It was already light out when our alarm went off at 4:43am. Last Sunday, to celebrate the summer solstice and the longest days of the year, E and I decided to get up at sunrise and go for a bike ride. We drank coffee and ate breakfast first – we were in no rush. We just thought it would be novel to be up and out of the house and taking advantage of the absurdly long June days.
On our bikes at 6:30am and heading out of the neighborhood, we passed a single cafe that was already open. There were tables set up outside and more than half were filled by customers sipping coffees. I wondered aloud at the early birds of the world.
“Can you imagine meeting a friend for coffee at 6:30am?” I asked.
“Sure,” E replied, which I guess shouldn’t have surprised me since the question demanded he imagine the scenario.
We took my usual route to Grunewald, a forest in the southwest of Berlin. I say “usual route” because I’ve biked over to and around Grunewald at least once a month since January. This year I started riding my bike farther (my Grunewald rides usually come in around 30km/18 miles) and more often than ever before as a way to care for my mental and physical health. I’ve now seen Grunewald in three seasons and it is a lovely respite in all of them.
But this was a special visit because, in addition to biking, we were going swimming.
Lake swimming is a popular summertime activity in Berlin, but it’s not one I typically take part in because I’m never sure where to go. The countryside surrounding Berlin is full of small lakes and, in theory, swimming them seems delightful. In practice though, the lake beaches are often crowded, especially on hot days, and we were experiencing a bit of a heat wave.
Luckily our apartment stays pretty cool throughout the day and at 7am the temperature was still in the 70s instead of the 90s, which it was going to reach. Add decent cloud cover to the mix and our bike ride to the woods was quite pleasant.
The western edge of Grunewald is bordered by the Havel River and there’s a path that runs alongside the water, which is where we were headed. There are a couple Badestelle along this path, sandy beaches specifically for swimmers to access the water. But in between these official “bathing spots,” you can find smaller coves that offer a more private swimming experience.
As we rode along the path, most of the coves were already occupied by people who had, apparently, gotten up even earlier than us. We had been biking for over an hour and we were feeling sweaty and tired. Berlin is a notoriously flat city, but the handful of hills to its name are concentrated in Grunewald, and I ride a single-speed bike. As we neared the end of the path, I was starting to worry that we weren’t going to find a private spot with water access. Just then, a couple and their happy, wet dog came trotting towards us.
The cove they had just left was empty and we claimed it for ourselves, quickly stripping down to our bathing suits and taking a seat on a log so that our feet were in the water but the rest of us stayed dry. We watched schools of tiny fish swim around our toes. Occasionally they ventured close enough to nibble our feet, which tickled and amused us more than anything else. While watching them we noticed even smaller organisms in the water – translucent shrimp the length of my thumbnail swimming awkwardly before burrowing into the sand. Above water there were several birds bobbing along: ducks, swans, a diving water fowl that was too far away to identify, and black birds with white faces that I look up the name of every time I see them because it won’t stick in my head (Eurasian coots). Most exciting was when some sort of brown-furred mammal popped its thick, square head above water and swam past us. We think it was a beaver.
“Were you going to go swimming?” E asked after we’d sat quietly for a while enjoying the view.
“I’m becoming my mother,” I said with an dramatic sigh. “It has to be hot for me to want to get in the water.”
As a kid you could find me swimming every chance I got, regardless of the weather or the water temperature. Jumping in and enjoying myself was a point of pride, whether it was a pond in May or the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maine. But in recent years I’ve become one of those people who needs to bake in the sun for a bit before wading in slowly, if at all. 2020 was probably the only year in my life that I didn’t go swimming at least once.
So, I am grateful to have made it into the water last weekend. E and I waded in slowly, but we got there eventually. The water wasn’t cold, just cool, and easy to adjust to once you were in. And then it was all muscle memory – my limbs cutting through coca-cola colored water, which doesn’t sound appealing, but felt familiar thanks to my childhood freshwater swimming experiences.
The view from our cove was of a small island where people moor their boats, and we could see other Berliners swimming, as well as hear their murmured conversations. We certainly weren’t communing with nature alone – that’s hard to find in a city of 3.5 million people – but it was still nice to be surrounded by woods and water.
A little after 9am, a woman with a baby and an adorable corgi mix joined us at our cove. We were getting ready to leave and happy to hand over ‘our spot’ to someone new. The corgi’s name was Wesley and he alternated between swimming and rolling in the dirt until his fur was coated with it and he looked, as his owner put it, “wie ein Schnitzel,” (like a schnitzel).
We were chuckling over this delightful and oh-so-German analogy as we biked away, when my phone started buzzing. We paused to turn off my usual Sunday alarm, which was set for 9:30am. I was pleased by how much we’d already done and experienced by the time we would normally be waking up.
We biked home, ate an early lunch, and by 1pm we were closing the bedroom curtains and lying down for a nap.