[translated from German by Katy Derbyshire]
There’s a photograph of my grandmother Paula where she’s standing in a lake, in a bathing suit. The water comes up to her middle, no higher, and she’s wearing a rubber ring. And although I see her wearing it in the picture, I don’t believe she ever took her feet off the ground to float on the water in that rubber ring. My grandmother couldn’t swim. When I’d come home from the swimming pool as a child, she would admire my brown back, my brown neck. You’re so nice and brown, she’d say. And I’d say: From swimming.
My mother can’t swim either. When we were children she would stand in the shallow end with us while we’d splash about practising. Deep water frightened her. I imagine everyone who can’t swim is afraid of deep water. My mother wanted us children to lose our fear of deep water. She wanted us to learn to swim; it was very important to her. And although she was always a little embarrassed that she couldn’t, she came with us to the open-air pool every day in summer. Sometimes to the one in the next village that didn’t have a blue-painted base, one where you couldn’t see the bottom at all. It was called a natural swimming pool, and my mother would stand in the hip-high non-swimmers’ section and sometimes take a stroke. Perhaps she even managed three or four per session. It was her way of showing how much she loved us children. As far as I remember, she never wore a rubber ring.
A few years ago—my mother has rheumatoid arthritis, and her joints are often terribly painful—she told me on the telephone: If it doesn’t get better I’ll walk straight into the water. I knew what that meant. My mother would leave the shallow end. Head for the deep water, against her fear.
My grandmother before her was afraid of deep water. Fear can be inherited, I’m sure of it. Once a fear has lodged itself in a family it’s hard to get rid of it. And yet I believe fear behaves in a more linear way. Women pass on fear to women. Men pass the rules on to men. Be strong, don’t cry. That was how it was when my brother and I were little, anyway. My brother can swim but not particularly well (he’s not afraid, though). I’m a very good swimmer. I can swim a very long way. I like crossing lakes. I love standing on one bank, looking across at the other side and thinking: that’s where I’ll get to if I simply take stroke after stroke; it will be a while but I’ll manage it. Then I start swimming. I tie a rubber ring to my upper arm and let it float after me. That way boats can spot me, but all the people by the lake can also see there’s someone swimming. It makes me feel safe. If I got cramp, there’d be a life raft tied to me; I won’t lose it. And yet, swimming in lakes calls for the greatest non-fear (or at least the second-greatest; swimming in the sea is probably a very different matter, with very different options for fear). The challenge with lake swimming is the darkness of the lake, the lake’s milkiness, its impenetrability. There are very few lakes where you can see the bottom. It’s on the bottom that the fish live, though, the ones the anglers talk about, their legends. Sheatfish as big as sharks, or nearly; carp that can’t tell the difference between human feet and fish, and bite into them. Sea monsters, like Nessie. Leeches live in those lakes that you can’t get to the bottom of (not with the naked eye, at least). I love swimming in the lake because it’s different every day. The wind direction changes, the wind force, and that changes the force of the waves, the restlessness of the water’s surface and where the current comes from.
My favourite lake is the Simssee, the little brother of the Chiemsee. It’s Germany’s third-largest lake, 1.5 kilometres wide at the crossing point. If you swim back and forth you cover three kilometres. Depending on which side you start from, on the way out or back you see a little church in a little village close to the lake, up on the hillside, and behind it the mountains. Kampenwand, Wilder Kaiser. Or perhaps you can’t see the Wilder Kaiser from there. I know more about swimming than mountains. If you swim in the other direction, you see a bathing spot and a bathing raft in the water, a small sailboat marina and houses belonging to a handful of people lucky enough to be able to swim in the lake every morning.
One day when I was ten or eleven and still a modest swimmer, we met Frau Picard at the swimming pool. Frau Picard was a colleague of my father’s who’d just retired, and we spotted her swimming length after length of the blue-tiled pool. Fifty metres in one direction and fifty metres in the other. I’ve no idea how Frau Picard came to say: Do you want to swim lengths with me? All I remember is how low I lay in the water in the first few days, how hard it was to keep my head above the surface, breathe evenly, stretch my arms out evenly, make them trace a big curve and then pull them back in. How difficult it was for both my legs to make the same movement, because one leg always wanted to make its own movement (that leg’s the same to this day). I remember Frau Picard’s calming voice, a yoga-like voice as she swam calmly beside me, making me think: She’s the kind of woman I want to be one day!
Frau Picard seemed old to me, as a very young girl, but not too old to be a very good swimmer. I can’t remember how many days, how many weeks I swam at the pool with Frau Picard, back and forth and untiring. I do remember the effort growing less, my arms and legs beginning to take the movements for granted, my neck no longer hurting, my body floating on the water like a seaworthy boat. Frau Picard became my coach. First we trained for the bronze swimming badge, for which you had to swim for fifteen minutes, dive from the edge of the pool and fetch an object from a depth of two metres. Frau Picard stood on the edge of the pool and cheered me on. By then I was already wearing a proper swimming suit, onto which my mother ironed the swimming badge. I remember being pretty hooked, and I think Frau Picard was too. Together, Frau Picard and I managed the silver swimming badge and of course the gold one too. For the gold badge, you had to swim eight hundred metres in half an hour and perform several dives and rescue tasks. All my swimming badges were ironed onto my swimsuit. The suit itself was a trophy. From today’s point of view, the badges seem easy to achieve. At the time, though, they were the first major victory on the way to the woman I wanted to be: a woman unafraid of deep water, a woman who swims lengths.
These days, I think swimming is a little like running, except that your arms do most of the work. I’ve left the marked-out lanes when it comes to running, too; I like running in the park, looking at and listening to the ducks and birds, the dogs and their owners. I like it when the paths empty out, when the park shifts shape to become nature and I can look out into the distance.
In summer, when it’s warm, I sometimes swim in Munich’s Isar River. I swim against the stream because there is no swimming with the stream: you get carried along. I have to work hard to swim against the stream; the current is strong and sweeps me along the instant I stop concentrating on my swimming strokes. So I lie down facing the current and instantly start taking powerful strokes: one, two, a hundred. The water is pretty cold, and swimming in it is harder work than in a lake, but it’s wonderful. After about a hundred strokes, I’ve been swept at least three metres backwards, but that doesn’t matter. I go on swimming. I fix my eyes on the magnificent turn-of-the-century swimming baths, the Müllersches Volksbad, and I tell myself as an incentive that I don’t want to lose sight of it. I know it won’t work, but that doesn’t matter. I keep swimming until I’ve lost sight of it. Then I get out of the river, always thinking of all I would miss if I weren’t such a good swimmer.