Adventures in Swimming Trunks

Being a parent brings certain advantages: first it enables one less prone to introspection – you have no time. Secondly, it is very useful when speaking a foreign language. Quite often in the past, I have constructed what I know is a perfectly adequate sentence with the best pronunciation I can muster, only to be met by a blank, slightly fearful look and a rather fractious, “Bitte?” (in Britain this would be, “You what?” or “Eh?”). I know there is nothing personal in this response and is typical when a native of one language is confronted by a non-native, and is at worst an expression of surprise not frustration (universal I would wager). My children have made this process much easier as they act, whether they like it or not, as a linguistic marker (we speak English as we approach my intended interlocutor) effectively telegraphing that I am bearing down with my pocket-book, street Deutsch and they better be prepared to tolerate me some verbal slack.

Thirdly, it has made me more assertive in public (even without beer). This might have something to do with a general tendency in this part of Europe to not be afraid to get what you want, and perhaps I would have become an acolyte to public self-assurance irrespective of the kids. But over the past few years I have seemingly been anointed with a certain intangible confidence when faced by potentially embarrassing social situations, which being British is all social situations without alcohol (read the excellent Watching the English by anthropologist, Kate Fox).

But the most important reason, one that is particularly apposite at this time of year, is that since becoming a father, I no longer feel self-conscious in a pair of swimming trunks (hold that image for a moment).

Now this has very little to do with Vienna as such, except to say that the arrival of high summer last week has forced the issue of budgie smugglers front and centre. But before we go there, let us cast our Internet soaked senses back to an earlier more innocent age: the glorious 1970s.

Growing up I was pretty good at most sports and continued to be so until sometime in my teenage years when I partly lost my competitive mojo. Sporting endeavors then, it seemed, became more about getting crushed by boys who had clearly drunk more milk than me, and eaten steak for breakfast.

At swimming, however, I was perennially crap. I could, and can, swim but back in the primary school days, I could only stand and wonder at how anybody could swim 3 miles without a break (like a couple of months between lengths). The best I could manage – my apogee if you like – was 50 metres and my style could be best described as inefficiency meets wild armed ineptitude. I once tried for 100 metres, my plan being to kick my legs and rotate my arms in a more leisurely style, thus conserving energy and pushing me forward with slow yet tenacious progress. But swimming and guile were just not my strong points and I sank after about 75 metres (and this was even after an illegal breather after 50).

But more than that was the constant embarrassment of the swimming attire and may explain my lack of enthusiasm for swimming lessons with the rest of my class (which is why I swim more like a panicking wildebeest than a dolphin). I can distinctly remember one time emerging from the side of the pool and my trunks had ballooned into this grotesque form as if pumped by compressed air. And this happened every time I dethralled myself from the water. This caused much pool-side hilarity, forever scarring my relationship with Speedos and their ilk until years later when I became a papa and lost any sense of social reticence.

At this point you are probably thinking I need to go and speak to Dr Freud. But not long ago, a friend of a friend asked me what Wieners do here in summer? Such a question exuded much more relevance this last week due to the baking heat, a heat which reportedly made the camels at Vienna’s zoo smirk. It was so hot and sticky that the humidity reminded me of the sweat box in the film Bridge on the River Kwai. And naturally, all the talk (whinging) was of how uncomfortable it was (and remember, this is a city that had the coldest April and May on record with more rain than in Blade Runner).

Anyway, after thinking about the question for a bit I came up with the answer swimming. Now if like me (I spent my school years growing up on the coast) you can only imagine people swimming and getting a suntan if they have access to a beach, then this might surprise you. But Vienna is dotted with superbly equipped and well-maintained open air, public pools (check out not to mention the Alte Donau where you can swim along 8km of Standbäder or the legendary Gänselhäufl – an island in the middle of a section of the old Danube all easily reachable by public transport. It might not be Bondi Beach but a daily-ticket to any of these costs only €3.90 for adults and €1.70 for kids which, lets face it, is bonza!


The alternative is to posh up, and by poshing up you can visit Vienna’s thermal spa complex (with numerous out and indoor pools) in Oberlaa in the 10th district (see blog on wine). This is what we did some weeks ago, on a bank holiday when the weather had an intensity of rain to make a seagull shut up. Now, normally, I wouldn’t be tempted by the delights of Therme Wien– it is over-crowded and pricey – but our first choice, the Amalienbad was closed due to a photoshoot (I offered my services). But by this point I was in the “zone” (parent speak for I am not getting ready again) so not to waste the effort on packing, we set off south … with the rest of Vienna it turned out.

Lots, and lots of steps

Surprisingly for a school holiday it was heaving (and this was only 10 o’clock in the morning) but we found a couple of chairs in the family zone which had not been reserved by a sock or a piece of jewellery (you think the Germans are bad). The family zone is a place that the childless should never enter. It’s like a bear-pit in a trading house; hot, busy and very loud where implacable children shout, run, slip over, scream and urge parents to go on water slides – a test of any Brit used to queuing – and jump from the diving boards (on our visit there seemed to be an officially sanctioned “bombing” and “belly-flop” competition from the 5 metre platform where men – it was only men, men who should be at “fat-camp” – launched themselves in to the water). This may be a thermal spa but curative it was not.

Celling above family zone. Blue and relaxing

We stayed 3 hours and then decided to leave thinking when enough people are crammed in a swimming pool, can it still be termed swimming? So we made our way back out up and down the many stairs and paid 70 Euro which included 25 for a lunch in a restaurant fraught with table jostling (unless you are a smoker and there is plenty of space).

Outside the rain continued unabated. I looked in vicarious wonder at the morose, steaming queue as it snaked around the generous foyer, out the door and all the way to the Hungarian border. Tutting knowingly with a face that could only be described as very clean and superior, we made our way to the garage. Those poor, pitiful fools, I thought, as I tapped my pockets, and tapped again, wondering where the buggery I had put that parking ticket.

© R. J. Barratt 2013

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