Reading Landscape

I very much enjoyed Jessica Lee's memoir, Turning, about swimming over the course of a year in fifty-two lakes in the Berlin area.  Having visited the city for too brief a time back in 2019, I didn’t see much beyond the historic downtown, where I'd tried to retrace some of my dad's steps at the Luftwaffe headquarters and the Tiergarten. I'd tried to imagine him eighteen and in love with the promises of the Third Reich. But Berlin is more than the Second World War.

I'd been aware that the city had many lakes but had not realized how huge Berlin in fact is. (Population: 3.6 million and about 900 square km. That's about five times more people than Winnipeg and twice as spread out.)  During (yet another!) covid-March, by googling the fifty-two lakes that the memoirist swam throughout all four seasons, I've extended my experience of Berlin.

I appreciated how Jessica Lee interwove her personal life, environmental issues, and history with the actions of cycling and swimming.  While I love swimming, I’m quite certain I could never break ice to swim in cold water. Lee is a much tougher swimmer than I could ever be, but I understood her need to prove something by swimming, having myself almost drowned as a youngster. I look forward to reading her newest book, Two Trees Make a Forest, which was on the Canada Reads list this past year and received the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Award for Nonfiction. Maybe if, or when, I visit Berlin again, I'd like to check out some of the lakes in Berlin and the surrounding Brandenburg area.  She refers to a hiking trail, called 66 Seen Wanderung, that demands more research, too. 

The book offered up a personal connection for me when her friend, Anne, starts singing, “Pack die Badehose ein.” (page 245).  It’s a 1950s hit about swimming in the Wannsee, and was my dad’s favourite tune as we headed out to beaches here in Manitoba back when I was young. Such a nostalgic earwig!

A memorable line comes near the end when she heads to a forest area filled with war memories: “But in Halbe I’m reminded that the landscape remembers even as it grows over.” (page 260). Travel. I remember it fondly, but I’m determined to appreciate the opportunity of not travelling, too. Reading is a great travel substitute.


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