, for me, one of those typically Berlin pleasures—decadent and a little bit dirty, exhilarating and probably not entirely healthy, inexpensive and priceless. Afterwards, as we posed by the bridge with Sophie’s daughter for an official Flussbad photographer’s picture, I had to agree, again, with The New York Times architecture critic, who concluded his article by saying that the Flussbad would be a good thing for Berlin; that “to recuperate a long-abject waterway at its center” would “keep faith with its post-Wall soul.” The photographer didn’t need to tell us to smile. “Let's see that ciggy!” he said, and snapped a shot. Sally McGrane

Originally published in German at ZEIT ONLINE. Thanks to Sally, who gave us the original version of her text!