December 7th, 2006


Splash 22

Yesterday, I swam for the first time in my life.

Okay, maybe "swimming" is not the exact technical term for what I was doing. Lying back in the water of the Winter Bathing Ship, clasping a buoyant blue and yellow multi-ply polyester floatation board under my chin, and propelling myself backwards with a splashing commotion around my feet may not qualify as "swimming". But it certainly felt like an amazing new experience for me. To be mobile in water, using muscles I didn't even suspect I had... and not drown!

Type "learning to swim" into Google image search and all you'll see are images of children. But somehow I never learned to swim when I was a kid. Terrified of getting water on my face, wary of the bullying that went on in changing rooms and shower rooms at my tough boarding school, I opted out of every physical activity I possibly could, preferring to lurk upstairs in the Senior Common Room with David Bowie and T. Rex records. Even when we lived in Greece and made regular trips to Athens beach Xenia I somehow failed to learn to swim, preferring to lie on a lilo (and when I got tipped into the brine I basically just swallowed gulps of salt water and sea weed and lashed out for the shore as best I could).

So it was pretty amazing to find myself, for the first time, as a mammal suspended in water, transformed into a kind of kicking frog, an amphibian. It felt very natural to coast backwards through the water, as a naked Hisae shouted encouragements. Unfortunately, someone else was shouting. It was a member of the Badeschiff staff. "Hallo! Hallo!" (Being halloed is always bad in Germany, it's the liberal democratic Achtung!) "Can you swim?" Stupidly I answered in the negative. "Then I'm afraid you must come out immediately. This pool is 2 metres deep. Non-swimmers are not allowed."

Argh! Catch 22! I can't swim, so when I try to learn I'm stopped because... I can't swim. What I should have said, clearly, was "Yes, I can swim. After a fashion, and in my own style. Actually, I was taught by otters. I have certificates of proficiency from the otters -- I reached Otter Level 6 -- but don't usually carry them with me when I'm naked."