Cycling out of Berlin will lead you to water: to lakes left by glaciers and to crystal clear lakes in sandpits, mines, and quarries. Three thousand of them lay scattered across the flat landscape of Brandenburg, which surrounds the city like a moat. To swim them is to connect both with the intimacy of freshwater and this place’s complex history, geologic and human. It is a place that is starkly beautiful but, like much of Germany, deeply shaped by a wretched past.
I spent a year exploring Brandenburg’s lakes in an effort to swim in 52 of them, through all seasons. I am, by all accounts, an outsider: born in Canada to British and Chinese parents, I moved to Germany just three years ago for a research placement. I live here on my British passport, and speak German with little confidence. When I arrived, I knew nobody, but I came to know the lakes. These landscapes unrolled into parallel rows of pine, and then into all kinds of water: the cold cut of a clear lake, the velvet embrace of toffee-hued water. My relationship to this place became grounded in sensation: the trail of icy water slipping off my back, the warmth of summer sun amidst the trees.
These landscapes unrolled into parallel rows of pine, and then into all kinds of water: the cold cut of a clear lake, the velvet embrace of toffee-hued water.
The German translation of my book, Turning (published in German as Mein Jahr im Wasser), which follows that year of swimming, was published a month ago. Since then, I’ve met with journalists and readers who were excited and surprised to read a book about the Brandenburg lakes. But many have asked me some variation on the same question: “Why did you decide to write about Brandenburg? Isn’t it modest? Ugly? Unsafe?” I knew to expect these questions: Brandenburg’s reputation as a backwater of Berlin is related not just to recent history but to long-standing views of the region as remote and undeveloped. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the region was roamed by wolves, inaccessible and wild largely because of its water; it was predominantly marshland. Even after canals were created and Berlin grew, Brandenburg remained a quiet, underdeveloped countryside. Theodor Fontane, in the late 19th century, wrote of its rural charm and simplicity. This didn’t change much during the GDR: the villages of Brandenburg remained sparsely adorned, many of the roads, sandy and unpaved. It is a spare landscape, mostly flat and dominated by forestry.
Today, it boasts the second-lowest population density in Germany, with just 82 people per square kilometre. But attacks on immigrants and people of colour after re-unification, reports of neo-Nazis gaining traction, and, today, the success of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Germany’s far-right party, in the region have shaped the perception that Brandenburg has little in common with seemingly-liberal Berlin. (Though the AfD also took 15% of the vote in Berlin’s recent elections.)
Swimming this landscape, I couldn’t ignore these political undercurrents. I swam in the shadows of Goebbels’ villa, brushed passed neo-Nazis on train platforms. But I wanted deeply to find a way to love Brandenburg, the countryside on my doorstep, if only to feel at home in the place I was living. I wanted to understand its history before the twentieth century, and to see the ways recent history has been written atop it. I often spent entire days alone, cycling from lake to lake, wandering remote trails where, from time to time, remnants of battle are still to be found. I cycled long distances and used a small hammer to break holes in the lake ice, but as many family and friends pointed out, neither the roads nor the cold seemed as risky as being a woman out there alone.
I swam in the shadows of Goebbels’ villa, brushed passed neo-Nazis on train platforms. But I wanted deeply to find a way to love Brandenburg, the countryside on my doorstep, if only to feel at home in the place I was living.
I took issue with these concerns, which had a whiff of “don’t walk home alone at night”. I don’t go through life sheltering myself from stranger-danger. But nonetheless, there were moments—in a forest alone when I would round a corner and encounter a pair of armed hunters, clad in fatigues—when I felt uncomfortable. I would gather my nerve and chirp: “Hallo,” to every stranger I met.
More often I’d meet a kindly dog walker who would ask me what I was doing. I’d explain and they would shake their heads, bemused, and walk on. We never talked for more than a minute, and I often found myself feeling rather alone in the end.
These explorations in Brandenburg were not something I took lightly. That I felt safe to do so was, in part, because I’m half-white and on first glance, Germans don’t always question my racial identity. But other friends of colour in Berlin raised eyebrows at the idea that I spent my days in isolated parts of Brandenburg, no-go areas for some. I came to understand that I was privileged in my ability to do so. It was not lost on me that my freedom to roam the landscape and swim were, in their own ways, markers of my own identity and class.
I cycled long distances and used a small hammer to break holes in the lake ice, but as many family and friends pointed out, neither the roads nor the cold seemed as risky as being a woman out there alone.
But too often Berliners shrugged off the idea of Brandenburg holding any merit, falling back on what felt like elitist or patronising views of the region as backward or behind-the-times. Some spoke as if Brandenburg were as wild or impenetrable as it might’ve been in the 17th century, though a journey on the S-Bahn would drop them in the countryside within an hour.
I bristled at the idea of writing off an entire place, as if city and country weren’t deeply connected, and felt troubled by this “out of sight, out of mind” attitude to Germany’s less savoury truths. But I didn’t want to be one of the interlopers who ignores a place’s history and identity in order to splash around in its lakes for a day. I felt a responsibility to try to understand it in some way. So I studied, reading histories of the region, struggling line-by-line through Fontane’s five-volume Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg. His account of this place preceded industrialisation, the Wars, and the Wall. It was a text that brought me directly to the lakes. These lakes – despite battles, bunkers, and bigots – have remained.
I spent my days both swimming and examining flora on the shorelines: learning new mosses, counting mushrooms. I read scientific studies of the lakes I visited, and then tried to envision what I’d learned as I swam their waters. I knew there might be dangers, but I also knew it was a landscape that dwelled largely in solitude: I could learn to love the sparseness of it, its modesty, flatness, and monotony. Above all I came to love its unending generosity of water.
The month I finished writing Turning, my postal vote for the EU referendum arrived. When the result came in, cries of racism, stupidity, and dismissals of the Britain outside London filled my social media feeds. It reminded me of the conversations I’d had about Brandenburg. Our stories about places – no matter how difficult – should strive to be more complex than that.
As outdoor swimmers, many of us temporarily populate these landscapes, venturing between lakes, rivers, and seas. The difficult truths about our world cannot be dismissed; I held them in mind every step of the way. But in continuing to tread through Brandenburg, I found a richness of beauty I’d not expected, which Berliners in no way led me to believe was there. I found I could hold its difficulty alongside its beauty, without letting go of either.
While I remain a city girl, swimming this difficult landscape taught me something of subtlety and curiosity, of traversing forest trails with my head fully in the world. I still venture out to the lakes, hoping to find understanding as clear as cold water.
...swimming this difficult landscape taught me something of subtlety and curiosity, of traversing forest trails with my head fully in the world.
Jessica J. Lee was born in Canada in 1986. She holds a doctorate in environmental history and aesthetics. The book Turning: A Swimming Memoir, published on 4 May by Virago, traces her year swimming 52 lakes in Berlin and Brandenburg. She lives in Berlin, where she continues her search for new lakes.
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Head to the OSS Swim Map For Jessica J. Lee’s swim collection Turning: Lakes in and around Berlin.