Things You Learn in German Swimming Pools

Disclaimer: most of these experiences relate to Hamburg and they are my observations only.

Well, I guess the first thing I learned was that without some kind of subscription or membership card, this beloved activity was going to be expensive, so I got one and it’s been with me for almost eleven years. I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.

What threw me during my very first pool visit as I navigated my way to the changing rooms, trying to remember all the turns, was that the hair dryers were attached out in the open, no partitions or walls of any kind between them. For some reason, before I had confronted any other elements of the swimming pool experience which have much more shock potential for someone who didn’t grow up with certain elements of the German culture (keep reading), seeing people blowing their tresses dry with other visitors just passing by was unexpectedly intimate. Even if everyone was, thankfully, clothed. To paraphrase one of my favorite scenes from Criminal Minds, sometimes a girl just wants to dry her hair alone, you know?

I was feverishly deciding, calling forth my Russian upbringing, whether it would be safe to ditch the hair drying after my swim and cover up snugly with a hat, because regardless of the season, you should never ever go outside with wet hair, when I arrived at the changing rooms. Yeah. So, this is not always the case, but it’s good to know that it might be. Sometimes the only thing separating the women’s changing area from the men’s is apparent trust in the fact that no one will peak around locker row corners or turn their head that extra inch when walking to the pool entrance. It’s also customary to murmur a Hello or Good Morning when you come in, regardless of the fact whether fellow ladies present are changing or not.

And thus we come to the final point of this story, namely the showers. Basically all of the above made it clear to me that I either had to find a mental, sometimes physical, way around it, or not go to the pool at all, which would be a pity. Greetings also take place here, as well as small talk, such as: comments on the water temperature in the pool, the strength of the shower gush, asking to borrow someone’s shampoo, observations on how crowded it is. What’s more, people make eye contact here. I. Can’t. Do. This. I can’t even look at my friends if we go to the pool together and then to the shower! We seem to understand each other without additional explanations: stop talking as soon as you enter the shower area, eyes up and focused on your goal at hand, then when you’re done, discreetly ask, “Are you finished?” OR, in my case, quote Governor Swann from the first Pirates of the Caribbean, “Elizabeth? Are you decent?”

But these are all strangers, some of my other friends will say, you don’t know them, what does it matter if they are all naked in there? Precisely, they are strangers! And I do mind! But I have, after all, lived here for a while now, and I’ve become tougher in some respects, milder in others, added a dash more sarcasm and a pinch of simply being practical where I used to be stiff with terror. In the end, a blissful hour in the water far outweighs a few minutes spent in two other places that are just stops on the way and back.

But you won’t catch me in a sauna, nuh-uh.

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This International Life

Bild von Pexels auf Pixabay

Expat is not a term I rushed to attach to myself. Perhaps because cosmopolitan or international seem like more inclusive terms that mirror my experience. Throughout my life I have felt that the international influences I encountered have given and enriched, expanding on and even melding with what was already there. Given the particular trajectory of those influences on my personal development, I’ve simply seen the whole process, including travel and moving to Germany, as a progression.

I have not denied or dropped anything relating to my roots, though I did go through a bumpy phase of placing them in the context of the new daily life I was building for myself in a new country.

A move to another city or abroad is normally something you build up to. The decision to do so does not happen overnight. Neither does the practical bit – having enough money for it and then actually relocating. Many consider relocating somewhere else to be such an enormous step (and it is), that in the general perception this enormity seems to be explained by moving with or for a partner. For me, before I even put the idea and then the decision into words, I think it all started with learning a foreign language. I grew up bilingually and then studied German in university.

The tool that ultimately enabled me to pursue living in Germany was also a reason to do so – I had invested a lot of time and effort into learning this language that was spilling out of me, and I wanted to immerse myself in it. I felt like I had done all I could do, for me, where I had grown up, and so I began looking at other opportunities. Because what I also always felt strongly about was not only taking as much as I could from a place, but giving back to it too through being a part of it, and the latter didn’t seem to be happening anymore in my hometown after a certain amount of time.

You arrive in a new place thinking you know who you are, but everything is put to the test. Or maybe you put yourself to the test. After my first few months in Hamburg I realized I had developed a new identity of sorts. And I wasn’t sure I liked it too much. It showed itself on different levels: feeling increasingly uncomfortable about introducing myself and facing confused reactions to my foreign-sounding name, even suggesting a nickname which I shed in the end (with relief, because it just didn’t feel like me); not sharing much about Russian things I liked; worrying about preconceived ideas before I would even talk to someone.

The solution to not losing yourself? Lots of self-reflection and quite a bit of overanalyzing. Plenty of reading various articles and blogs by other expats and travelers. First tentative, then increasingly open and memorable conversations with fellow international students (since I had moved for my studies) and colleagues outside of my immediate circle, who weren’t negative or condescending, but simply finding their footing in this city they had chosen or ended up in due to various circumstances. I kept communicating with people and being active socially, academically, later at work, and it opened up my world, my mind in ways I couldn’t have imagined, but that was precisely what I had wanted when I first started thinking of where to go in the future. Alongside all the aforementioned, the absolutely invaluable component in finding my way was my family.

I realized shyness was not an obstacle, but just a quality, so I started to talk to friends about my favorite Russian cartoons and stories as I would about anything else, with the occasional blushing and laughing. Everyone survived the experience and we still talk. I ask them the same questions they ask me. I stopped worrying about preconceived ideas – it’s not worth the energy. I learned that like-minded people are easier to identify than we think, because you feel it, and it’s not based on nationality.

You can keep all your layers, whether they are personal, national or international. There are no rules to say you have to pick just one. Creating a bubble of your home country abroad, though, is a mistake, because it is isolating. The trick is in the balance. There are plenty of things I like and cherish from the Russian culture, and most of them have to do with how women are treated: not asking her about her age, especially in public, consideration towards a pregnant woman’s privacy. I carry this appreciation with me and I consider the aforementioned to be entirely possible to discover in people because it is not restricted to being Russian, it can be given life through character or an internal decision. The same goes for the German experience, many parts of which mesh comfortably with my own personality – approaching time like a valuable commodity, being punctual, certain established phrases that make up polite communication, planning anything and everything. But again, this can be found just in an individual person too, whether they are German or not.

With respect towards the background I come from, and gratitude to every other place I’ve traveled to that has given me something to return with, I see my adopted hometown as an entity that has been good to me. This international life has continued making me who I am, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

 

In Nice

The two days that we had in Nice were definitely enough to get many unforgettable impressions of this famous city and to understand why holidaymakers have flocked here for more than two centuries.

I’ve already detailed my swimming experience at the local beach, and after that it was time to do some discovering around the city. Being successfully frenchified on our tourist level, after the swim and some lunch we set out to locate one of the nearby patissieries. It took a bit of circulating despite the aid of Google Maps, BUT in the process we discovered where life was happening slightly beyond our quiet hotel.

We turned a corner and walked straight into rue Masséna, and it was like entering a little world of its own. Gone were the white and pastel of the hotels lining the Promenade des Anglais, instead I saw yellow, burnt orange, minty green, brown, red, and more restaurants crammed on both sides of this mostly pedestrian zone than I could count. Pizza, pasta, oysters, glasses of white wine sparkling in the evening sunshine, every single table I could see occupied. This was it. This was the epitome of joie de vivre. C’etait la vie itself!

The rue Masséna leads to the historic Place Masséna, with its red-white architecture and colonnades. It is wide and spacious, thankfully not spoiled by kiosks, construction or crowds. All I feel is buzzing, encompassing joy that it’s summer and that I’m here.

A short distance away is a local landmark I had absolutely no idea about before we came here, and which turns out to be one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, namely the Albert I Garden. It’s still light out and we walk through the gates to see visitors running, jumping, dancing across a vast space covered in water and small fountain jets. So as it turns out, we can also, quite literally, walk on water.

We have a few hours left before departure and set off in search of the flower market. While we don’t see the flowers, we do wander around the market, and then quickly find ourselves in the old town, the heart of Nice. Buildings here stand much closer together and there are plenty of side streets cloaked in shadow. Guides cycle through alleys with tourist groups, passing restaurants, artisan boutiques and the inevitable colorful souvenir shops. While things are busy enough, the atmosphere and the sounds are completely different from the Promenade and the high street. It’s simply beautiful. I’m enchanted.

 

Nice to Meet You

(The predictable pun trip continues!)

We take our first walk along the spacious Promenade des Anglais and after one look at the sea on our right I am forever informed of just what makes up the Côte d’Azur. Yes, I got a taste in Cannes, and now the cycle is complete. Welcome to Nice!

It’s a beautiful city, gorgeous, in fact. Everything is on a noticeably bigger scale than in Cannes. Lots of white and pastel in the local architectural landscape as well, at least among the modern buildings, while in the distance I already glimpse stone and red-tiled roofs. Hotels are everywhere, one more impressive than the other. The rest of the world seems far away, except for the unsurprising, but still unnerving moment when I glimpse armed soldiers patrolling the Promenade.

My dad had been here a long time ago and I remembered him saying the beach was covered in stones, and the same obviously went for the bottom of the sea, making it very hard to walk to the water, then get in and get out. Fast forward several years later and here we are. I’m about to experience this for myself.

I’m feeling confident. I’ve successfully tested out my swim shoes in Cannes, albeit on sand. Now they will get their real chance! We walk down the steps to the beach, me having changed into the shoes beforehand. The pebble covered ground is very level and we make our way through the numerous spread out (sun)bathers already there. I feel fine. We can do this! It’s just a few skips and catching the right moment to wade in, right? We get to the water’s edge and discover that the descent down, though not high, is steep. Waves break against the shore, which is covered, as far as the eye can see, with glistening wet egg-sized stones.

I take a tentative step forward and as my self-protection instincts kick in, several things become clear. Despite my shoes, it is actually very hard to remain standing if you try to go down to the water. The stones, though round, stick out at all sorts of angles. There are no rules to getting in and out – some people do it on all fours, others try to take it at a run and a leap, while some also slide in on a air mattress. My knees and elbows feel very exposed, not to mention any other part of my body containing bones. When my dad first talked about his experience here, I couldn’t quite imagine what he meant. Now I know and I have no further questions whatsoever.

We’re on a public beach, which means that getting into the water is entirely up to us. I propose setting off to where I think the descent looks more level and wonder whether I should wiggle in on my butt, though crouching down on those stones doesn’t look appealing. I bend down to tighten the elastic on my right shoe and it breaks apart in my hand.

A few minutes of determined walking seamlessly brings us to a private beach – everyone is concentrating so hard on careful steps or guarding their seat, there is practically no interaction between people. Finally, we see a short, low wooden pier with no bars on the sides. It wobbles very slightly above the waves, but there’s a ladder! Jumping off the pier is forbidden, and with good reason, because a) the water is not deep here; b) rocky bottom, see above; c) I wouldn’t want to do it anyway.

The ladder requires turning my back to the sea, stepping on the first rung with one foot, gripping the (slightly slippery) handles with both hands, and then proceeding down. Honestly, I don’t know what I was more afraid of, falling on the stones, or falling off that ladder. But I make it! Did I mention it wobbled as well? What an adventure.

I’m in that water, which I’ve been dreaming of ever since we got here. I can’t see the bottom and I’m swimming in azure. There are no buoys in sight. I’m hoping my right shoe stays on my foot, because this is one situation where I don’t fancy being Cinderella. It’s a magical blue sea and I barely have to move as the water carries me on its own. We forget about the journey back to shore (which we successfully master) for a while. I can sea it all now.

I Cannes Make It Here

Cannes is lovely. It’s a beautiful coastal city with a lot of flair and plenty of history, and despite its often mentioned connection to the rich and famous of the world, it feels approachable.

This morning we stepped out of our hotel into the brilliant sunshine to see a typical British hen do group clearly having just checked out. Thankfully, they were both sober and well-behaved. The bride was wearing a white jumpsuit and a pink newsboy cap covered in sequins of the same color (I’d say that’s pretty classic), while her posse, at least ten of them, were all dressed in black shirts and jeans, accompanied by enormous suitcases. Perhaps we’re in a different kind of district, but there has been no wild partying here thus far and I’m liking the vibe in our “residence”. In fact, we successfully moved to our intended apartment and we’re loving it. Everyone staying here seems intent on pursuing their own vacation plans, and we’re just the same.

Swimming distances at our beautiful beach have increased day after day. A woman passes me in the water and says something in French with a smile, of which I only understand the first half, but it seems to be approval of the water. I couldn’t agree more myself. And she just spoke to me in French! Do I look French? Do I swim French? We’ve also theorized that the underwater platform further out from the shore that we’ve stood on might be for setting up the fireworks display that takes place here at the beach. Actually, it’s the Festival International D’Art Pyrotechnique, lasting until August 24. We’ve even heard it already from our balcony and it’s also broadcast live. Those fireworks are actually some of the best memories from my stay in Cannes nine years ago. It’s nice that the festival still happens.

After a few days here we feel confident enough to swim out to the yellow buoys bobbing on the surface, because it doesn’t look that far. I lose my sense of time in the water and seem to get to my goal faster than anticipated, but when I turn around to look back at the shore, suddenly it’s very far away indeed. We swim back, with a stop on the platform other people are standing on. I stop swimming and bend my legs, even crouch, to stand just in time – this part is much closer to the knees. It’s fun to find even footing after swimming in deep turquoise water, swaying only slightly with the gentle wave, then slide off to once again not feel the sand underneath  before reaching the shoreline.

We’ve quickly frenchified ourselves as much as it’s possible to while being visitors here and with beginner level French. Mornings start with automatic bonjours to other guests and staff. The day is peppered with mercis and bonne journées. In fact, I’ve been approached in French in different situations like it’s the most natural thing in the world (mais oui), and I realized that I’m not afraid of that happening anymore. Bring it on! Interactions are still very short and simple, plus I do more listening than speaking, but hey, that’s the start of good communication.

The housekeeper in charge gets in the elevator with us one day and asks whether everything is working in our apartment. “Oui, ça va bien, Madame, merci”, I respond. Wait, what? I speak FRENCH? She continues the conversation, but I don’t understand what she says at first, so I look at her intently (without getting nervous!). She doesn’t switch to English, which I find quite respectful, but gestures actively with her hands and repeats the sentence. It seems to be about the weather, so I nod and smile. Another time a polite older man hesitates before joining us, not being sure if “c’est possible” to fit in, but “Oui, monsieur, c’est possible”, I reassure him, because that’s what I do now. I speak FRENCH! And the secret to my newfound confidence is probably that, while the locals are generally absolutely fine with speaking English, they also don’t expect you to not speak French at all. You just might. Again, mais oui!

I got a bit carried away with tales of my baby steps en français. Beyond that I’ve found myself nonchalantly crossing streets at red lights (but only after checking twice that no cars are coming), regularly buying baguettes (sometimes the bag they come in is too short, so we carefully fold the baguette in two for hygiene – nobody caught us so far), and mostly relaxing about time (“Tomorrow let’s…” – “Don’t make a plan.” – “Why not? I make plans in Germany.” – “We’re not in Germany now.” – “Oh, right!”). I did print a ticket from the machine in the (English-French) pharmacy before I even realized what I was doing, because the sign told me to, but then I quietly threw it away because the line of people had a (very relaxed) life of its own.

On the way back from the beach we, as usual (mais oui), pass the Cartier boutique and I stop to look at the window. A beautiful ring with a square-cut emerald immediately catches my eye. There is no price tag. A quick search on the Cartier website (I love the internet) produces the aforementioned item and it is indeed gorgeous. It’s not surprising, just slightly intimidating, that the price is not available here either, but you can click on “Request” and fill out a form with your information. And that’s as close as I’ll ever get to such luxury. Today I saw a woman exit the Dior shop with a bag, just like it was an everyday thing to do, and only a few minutes walk after that I happily bought a baguette for one euro, so I guess that’s just how life works.

Cannes Swim

(There are no pictures yet, because the hotel Wifi is a bit slow, but I refuse to put a brake on my creative impulses.)

A cloudless blue sky, Mediterranean palm trees and a warm breeze – all that needs to be added to this list is the beach, and to the beach we go.

There’s a system to the process. Arrive before ten in the morning,  because then you’ve got more chance of grabbing a nice spot not too far from the water, stay until noon and then retreat somewhere shaded or air-conditioned during the hottest hours of the day, thus preserving both yourself and your holiday state of mind.

It’s a nice morning stroll down to the promenade above the water and sand, past the Cartier boutique (and yes, I’m the person who will immediately think of Kate Middleton’s wedding tiara the moment I see that name), bright blue metal chairs that some people are quietly sitting on and others are using as props for working out, and the immediately visible enormous potted palms and flower bushes that maintenance staff are watering with a hose.

The only trick is to find a free beach. Luckily, it doesn’t take too long, but first we do pass several generously fenced off areas where the stretches of sand ahead are practically fully covered with white lounge chairs and sun umbrellas, all available for a fee. The white hotel buildings lining the Croisette behind us and the white boats (even a cruise ship or two) in the distance do immediately transport my memory right in To Catch a Thief.

A few minutes later we find our Plage Zamenhof en Regie Municipale, go down a flight of stairs and walk to the water. The almost white sand is powder fine beneath my feet and there are no downward dips like on our (still fondly remembered) beach in Lloret de Mar. Seagull and pigeon tracks are everywhere. People are relaxed, smiling and keep a respectful distance from each other. A white blanket is neatly spread out by the water, and an hour after we’ve parked ourselves at our spot, the family who owns it arrives. No one has touched their stuff. Apparently this beach at least is still a pocket of decent human behavior. There’s no litter, shouting, loud music or obsessive selfie-taking.

Our chosen sea-bathing location („A little sea-bathing would set me up forever“) is a cove of sorts, with the boats and ships in the distance forming a final barrier beyond the bobbing yellow buoys. The water is, of course, putting all the azur in this côte. Wading in is magical, and that indescribable blue surrounds you as you start to swim, feeling like those dreams about flying when you were making breaststroke movements through the air.

Short note. I turn my head and see an older man wading right towards me with a grin, despite the fact that the there is, literally, plenty of space all around and he doesn’t have to pursue this particular direction. So the question that keeps repeating itself the world over is why does a pot-bellied, balding man with a severe case of the moobs and a gold chain getting caught in his limp grey chest hair think he can stare at and signal to a woman like he expects her to respond?

But I simply propel myself forward with a nice kick of the legs and off I go. It gets deep fairly quickly, but the water stays calm and within seconds you notice that it’s the perfect temperature for swimming, or simply floating. Within my line of vision I can see people standing with their upper bodies out of the sea. Intrigued, I keep swimming. The water is clear enough to see to the bottom and I notice an expanse of what looks like rock underneath. I carefully reach down with my feet and touch a hard, slippery surface. That’s enough for one try and I swim back.

Next time I bring along my swimming shoes, something I’ve never worn before. It’s a little strange at first, feeling the water seeping in and still being able to swim, but once I get to the rock, I stand and can indeed find stable footing. Surprise, one part is rock, and despite the footwear, the slippery part is still slippery. The other part bends in as I step on it, feeling like some kind of rubber platform. It turns out we can swim over this underwater floor, as it’s still a safe distance away from our knees, but beyond that the occasional waves coming from the boats are more noticeable.

The beach showers are very bracing, but I seem to be toughening up on my second and third session – no squealing. „The cold never bothered me anyway.“ The water is also very clean, so whatever stamina might have gotten sucked out of me during the last few months in the (home) city, I will hopefully get some of it back here. Of course it helps to run back into the warm sunlight after the aforementioned shower.

Time to go. Not only is it quite hot, we’re also out of baguette. Cannes not have that.

 

Cannes Do

Nice Airport isn’t unfamiliar to me. Aside from that long ago trip to Cannes that started by landing in the aforementioned location, I’d also flown here for an entirely different event last year, then set off to a village about half an hour away which was one of the many picturesque examples of rural southern France. At the time I had exited Terminal 1 at the airport, feeling nervous about locating my bus stop, which was intensified by ongoing construction all around me and no shade in the hot July sunshine.

Fast forward a little over a year later, and I stride out, to be pleasantly surprised by a sleek, finished square, with an immediately visible cafe, relaxed travelers, clearly labeled stops with seats and roofs, and a smoothly running train shuttle that takes me to Terminal 2, where I pick up the rest of my group. Go, Nice!

I love the look of our hotel, especially its lush, green front lawn, and inside we’re firmly told to „Have a seat“ before we can say much, a phrase which is repeated to another woman as well, only she responds in an English accent, „I’ll stand, if you don’t mind.“ I really like hearing that, but we’ve all been on the road for a while, so we do settle regally in the armchairs nearby.

Soon after we’re greeted by a visibly nervous manager, who shows us two rooms to choose from for those error-induced first three nights, though both are still not anything like the apartment we originally booked. Still, we pick a comfortable option, considering the circumstances, and negotiate a fair deal on the price as well. Kudos!

After that’s done everything is a little easier and we set out to remember our bearings and get some late lunch. The local architecture is beautiful, with white, beige, cream and pastel tones dominating. Balconies and shutters are everywhere, numerous varieties of palm trees, both potted and not, dot the occasionally hilly streets. White summer dresses, striped jumpsuits and fedoras regularly pop up among the relaxed streams of people flowing outside – most of them speaking French, plenty Spanish, some Italian and yes, the immediately noticeable mother tongue is also there (though not as loud as I expected). Throw in a sprinkle of various English accents, including confident American, Dutch, a bit of German, and you’ve got yourself a European melting pot.

What I’m floored by is the sheer amount of large hotels that have been built, or even are being built since I was here last. Of course, nine years is a long time, but I remember more space between buildings. It’s a little unnerving. We emerge from the Rue Meynadier, a lovely pedestrian street full of cafes, shops and artisan businesses, and, just like everyone else, inevitably find ourselves on the very fancy Boulevard de la Croisette (there hast to be a boulevard! This is France!), which (never) satisfies all my Valentino and Cartier needs. The Croisette is, however, one of the easiest ways to cut across to the beach, if you are already walking around the city center.

We stop by a large supermarket located near the hotel and soon have what I would say is a French enough shopping basket, with a baguette (mais oui!) among some local vegetables, ham and cheese, as well as some (discounted, but still freshly made) strawberry tart.

I have already automatically replied in French to some very short sentences I understood, to my breathless excitement, so despite French class being out for the summer, it’s not really ever far from my day, because that’s just what I do now. And what I Cannes do, I do.