This Swimming Life

The glacial waters of the Aare River flow through Thun with an icy-blueness that astounded me at first. I joked that the people of Switzerland must be adding dye to the water to impress me, because I couldn’t reconcile the astonishing colour with my Australian idea of a river- dark tannin and mud water lazily flowing through bush valleys. My Swiss hosts shrugged away my demands for an explanation, ‘It’s just that way’. Months later, I would learn that it comes from the high calcium levels in the water.

My first introduction to the water-bodies of the Interlakken region had come a few days earlier, at a lake-side campfire. Framed by the mighty ridges of the Neissen and the Stockhorn, the lakes of Thun are intimidating in their beauty. I launched into the cold, cold water with a gasp. A pair of white swans observed my passage as I freestyled further in. Submerging my ears, I floated on my back, feeling tiny and alive. With the water blocking my ears, I was the only one in that huge lake, and I felt a million miles from Perth. The sky was enormous. All was cold. All was still. I stayed in the water long after my hands and feet were numb, knowing I had to commit the place and moment to memory.

On one of the hottest days of my visit, my host took me to a popular swimming place. Grassy lawns and wooden boardwalks lined the river, and snow-capped mountains could be seen in the distance. Despite the sunny summer day blooming around us, diving in to the still-cold water took some courage. The shock of the cold was met by the shock of the speed of the river. The fierce current swung dozens of swimmers downstream, where quick grasps for submerged handholds and a few nimble moves had them on dry land again, and happily padding back to the start.

I was told to put my head under the water and listen. I could hear thousands and thousands of pebbles turning over and over in a mysterious pilgrimage along the river bed. How long, I wondered, till they all washed away down to the sea? Where would the new pebbles come from? What would carpet the river-bed when they were all gone?

I felt the passage of time keenly. Flowing bodies of water had always unsettled my world view. If a tree falls in the forest? The secret passage of the pebbles was alarming in its insistence: time was passing, and I could actually hear it.

Later, I lay vertically against the metal bars that spanned the river to prevent wayward swimmers from ending up in Germany, and quietly watched the Aare rush towards me. Pinned into place, I felt the same sense of minuteness I had days earlier, at the lake. In a few short weeks I would be returning home, to the real world. No more uni now, a career maybe? The future looked uncertain, a distant glimmer thousands of miles away. After some time I braced my feet against the bars and flew, superman-style against the torrent.

I was submerged in the Aare, in Switzerland, in Europe. River and pebbles and people swept by me, forever fleeting and unknown, but from the outside, it looked like I was the one flying.