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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Summer in Germany: The Bare Facts

The picture of a bare-assed man on a bike snapped from the back is what first stops my gaze during a routine afternoon online browse in one of Hamburg’s local papers. Then with a rising feeling of foreboding I read the headline: Phew, It’s Warm! In the Car, In the Garden – Where You Can be Naked and Where Not. In this case, “can” translates as “allowed”, and by allowed one obviously means the law.

We are a few hours away from another heat wave after weeks of cooler weather and once again everyone is preparing. The city is serious about this, with memories of last year’s summer still fresh. Even the DJs on my favorite morning radio show suggested taking care of anything that needed to be done ouside today, because, to quote Disney’s The Little Mermaid, “It’s gonna be hot in my big silver pot”.

People are also serious about this, and apparently some might go so far as to bare all in search of relief from the heat or a blatant display of confidence. While I sincerely hope we will avoid running into each other (please, God, no), Germany’s so-called Freikörperkultur (FKK), translating as free body culture, is known the world over. Somehow we didn’t cover the topic all those years ago in my German classes, but now it’s definitely visible to the naked eye.

I decided to finally research the subject to know my rights as a clothed citizen and, to be fair, those of the “textile-free”. The aforementioned article provided some useful bits of information. First of all, walking around without clothes in Germany is not punishable by law. However, being able to continue with the decision depends on a combination of the chosen location, legal details in laws relating to misdemeanors and disturbance of the peace, various safety regulations, and, perhaps most importantly, on whether or not other people glimpsing you naked on your bike or balcony feel “disturbed” by the view.

An incident during Germany’s June heat wave in Brandenburg made international headlines, when local police stopped a naked man riding a moped. At least he had his helmet on. A picture posted on the police’s Twitter account was accompanied by a question about how to best caption it, because law enforcement themselves were “speechless”. The moped rider’s answer delivered in local dialect? “It’s warm, isn’t it?”

My questions, meanwhile, are these: isn’t it extremely uncomfortable, not to mention painful, to park your naked butt and additional exposed skin on what will clearly be a very hot surface? Isn’t the discomfort and pain consideration relevant even without hot weather?

Further Googling on being naked in Germany produces a fountain of satisfying headlines. Nudity in Germany: The Naked Truth, mentions nude beaches where disrobing completely is required by all visitors. “Summer in the parks of Berlin and Munich brings the chance of encountering a middle-aged, bronzed German wearing only a hat and the BILD-Zeitung, Germany’s favorite tabloid.” Making notes right now on where not to go, but no worries, public FKK areas are signposted. There’s also a handful of online sources detailing where nude bathing is allowed.

The more straightforward, practical Where to Get Naked in Germany additionally explains the culture and where to live it. Finally, The Dos And Don’ts of Public Nudity in Germany are very helpful for those feeling somewhat lost even after reading the material linked in this post. However, after seeing a suggestion to try nude hiking, I’m done.

 

Mainz

If you’re considering a trip to the Rhine region in Germany, one of the stops I warmly recommend is the city of Mainz. It’s a state capital full of charm, history, and beauty. Also the weather over there is usually really good!

As the train from Hamburg makes its way further south, green hills and fields lush with spring replace our more modest spring landscapes. Everything is drenched in sunlight and it’s easy to see, as you near Frankfurt, why the Rhine river inspired so many poets. It’s also clear why the wine industry does so well around here, not only due to fantastic conditions, but because the scenery certainly adds to the enjoyment of consumption.

Mainz is lovely. The train station is busy and convenient and there are plenty of nice walks to be had on foot. Local attractions include various flowerbeds in a riot of colors, which burst with vibrance and that special springtime bloom.

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Right in the city center you will find the Gutenberg Museum, especially interesting for book lovers, but also in general for anyone curious not only about local history from Mainz, but Johannes Gutenberg’s mind-blowing impact on Europe’s printing industry for centuries to come. This is the man who invented the printing press in the 15th century. The museum also houses two original bibles printed by him and once you see them, you definitely feel the weight of how valuable they are.

Another beautiful walk worth taking is from the city center to the St. Stephan Church (St. Stephan zu Mainz). It’s a great opportunity to see more of the city’s architecture and explore various side streets with pretty views, plus see a cherry tree or two.

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The church, besides being a beautiful building, also holds an important historical place in Mainz, as well as housing some of the most famous European artwork of the 20th century. I’m talking about Marc Chagall’s unforgettable blue stained-glass windows. You try your best to do them justice with a few quick snapshots, so as not to disturb other admirers, but then you just join them and stare.

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Cap off the above with a stroll along the Rhine and Mainz will charm you for life.

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Frankfurt Winter Weekend, Part 2

If you’re thinking where to go out after arriving, especially if it’s closer to the evening, the Bornheim Mitte district is a good suggestion. Just a few minutes on the U4 subway line from the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) and get out at the stop called…you guessed it, Bornheim Mitte. It’s a cosy, lively area full of cafés, bars, restaurants and shops, also great for meeting up with friends.

The next day is open to me and I can do whatever I want, so I set off towards a classic destination, the old town, planning to walk around and refresh my memories. Frankfurt’s city center around its cathedral, Dom Römer, had been severely destroyed during air bombings in the 1940s and painstakingly restored since then. Arriving at the square that is still relatively quiet for a Friday morning, I pause to take it all in. It’s a pretty sight.

I’m about to go all around the square first, but then when I start I walk past a sign next to the cathedral pointing towards the entrance to the tower. It seems encouraging and I make the detour. Hamburg doesn’t have a cathedral and I’ve had a hankering for visiting them ever since seeing Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in my youth (yes, I know the book is vastly different) and going on my first trip to Paris shortly after. There’s a bit of construction going on around the ticket office of the Dom, I contribute 3 euros to preserving this historical structure and pull open a heavy metal door. It shuts behind me with a resounding bang after I enter.

The next 10 minutes that feel like half an hour are spent climbing a tightly spiraling narrow stone staircase, holding on to a rail on one side and gripping a rope on the other. A few other visitors make their way down as I’m going up and we carefully maneuver around each other, me pausing to let them by. One size stairs fits all! A sign next to a caged door that’s locked despite providing the first view of what seems like a balcony points upwards to the observation deck and I cover a few more flights. So that’s my morning workout and suspense kick sorted, but the views from the top of the cathedral tower are more than worth it. Like this classic one of the Frankfurt city skyline (contributing to the fact that many people think it’s a metropolis – there’s just something about skyscrapers):

Or this one of the Main river:

I love finding a place to get a good view of a city from above when I travel, it just adds something special to your day and provides some reflection time to scope out the area before joining the action on the ground. Going up the cathedral tower was more taxing physically then going down, but going down is also more likely to make you slightly dizzy.  Feeling proud of myself for being a good tourist, I walk around the square, going into every side street and passing a chattering class of French exchange students clearly just beginning their journey through snooty puberty.

I make my way towards the Kleinmarkthalle on foot, everything is close – it’s a covered marketplace that I’ve briefly been to years ago and decide to explore more after a tip from my friend. But first there’s a bookstore right by the entrance that pulls me in. While the massive volumes about Vogue shoes or Hitchcock’s blondes are way out of both my budget and suitcase range, it’s fun to leaf through them, and then I spot a small discounted daily desk calendar for 2019 with screenshots from Disney animated films. And what do you know, I actually don’t have a desk calendar for this year yet. Thank you, Frankfurt.

The market is filled with people, but it’s easy to move along, and colours, food, smells, sounds all take up my attention for a while.

Plenty of stalls offer lunch, and I settle on one that promises homey food. “Here you go, my dear, enjoy and come again,” – well, thank you. The breaded salmon with fried potatoes and a minty green sauce is delicious and it’s fun to listen to what the other diners around me are talking about. After that I treat myself to some homemade chocolates and conclude the day’s walk by doing that thing all the tourists here do.

Frankfurt Winter Weekend, Part 1

The first month of 2019 is coming to an end and even if I already live in a big city, I felt like a city weekend in another city. That’s enough times saying “city” in one sentence! So Frankfurt it is, with the added pleasure of having friends living there.

6 AM rising and successful arrival at the train station in Hamburg with 20 minutes to spare. One of my friends once told me with a smile, incidentally one of the people I’m visiting this time, “The train will not leave earlier.” That’s true! But you never know how other elements of getting to your platform will work out. If you’re going from Hamburg to Frankfurt by train, some of the options available are leaving either from the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) or Dammtor station. The former is always busy and bigger, the latter is usually quieter and it’s a smaller space.

My early morning train choice was cancelled, something I found out only upon arriving at the platform. Not to worry, my organized (German) thinking switched on. Down to the travel center (Reisezentrum) of the Deutsche Bahn I go. I get a free ticket and a free reserved seat for another direct train. My first adventure of the day, practically a classic for any train traveler, has been mastered. I while away the remaining half hour in the bakery next door and reward myself with a cup of hot chocolate for my common sense. It’s not 8 AM yet, but the station is already bustling with commuters and other travelers rolling their suitcases past me. I think once again that as much as you love playing tourist in the place where you live, it’s good to get out of that zone every now and then by being an actual tourist.

I have a spot at a table by the window, the sun is shining and all around me people are quietly working on their laptops, or reading and watching stuff. There is Wifi, halleluja. I wonder if I’m the only one heading to Frankfurt for a vacation, since it’s the kind of city that typically attracts a steady stream of business people, many of whom take the train due to the good connection as far as long distances go.

Hamburg’s familiarly flat landscape has given way to hilly forests wherever we are now, and so far I see it has snowed here too, like it did in Hamburg last night. I’m not sleepy at all, though very comfortable, and it’s nice to think I didn’t panic one bit when I saw my original train was cancelled. “Oh, so this is what’s happening now, OK.” Looking forward to Part 2.

Swimming Snippets: Pool Ponderings

Soooo… I was swimming today and arrived at the thought that there seem to be two types of lap swimmers.

Type number one acts like they own the pool. People wade in and throw themselves into swimming laps without a glance in any direction, because the idea of other swimmers in the vicinity is just ludicrous, I guess. Preferred swimming styles include backstroke or the front crawl, and of course goggles and swimming caps add to the feeling that it’s just you in the pool. Get out of the way, all you other peasants with your heads above water!

Type number two carefully steps in, moves to the side so as not to be in the way of anyone reaching the end of their lap, then spends a few seconds looking around, picking a lane. They then elegantly lower their body into the water and strike out, taking care to keep enough distance between themselves and the feet and hands of other swimmers. If, God forbid, they do end up brushing limbs with someone passing by, they actually take the time to turn their head and at least mouth “Sorry”.

Type number one are also frequently noisy swimmers. You might not see them once you’re in the water and focusing on your own stroke, but you’ll hear them. I understand there’s a lot of action involved in what they do, there’s water around and that certain physical manifestations in the form of sounds escaping them is unavoidable. But blowing your nose, sniffing and clearing your throat with unrestrained relish that carries perfectly thanks to pool acoustics, and all this while swimming, seems a bit much.

Meanwhile, type twos are basically this:

I have picked my side…

 

Hamburg Heat Wave Decoded

Today is once again the hottest day of the year and since the evening shows no signs of cooling down thus far, there seems nothing better to do than blog in the peaceful sanctuary of my darkened apartment, with my small fan plugged in, reliably churning the air, and in an outfit I wouldn’t show myself in outside. Could this bliss be more introverted? In-between typing I’m switching to watching WIRED YouTube Videos in which various celebrities answer the Internet’s most searched questions about themselves and laughing my head off.

The combination of being a list-making redhead who is voluntarily influenced by the German way of life means I’ve got this particular summer’s routine all figured out. And may I just point out that in my almost ten years living here, this is the FIRST summer in Hamburg which has lasted way, way more than two weeks in a row (someone was telling me ferverntly just this morning it’s been going on since April, that’s what’s happening to our minds now). So I actually had data for developing said routine.

You wake up in the morning and peel off whatever stuck to your skin during the night (get your minds out of the gutter right now). You open some windows in a hurried attempt to take advantage of the morning coolness, which you know won’t last long. You make a mental note to DEFINITELY shut the window before you leave for work, because the last time you forgot, and you came back to the predictable oven. You get yourself ready for the day and try to make breakfast consist of more than chugging water. Then you slap on sunscreen and walk to work, and you know exactly where all the shady spots are during your route, so you feel a sense of accomplishment, and when you reach your destination, your sense of accomplishment changes to feeling smug, because really, this was quite pleasant.

The day goes on and by lunchtime you’re seriously debating whether you’ll go outside. Again. Ever. The heat is snaking its way in. You’re not even thinking about the trip home, because it’s so far away in the future and there are more pressing concerns. You drink the amount of water you subsequently sweat out, and so the cycle continues. You also shower the same amount of times as the water bottles you emptied during the day. Unsticking your skirt or dress when you get up with a dainty grasp (not) of material between thumb and forefinger becomes second nature. Sleep is a gamble and then…see the beginning of this paragraph.

There were, of course, other things I could have decided to do after my supervisor told the department we could leave earlier as it was 36 degrees Celcius outside. Beach bar around the Port of Hamburg? Nah, based on experience all the spots in the shade would be taken, and I’ve become such a pro at avoiding generous sunlight that I don’t want to break my winning streak. Steal the office picnic blanket for an evening and stretch out in the shade of Planten un Blomen park? Nein, I went out earlier in the afternoon for a break and being in the shade felt like walking in to a wall of chicken soup. Go to the pool? Again, good luck finding a spot in the shade to lay down my stuff and I’m sure every pool in the city is bursting at the seams. It’s too hot to traipse around packing up to go somewhere out of town and clearly if one thing is obvious, it’s that I AM good at saying no (to myself), which the Internet says is an important survival skill.

Fragments of what I read in the local paper online between productive bouts of work in an office which hasn’t seen the light beyond our window blinds for what feels like months flit through my mind. Fish are, sadly, dying in the Alster river and the Alster swans were moved all the way to their WINTER quarters in what is still AUGUST by Hamburg’s very own swan father Olaf. I don’t know which of these two bits of information was more convincing, but in stealthy survival mode I crept along the shaded side of the street on my way home, stopping only to satisfy one wish in an air-conditioned shop. Because chocolate, like revenge, is also a dish best served cold, so in the fridge it goes. I’m once again experiencing a sense of accomplishment.