Switzerland’s landscape is as much a place of freshwater troughs as it is of picture-postcard Alpine peaks, so much so that splashing about in lakes and rivers seems a self-evident pastime to the Swiss. As the ski season stops, the snow melts and gives way to hiking trails and bathing spots, which are bracing in the spring, a relief in the summer heat and still tolerable in early October. But talk of ‘wild swimming’ here and you’ll elicit a bemused smile at best. After all, many communities have installed showers along the shorelines of lakes. In cities, workers pop out for a dip at noon. Of an evening, it is usual to go out with a dry bag containing a swimsuit, a towel and a good book. Swimming in nature is civilised and normal, and has been for centuries.
Wild swimming didn’t start in Switzerland, but it has defined stories of the Swiss since the dawn of Alpine tourism. Goethe visited in 1775 and described bathing enthusiastically ‘in unconstricted waters’, by which he meant swimming naked in a lake. Swimming in the Swiss outdoors was equated with sublimity and demanded elevated forms of expression. Goethe’s encomium was but a ripple effect of a tradition in Alpine poetry. Albrecht von Haller had already gushed lyrically about the flow of the River Aare past his feet in Die Alpen (1729). In that poem, mountain folk are content to let valuable minerals be carried away by the current, whereas citizens of the lowlands pan for gold as they bathe. By the early 18th century, swimming was already becoming a sort of cultural treasure.
Swimming still plays the same part in cultural narratives of Switzerland today. Take the case of quiet, administrative Bern, the country’s capital thanks to a historical compromise between the cantons. River swimming is a highlight of daily existence: being swept down the Aare contrasts with the slower pace of life on land. Bern is home to the country’s first river baths, built in 1782, but they are an alternative to, not a substitute for, swimming along the Aare’s turquoise course. Geranium-red railings line the banks at entry points, providing something to clutch on to as the waters race past (save your energy for the sideways swim to get out), matching the colour of the flowers in the window boxes along the city’s streets. Bern and its swimming citizens are at the centre of Swiss author Giuliano Musio’s latest novel in German, Wirbellos, about a local 22-year-old man. In it, Musio plays with Switzerland’s landlocked frustrations and its fantasies about the sea: an island in the Aare is dislocated and seems to become part of the Mediterranean. In one of the book’s more bizarre images, the Costa Concordia capsizes and is beached upon a Bernese street.
Switzerland’s waters and swimmers provide more than copy for the tourist industry’s brochures, then. They speak to the whole of human experience, from the idyllic to the surreal to the tragic. Another recent Swiss novel, Mahlstrom by Yael Inokai, is also about a 22-year-old. In this book, which won the Swiss Literature Prize in 2018, a river in a rural village becomes the spot for the protagonist Barbara’s suicide while she is swimming. Hansjörg Schneider’s Das Wasserzeichen (1997) likewise has at its heart a drowned woman, but she dies in more suspicious circumstances. The novel expresses pessimism about present-day Switzerland, where modernity has poured concrete into people’s minds as much as into the hillsides.
The history of swimming in nature both conforms to and disrupts clichés about the country. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Swiss authorities worried about the dangers of citizens making their way down to the river banks en masse and sought to legislate. Newspapers of the age reported local drownings week-on-week. When parliamentarians proposed a national ban on swimming in natural waters, however, the populace resisted. Instead, a rescue and advisory body was set up: in 1933, the Schweizerische Lebensrettungs-Gesellschaft was born. Switzerland may be famous for its rule-abiding citizenry, but when it came to swimming, the government compromised and held back from law-making. Self-responsibility and personal judgement are the orders of the day. Perhaps this is why swimming has proved such fruitful literary material: it is a means to explore individual character.
I learned the ins and outs, ebbs and flows of wild swimming the Swiss way when I lived in Bern a few years ago. After a day’s lectures at the university, I would head down to the Aare with colleagues. Once, I went on a date in Lake Biel, which was tepid for both of us. At other times, I would get talking to the Swiss in the water. At its best – and warmest – outdoor swimming can bring people together. Walkers and hikers speak of the ‘Wanderer Du’ in German, and while swimming you likewise hardly ever use the formal second-person pronoun ‘Sie’. Conversations usually start with speculation about the water temperature and progress from there. Most people will insist that they can feel the difference between 17.8 and 18.2 degrees centigrade, though they might have sneakily checked online beforehand.
But sometimes you must guess on your own. When I returned to Bern last autumn for a visit to the archives, I remembered a woman I used to greet as she swam with her dog – the little terrier would jump out on command. Now, though, I appeared to be alone. The narrator of Lisa Elsässer’s 2019 short story ‘Spiegel’ (‘Mirror’) splashes and swims daily in the pond in front of her home, with the silent companionship of an elderly neighbour sitting on his balcony. As autumn sets in, the older man is admitted to hospital, and the story reflects on the absence of those familiar to us whom we hardly know. Leaning on the riverbank, I suddenly hoped that the woman and her dog had simply found a new pastime for the colder months.