Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Lidophobia in Vienna by Robert Rotifer

It's the end of the summer, and I came back from a trip to my old hometown Vienna over two weeks ago. The memory of the unbearable landlocked heat still lingers, mixed with much older memories stirred up by the city I grew up in. I always find myself going back in time when I'm there. It's the classic homecoming expats' disease.

So right now I'm grateful for the East Kent breeze, and the knowledge that the sea is only a brief car ride away. But as I listen to Darren's Lido record I wonder how different it would sound if he had had the same idea in Vienna. All that serenity, that idea of the lido as an oasis of calm amongst the urban chaos just wouldn't apply. If anything, in the Viennese summer outdoor swimming is at the very centre of social life.

This may sound idyllic, but as a boy I experienced it as a cheerful tyranny.

Picture yourself on a hot central European summer day in the 1970s, a child in a noisy tram rumbling up the hill towards one of the highest points of the tenth district, the ungentrifiable southern stronghold of working class Vienna. A mix of sweat and suncream hanging heavy in the air, my mum, my sister and I are clutching heavy bags full of all the stuff we are going to need for our day at the Laaerbergbad (a word unpronounceable to anyone not living in Vienna).

Eventually, the tram will reach the top of the hill, the passengers spilling out onto the almost-liquid pavements reflecting the heat of the merciless summer sun, everyone joining the stream of tightly denim-clad grown-ups' bottoms to queue at the gates beneath the tall 1950s clock-tower, collect our keys and find the cabins, where we get changed – to me the biggest horror of the whole excursion, either being on my own in the men's changing room or a little boy among grown women. After all this is Vienna in the supposedly liberated, onwards and skywards to a fairer new world Social-Democratic seventies, so feeling shy about the inadequacies your own body is seen as some kind of laughably backwards square prudishness.

Back out in the sunshine, the noise of hundreds of voices trying to drown each other out is deafening, kids are running to minimise the contact between their naked soles and the burning hot paving, while the grown-ups smugly promenade around in their flip flops, bronzed bellies exposed, afro hairdos and golden necklaces. There is music from various competing transistor radios and announcements over the tannoy. And lots of shrieks, laughs and splashing underneath the diving boards.

What I loved, though, was the smell of the hot fries that we would buy at the café in the afternoon once we'd gotten through the homemade food we had taken along in our tupperware containers. But first you had to go and look for a space on the endless lawns between the pools and the playing fields, where we would spread out our towels amongst all the other families, an endless sea of slouching bodies belonging to perfectly confident people whose eyes I tried not to catch. We always brought books. The light was so bright that when you closed your eyes you could still see the letters burnt into the back of your eyelids, while the sunlit white of the page glowed in all the colours of the rainbow.

I seem to remember two large pools and two small ones for children. One of the large ones had a wave machine that they would turn on at regular intervals. I am told the clock tower, which held and heated 100,000 litres of water to be used in the pools was pulled down in 1998, a year after my wife and I had moved to London.

At a capacity of about 6,300 visitors, in a Viennese context Laaerbergbad is one of the larger, but by no means the largest of lidos, that position being undisputedly held by Gänsehäufel which attracts record crowds of up to 30,000 on a busy weekend.

Essentially, Gänsehäufel (which roughly translates as “mound of earth where geese congregate”) is an island in the Alte Donau (“Old Danube”, the remaining bits of backwater from before regulation of the river Danube in the late 19th century, now renewed by springs and groundwater) featuring swimming pools as well as access to the surrounding beaches.

Across the water there are more lidos, among them the less dauntingly sized Bundesbad. In my teenage years, when a new underground line had brought the north side of the river within easy reach, this was the place where I would overcome my early dislike of urban outdoor swimming.

We went back there this summer with friends. It is impossible not to love the shady poplar trees, the finely pebbled beach, the water turned mild by weeks of sunshine, swimming out to the yellow buoys, sitting on the wire that holds them together, and having cheap but proper food at the terrace restaurant.

I told my friends of my former lido-phobia and how the Bundesbad always seemed calmer, more likeable to me than some of the livelier the ones. They nodded knowingly and told me it has a boho reputation these days. So I've been proved a snob again.

I guess the story of the Viennese lidos is a bit like that of the London ones: Promoting healthy exercise for the working classes, swimming pools for the poor. I read that the Bundesbad was in fact established in 1919 to teach soldiers how to swim. The Austro-Hungarian empire had just lost the First World War, so I suppose there was no more access to the Adriatic for the Austrian army, and the shallow waters of the Old Danube were the next best thing.

Like many of Vienna's lidos the Bundesbad was rebuilt in the fifties, which made for some fantastic, vaguely futuristic architecture. I took a few pictures of the changing cabins amongst the trees at my visit in early August and cropped them just now to the sound of Darren's record.

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