Swimming in Cities

When I was a kid, my aunt Linda would drive up from Santa Cruz every year, spend the night at our house in San Francisco, then get up really early and “escape” from Alcatraz with a group of similarly nutty swimmers. One year, they decided to swim from the beach by our house, under the Golden Gate Bridge, to Marin, across the bay. I must have been about ten years old. We all got up and walked down to the beach by our house with her. It was sunny but freezing cold, and the spray from the Pacific gave all the swimmers goosebumps. I asked my aunt Linda if she was going to put on a wetsuit like the other swimmers. “No,” she said, applying a little Vaseline under each armpit. “Wetsuits are for wimps.”

This might be why, in my early twenties, when another freelance journalist told me he liked to swim in the San Francisco bay in the mornings before he started working, it didn’t sound totally crazy to me. He picked me up at sunrise one morning from the apartment in the Castro that I shared with my roommates and drove to Aquatic Park, a protected cove on the bay, between the Marina and Fisherman’s Wharf. I followed him to the Dolphin Club—a nineteenth century wooden building where swimmers and boater could change, shower and sauna. In the women’s locker room, I put on my bathing suit, then went through the back door and out to a little beach. From here, we could walk out into the bay.

San Francisco Bay
I had a strange and pleasant sensation, like I was there, in my city, in a whole new way

The water was so cold that it made no sense to wade in slowly; after I was in up to my knees I submerged. It felt like everything had stopped; the only option was to start swimming, just to keep moving. And somehow, after a little bit, the shock wore off and I realized I was ok. I was swimming. My body kept going. After a while, when a feeling of, if not warmth, then not-frozen, established itself, a little high kicked in. I stroked, left, right, left, right, and breathed, looking up, towards the city side, since it was a little too intimidating to look the other way, out to the bay. As I breathed, facing the city – my city, where I had grown up – I saw the “Ghiradelli” sign on the hill rising up from the water, and I had a strange and pleasant sensation, like I was there, in my city, in a whole new way. In high school I was on the swim team and for years I spent hours everyday in the public pool in the avenues, where we practiced. But this was different: An immersive experience, like being one with the place. After swimming a while, the other journalist stopped to ask how it was going. Treading water, I started to laugh. It was so cold that my face had frozen in place, and I could only move my lips to speak.

After that, I was convinced that whenever I had a chance to swim in a city, I should. I think the next city I swam in must have been Bern. I moved to Switzerland and on a train someone I sat next to told me that, in the summer, the Bernese jump into the Aare at the northern part of the old city, then ride down to the southern tip of the old city and walk back.

River Aare
I plunged in and let the strong, exhilarating current pull me along in this new place; for years, I dreamt about that swim

When I left the train, I walked down to look at the river. The Aare is one of the most beautiful bodies of water I’ve ever seen, and that year I would watch it change colors, from a milky jade to deep alpine green, glad that that first day, the last that was warm enough outside to swim, I plunged in and let the strong, exhilarating current pull me along in this new place; for years, I dreamt about that swim. In Malmö, I heard there was a sauna where you could dive right into the Öresund strait; I took the train from Copenhagen, where I was doing a story, and spent the day there, it was December and after an initial plunge from the Victorian building’s wooden dock in fading daylight, each subsequent submersion was a leap of faith into a salty, primeval blackness. In Zurich, on another reporting trip, I had a few hours free before I had to go to the airport; it was a gorgeous Indian summer afternoon and when I walked by delicate, old-fashioned wooden structure on the Limmat that read “Frauenbad,” I knew I had to figure out a makeshift bathing suit and go in.

Kallbadhus in Malmö

These moments in the water in each of these places are among my loveliest memories, etched deeply, intense and vital. So when I heard, a few years ago, that a group of tireless devotees to the idea of swimming in the city – known as ‘Flussbad Berlin’ – was planning a swim in the Spree in Berlin, where I now live, I signed up right away. My ex-boyfriend’s mom wanted to do it too, and so on a sunny summer morning we joined the crowd milling around on the bridge by the Bode Museum. We made our way down the thick stone steps to the water that I had walked past many times over many years, but which had never once had a milky jade color or a deep alpine hue. I was a little worried about rats. But we did it. To my surprise, the water smelled like one of the Berlin lakes (another great city swim), and as we set out, it was amazing to watch the Bode Museum underwater, its great foundation stones so close you could touch them. That was the most urban of all my city swims—my skin hurt all over for a day afterwards, and I’m not sure I would leap at the chance to do it again before the Flussbad project’s planned water filter was working overtime. 

But even now, when I think about how it felt to swim by the foot of the Pergamon museum, to look up at the new, snow-white James Simon gallery, I remember what it was like to put on a bathing suit and walk, not to a public pool (which is nice), but the very heart of this beautiful city and serenely swim past some of its greatest monuments (which is spectacular). And I hope that one day, as soon as the sun comes out, we can all take a city swim in the Spree.