Swimming In the Snow


As an eleven year old boy, raised with grits and biscuits in the sultry south, I found my sudden transplantation into Germany to be a time of wonder and beauty. I was absorbed by the culture and customs, the strange snow covered country, the quaint villages and towns. Towering castles stood on the peaks of mountains; small hamlets cowered below. And one of the things I remember is this:


“Bring your swimsuits to class!” the teacher had reminded us the day before, “We are going swimming tomorrow!” — and so we did – each clutching our suits and wondering. I know I was confused – outside the snow was at least a foot and a half deep, but always obedient to commands, I had done as I was told. The fact that I even had a swimsuit was amazing – why would I need a swimsuit here?, I wondered – especially during the winter? Shivering in my thick coat, my mittens clumsily stuffing the flimsy piece of fabric into a pocket, I stood huddled with the other kids, waiting for the German bus to come.

German buses weren’t like our school buses. Our school buses were . . . well, they WERE school buses, but battered and green and usually used to shuttle people from one military base to another. That was their only purpose until it came time for school. Otherwise you would find them . . . shuttling. Picking up passengers at the “shuttle” stops and dropping them off again. We used shuttle buses the way you walk around your yard – to go from one part of “our world” (the U.S. Military bases) to “another part” (another military base). Very few Americans had cars, and the ones who did had to go through the tedious process of getting a German driver’s license – a process that could take weeks, even months. (Even getting a fishing license was a weeks long process, involving classes and training and things.) Bicycles were all the rage – but you had to have a properly equipped one (according to German regulations) – with a bell, a functioning headlight, (preferably with a wheel powered generator), plus reflectors. A basket was good for carrying things home from the market. Everyone rode bikes – not just kids – but the grownups, wives, and G.I.’s as well. They were the de facto method of transportation, unless you could absorb the exorbitant taxicab fees – and most of the G.I.’s didn’t, preferring instead the open air freedom of a two-pedal ride.

But this time we were going riding on one of the German buses. These buses – so clean! – and with wide, tall windows – not a smudge! Unlike the thinly padded green vinyl seats of our school buses, these buses had corded cloth seats – and they even smelled good – clean inside. Not like our American buses with the litter on the floor, spills on the seats, and the smell of body odor everywhere. These were a pleasure to ride on.

Eventually – us stomping our feet to ward off the cold, noses sniffling and dribbling in the air – the bus came, sighing up in a wave of warm exhaust. The doors eased open with a smooth grace – not like our clunky school bus doors, which were given to opening in fits and starts – and the driver let us on.

“To your seats, children! To your seats!” The teacher anxiously waved us on. She was always nervous – a lot of the teachers were when it came to us American children interacting with our German ‘hosts’. I think the teachers knew all too well our wild and American ways, and knew the signs of German disapproval. German kids weren’t a bit like us, or at least not in a number of ways – something I was soon to find out.

We already knew that German kids went to school six days a week – five full days of school, followed by a half day on Saturday. We couldn’t imagine anything being much more horrible, unless it be going to school on Sunday as well. (Little did we know they also got more holidays than we did – the Germans have holidays for everything!) We’d heard how hard the German schools were – in our imaginations they sat in drafty dusty rooms in the middle of castles under the stern gaze of overbearing teachers, getting punished for every infraction, every scratch, every itch. We wouldn’t of traded our lax American status for anything – we knew that we had it good. We had to have it good: after all, we were Americans, no? And Americans always have it good.

So we get on the bus and the teacher gets us all settled down, turns and talks to the driver. He closes the door (again the soft sigh; the gentle thump of well gasketed doors closing) – and smoothly slips it into gear. Before I know it we are wheeling down a black asphalt road, and the snowy countryside is sliding the wide paned windows (curved at the top, like a miracle of engineering and style – SO unlike our flat paned, military style school buses). Again and again I wonder where we are heading. The only swimming pools I am accustomed to are an old military VA pool – an inside pool in a dilapidated building, full of noises, echoes, and peeling paint – and Misty Waters, a pool that spans acres, and is spring fed. It is a sunny day, and the snow is bright – billows and drifts across the farmer’s fields, encroaching close to the road. The road is narrow, as are so many of the roads in Germany – and we seem to drive forever. I am transfixed by the scene outside – Alpine mountains in the background, their flanks draped in snow; beautiful wood and timber houses sprinkled across the valley. There is little traffic. We ride for awhile – maybe an hour – until finally we get there.

It is an indoor pool – and unlike anything I’ve seen. Instead of concrete walls and a concrete ceiling, there is glass and glass everywhere! Even the roof is made of glass. We get out, lining up in the snow – there is a path beaten up to the entrance. Stomping our feet we look around, blinking in the brightness like sun stunned birds. Finally the teacher has us go in.

Inside the building – inside! Warmth at last. A moist, humid warmth – one that almost reminds me of home, except for the chlorine smell. The place is neat and tidy, brightly colored – and there are kids there! I am surprised as the teacher motions us towards the changing rooms. The place is far from silent – there are the splashes of people swimming, divers diving from the diving board. But strangely enough – and this was one of the first things that struck me: there is no yelling there. Slight sounds of polite laughter as we make our way into the changing area – a place of benches and lockers – but it is so clean! There are a few German kids in there: nodding tight little nods, we greet our compatriots, not understanding a word they say as they turn and talk to each other. Their conversation is low and muted; you can see them glancing at us as much as we are glancing at them – and our conversation is muted as well. And then we go out to the swimming pool.

I’ll never forget that sensation – of swimming while watching the snow. Outside the windows – snow piled deep, knee deep against the lower panes of the glass. Inside: warm, wet, humid. How they kept the windows from foggin I’ll never know. But swimming there – watching the cold outside – what a luxurious sensation! I floated on my back, swam around in circles – my eyes on those billows of white. How could it be? I wondered. To be so warm and comfortable – while just a few feet away lay those freezing temperatures. It was a miracle to me.

And the German kids. That’s where I learned a lot about the differences between them and us – between them and me. They were politely lining up at the diving board – no pushing, no shoving, no messing around. They would talk in low tones – not like the shouts and yells of American children – and our teacher was busy shushing us. It didn’t take us long to emulate them; taking lessons from our German counterparts – without a single word being shared. Before we knew it we were like them: lining up politely for our turn to dive, no cannonballs, no jackknifes into the water. Politely swimming back and forth in the lanes, and not rocketing around like a bunch of wild dolphins. Laughing softly, not open mouthed yells; whispering instead of shouting. Maybe that’s why the teacher took us there; then again, maybe it was for fun. At any rate we all came away having learned something from our exposure to those kids – and yet not knowing what we had learned, or how we had learned it.

It was a muted group that went home that afternoon. I don’t know if it was because we were tired, or from our exposure to those German kids – our exposure to another culture. Another way of thinking and being. Instead of being the boisterous kids we were, we came back quite another group – or at least I know I did. It was strange to me, and for me. It made me . . . a bit different after that.

I think that week was one of the quietest weeks we had in that class, that school. There again – I don’t know – it might of just been me. Germany was already beginning to have an effect on me, and my memories aren’t very clear, not about a lot of things.

But the day we went swimming in the snow – of looking outside those windows from the warm luxurious waters of that pool to the white snowy billows beyond – and seeing those German kids – it is something that has always stuck with me, a sharp memory from that time.