Why is it so hard to swim in German pools?

If only some crazy miracle would happen and continental Europe could start introducing these signs! (CC-Image: Susan Sharpless Smith)

[Update in April 2015: Sadly, all of what I have written about here is still very true. Found a hilarious and accurate cartoon by one Thierry Gregorius which I will share below. In the meantime, if you are blissfully unaware what to do at a pool, please read this excellent post right now and if you can, also this here. It will teach you some basic pool and lane etiquette. Thanks!] 

As anyone who has driven on the Autobahn can attest – or anyone who has dared to stand as a humble pedestrian on a German bike path: People here like their traffic in neatly ordered, divided lanes.

However, when it comes to pools, there is only one rule: absolute anarchy.

Why is it that – of all people! – the ever so well-organised Germans can’t seem to get this right? For anyone who loves doing laps in the pool, the experience of going swimming in Germany is bound to be one riddled with painful, embarrassing and/or annoying encounters. Ok, I am generalising, but just a bit.

Consider a few days ago: I was doing some laps in an indoor pool in Munich. Not a bad pool as such, this. A decent 25m-affair, with about 8 lanes to choose from. Not many people in it – I would say less than ten. And not a single lane rope between them, except one to separate out the jumping basin to the side. As usual when finding myself in these situations, I stuck to the lane next to the wall, to avoid nice old ladies, cantankerous pensioners or unhinged kids just swimming into my way or being bothered by me splashing water.

After about 10 minutes or so, two elderly ladies entered the water right in that lane and proceded to swim there. There was plenty of room to go elsewhere, but they simply swam up and down my lane. I politely took a wide berth around them, as I passed them, passed them again, and passed them again. This went on for another ten minutes or so, but since it did not bother me too much, I almost forgot about it. Presently, an embarrassed lifeguard stopped me and politely asked me to move into a different lane: the ladies were complaining about “you swimming”. I asked the reason, and they both glowered at me and confirmed: yes, they were complaining about me swimming. In the swimming pool. It was too absurd to even get angry about. I smiled politely and said: Sorry about that – and moved over to the other side of the pool, where I only was bothered by a bunch of young girls sitting on the lane ropes and jumping straight into my way once or twice.

Fast forward to a few days later: I was doing laps in a really big 50-meter outdoor pool in the countryside to the South of Munich. A trio of middle-aged breast strokers had decided to take over the one lane divided off for “Sportschwimmer”. Never mind. Since the rest of the pool was almost empty, I just jumped into the big blue and started doing my laps, following the path furthest away from everyone else. As I was doing backstroke, a middle-aged couple, who previously had spent about twenty minutes watching me doing laps, promptly entered the pool and swam right into me from the side. I suddenly came up with someone hitting my side, so I stopped, apologised, saying I was sorry but I did not have eyes in the back of my head. The man was friendly enough and apologised too. But his wife was quite indignant, and crossly said: But surely you can see under water with those goggles?! No, she was not making a joke. I was so flabbergasted by the sheer stupidity and the rude deliverance, I did the only thing that made sense: put on my goggles and swam away. Which is my preferred way of dealing with rude compatriots.

Look, I could go on, But getting back to the point of my post, the question is: What the hell is wrong here? Why is it so hard to swim in German swimming pools?

I have a number of theories on the subject, some of them funny, some serious ones, but I think the following – or rather, a combination of the following – answers is the most likely:

1. The vast majority of people here can’t really swim properly; and they don’t see a swimming pool as a place to swim. After all, they don’t go swimming, they go to the baths Sie gehen baden.Most Germans never learn more than the above-water breast stroke, the kind preferred by old ladies the world over because it is easy – and keeps the hairdo dry. Not swimming applies to the kids too; they love to splash in the water like everywhere, but they don’t swim, they “bathe” – in essence, just like the grown-ups. There is nothing wrong with this as such, of course. But it leads to all sorts of problems. In fact, less and less Germans even learn how to swim nowadays. That is bad enough. Every child should at the very least learn to swim back to the edge of the pool in case she falls in / is pushed.

2. Being a logical people, and since point 1. applies, Germans think swimming pools are not for swimming. Yes, that is absurd. But it is also true. For your average German family, pools are places exclusively reserved to splash about on hot days, or do some criss-crossing of breast stroke between sunbathing (another type of bathing that is still popular here). And above all, the swimming pool is a place to park your kids, relax, enjoy some “wellness”, in other words: hit the sauna/aromatherapy/massage/cosmetics section. Not to mention throwing a towel on a deck chair (lots and lots and lots of those around). In fact, I have seen a number of pools from Heidelberg to Munich that closed off swimming sections to cater better to the “wellness enthusiasts”. Just to remain financially viable. Contrast that with a pool in Australia: it is a turquoise box, subdivided by lane ropes, where people choose the lane best suited to their speed, and then they procede to just swim. Sigh.

3. With devastating efficiency, consequently, many Germans don’t like others actually swimming. That’s right: Germans treat pools like clueless flaneurs might treat a golfing green or an athletics oval. They would walk here and there, enjoying the green grass to lie around and sit and loung about…and complain about those pesky golfers with their dangerous flying balls – or about runners running around and causing a fuss. Point is though: Germans aren’t clueless. So why do they still behave as though they are?

Well that is where my reasoning hits the wall. I could offer a few reasons for point 3. but frankly none them are convincing.

Anyway, time to end this rant. It has been building in me for three years but I feel better now.

Hilarious but true: And make that "English speaking nations" versus Continental Europe....(CC Image by Thierry Gregorius via Flickr)
Hilarious but true: And make that “English speaking nations” versus Continental Europe….(CC Image by Thierry Gregorius via Flickr)