Oct 21, 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.
“Located right next to the border, the Nordbahnhof building formed a spatial link between the eastern and western parts of the city,” I read on a sign outside the station.
One day we walk for hours with no particular agenda. That evening is soft and light, like September. We walk through Charlottenburg, which feels village-still, calm and mild. We eat early, after a stroll near the glistening lake, like pensioners on a package holiday.
Because I don’t want to pay for data, I spend a lot of time in the mornings, on trains, in between doing things, studying maps: the fragmented for-tourists map in the back of my guidebook; the U-Bahn map, the map on my laptop where I’ve marked all the places I want to visit (swimming pools, streets, cafés). Usually I would consult my phone on the fly: now, because I can’t, I’m confined to the limits of my own imagination, my own ability to interpret and navigate.
“Augmented space is the physical space overlaid with dynamically changing information. This information is likely to be in multimedia form and is often localized for each user,” I read.
Laid into the sidewalks all over the city are brass bricks, rubbed smooth by footsteps, commemorating victims of the Holocaust.
I begin to feel immune to physical geography. We are staying in the apartment of an old family friend, whose youngest daughter was my best friend growing up, and there is something profoundly familiar about the rooms and the furnishings. In the bathroom I have pleasant flashbacks to the farmhouse bathroom, the exotic European soaps and creams, the bright towels. In the bedroom I remember visiting my friend after she’d had an operation on her knee; it was a hot California-summer day, the sky woozy and blue, but we stayed indoors, on the bed, watching bad films.
The night before we fly home, we have dinner in Kreuzberg with another of the daughters. We reminisce a little, and we might as well be anywhere, residing, as we do for an hour or so, almost wholly in a shared past. The wall to my right is painted bright red and has a texture like corrugated iron, but it seems to dissolve for the duration of the meal, the background neutral, the beautiful girl with the long blonde hair at the next table a phantom or a placeholder, not an inhabitant of this very real city.
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.