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October 16, 2022

There are over 50 lakes within the Berlin city limits, and where we live, there are several right near by! Berlin is actually the first place our kids experienced a “summer” beach, after growing up near the churning, cold waves of the northern California coast. I will always feel a bit sheepish about their astonishment upon first visiting Wannsee Strandbad – “The water is SO WARM, Mama!” – although the ice cream stand also probably helped make that one a fave.

Last spring I read “Turning” by Jessica Lee, in which the author swims in a different lake each week for a whole year. Inspiration!

Due to back injury and pandemic pool closures, we have increasingly become a beach/swimming family over the past few years. The kiddos barely hesitate before launching themselves into San Francisco Bay or a cold mountain lake. And their swimming skills are much stronger since they each worked their way onto a swim team over the past 18 months.

So when we arrived this August, and the waters had been warmed by a combination of drought and heat wave, we started going swimming almost every day! Our closest lake, the Schlachtensee, was basically a grand swimming pool for the neighborhood. Any time we went, there were water shoes at our get-in spot and people walking and running the perimeter. It is sort of like Lake Merritt, only with more trees and less gunk. The water temperature was a lovely 75 F! Fruitbat was the only one to brave the rope swing…

Peter and I brought our swim buoys and started also swimming fitness laps in the Schlachtensee. Dodging rental rowboats and paddleboards, as well as the other swimmers, was a bit challenging. 95% of swimmers here seem to do exclusively heads-up breaststroke, gliding casually along, often in conversation with a friend. Our weirdly focused crawl stroke does not fit in.

We also made several outings to other lakes in the area. The girls’ favorite, which we did twice, was to take the ferry to Alt Kladow, stop at the pirate-themed playground “Räuberland” for the fantastic zipline, then bike to Große Glienecker See and swim, before heading back to the ferry. We did not make it into other lakes on my list (Teufelsee, Sacrower See, Griebnitzsee) but there will be time for those (I hope!).

Groß Glienecker See – another not-sunny swim, lake all to ourselves

During the week, I started heading to the Schlachtensee as soon as the kids left for school in the morning. It was really lovely to swim daily in a gorgeous lake, but challenging to not have my swim buddies to pace with. To keep myself motivated, I set a goal of training up to swim the length of the lake and back, which I estimated as 5000m. There is a cafe right on the edge of the far end of the lake so I figured I should start and end there, where the distance to hot beverages was minimal. I also did one excursion to Krumme Lanke, the next lake past the Schlachtensee, where I had a good swim after I negotiated entry with the swans!

I do not have bread for you, birds.

Almost immediately on September 1, the weather started to feel cooler and the lake temperature began to drop. Still not SF Bay temps but also I left my wetsuit behind…my days were numbered. On September 12, I went for it, and made the round-trip swim in about 90 minutes. I was warm enough afterwards to bike to Butter Lindner – the fancy bakery a little ways from the lake – for my reward, hot cocoa and cake.

That week I had a trip back to California and got in a few Bay swims – so salty! When I returned, the Schlachtensee was too cold for me. So it was time to get acquainted with the pool.

While I was away, Peter got Fruitbat hooked up with the Z88 swim team and Schatzi into their lessons (that are too easy, but we didn’t know what Bronze – Silver – Gold levels meant, oops). Fruitbat’s team is the right skill level, but a higher commitment level than we want. Five practices a week, with Tuesday and Sunday off, and kids are expected to regularly attend four days. Two days a week they have land training in addition to pool time, for a total of 2.5 hours of workout. This is a lot for sixth grade! But she is really happy with it so we’re trying to do the four days.

The pool is unfortunately not super close – a 35 minute bike ride, or about 25 minutes by transit or car. The upshot is that Fruitbat is building independence by taking transit alone. So far it’s going pretty well, although we all get a kick out of the repeated very stern reminders to wear a warm hat and not go outside with wet hair, or you’ll catch cold. “Even just walking from the pool to the car is long enough to catch a cold!” warned one recent email. I will have to consult with my trusted pediatrician friends, but we are pretty sure that viruses and people, not wet hair or being outside, are the main vectors for colds.

My swim window remains in the morning – and there are apparently no swim teams with morning practice here – so I am going to lap swim and trying to entertain myself. Six things that are notable to this foreign swimmer in Berlin:

  1. You are required to take off your shoes at the door. There is a “shoe removal zone” with cubbies, and I’m sure I would be scolded if I tried to wear my street shoes into the locker room.
  2. The locker room is not gender segregated. The showers and bathrooms are, but outside of those areas naked people mingle unconcernedly.
  3. I have to pass through many, many doors to get to the pool. Entry to the locker room is through changing stalls – one door to enter, go out the door on the other side to exit. Then a door into the showers. Then a door to the pool. If you need to use the restroom, that’s two more doors (one to the bathrooms and another for the stall). It just feels like a lot of doors!
  4. In the pool, no one yields. There are always two double-wide lanes – full of people doing heads-up breaststroke at a glacial pace – and slower swimmers do not move over to let you pass, they do not stop at the end of the lane when you are on their heels. They just ignore you.
  5. If you need to pass, you just pass. There is no communication, and no problem with buzzing someone as long as you don’t hit them. It’s all “you do you” and it kind of works! (Except for that one day when I ended up in a regular single-wide lane with a dude doing snow angel arms for his freestyle stroke…that was treacherous. But I survived.)
  6. You need your ticket to leave as well as enter. I don’t know if that’s an extra prevention measure for freeloaders? It seems excessive to have to clock in *and* out of the pool. Unless it gives them data that no one is left in the locker room at closing time? I don’t know, but I don’t like having to keep track of my ticket for the way out.

The pool itself is gorgeous, with huge floor-to-ceiling windows through which I can see autumn leaves and sunshine. So far I’ve only been there when it’s set up for long course – lanes are 50m – and that is lovely for rhythm and also for not passing folks as often. We learned that the pool was built in 1937-38 as a training facility for SS soldiers, which is NOT lovely, and I thought about finding another pool. But given that it’s now a fully public pool that hosts school swim classes daily and is home to 2-3 swim clubs, I think that it’s been reclaimed for good.

Finally – we could not swim yesterday because the pool was closed for a competition. I scoured the web for info – what kind of competition? Could I sign up? But nothing, and the people working at the pool on Friday also did not know. So the overall swim scene remains a mystery to me. I missed a big open water swim in August and I have no idea how to find out about others – it would be a big loss, not to participate in some open water event before we leave here – but in the meantime, I just wish I could join the adult swim group to have someone to work out with! I guess I could take up tennis instead?

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