Floating Down the Rhein

When I was a child, I traveled with friends to Garner State Park in the hill country of west Texas and we’d have floating parties on the Frio River, camping in the evenings, making s’mores and watching the firelight. With a few inner tubes from tractor tires, and a cooler tied to one of the tubes with a rope, we spent hours just drifting with the current, drinking sodas and munching snacks, watching the sandy cliffs and the tall, grey cypress trees pass us by and scouting out the multi-colored stones on the bottom through the glass-clear water.  We emerged on the shore seven miles downriver, red as lobsters because we had forgotten sunscreen, hungry and tired and happy and hoping that tomorrow we could do it all over again.


Basel has its own tradition for enjoying the cold, fast-moving waters of the Rhein, which bends a crooked knee through the center of the city, on the border between Switzerland, Germany and France.  On a hot summer day, if you stand on any of the many bridges which span the great green-grey river, you can see hundreds of people swimming or floating with the current.  Most of them are holding bright, colorful drybags into which they have stuffed their belongings, and once they reach the end of the floating zone, many of them will take the half-hour walk back to the first bridge, enter the water again, and float all the way down.  Or they may find a place on the stone steps which line the northern banks of the Rhein and sunbathe, read, relax, grill meat for a picnic or enjoy a drink or an ice cream cone in the shade and watch the floaters.


On Sundays, the shops of Basel close their doors and its people can be found in bikinis and swimming trunks, young and old, up and down the banks of the river.  The water is cold and the current is strong, but the river is full and the people everywhere are smiling, laughing, closing their eyes in relaxation, like children, lost in the pleasure of the moment.


They saunter in the sunshine in the lovely imperfection of their bodies.  No one seems self-conscious; everyone looks expectant, excited, interested, alert.  Old women, old men, families, mothers, fathers, fat and thin, older and younger, all are stripped for swimming with bathing suits, bikinis, tight swimming trunks, or baggy shorts, most of them carrying drybags containing their clothes, shoes, wallet, phone, keys, and such necessaries.  Some are pale, some tan, some muscular, some not, as they stroll along the sidewalk towards the entrance zone near the easternmost bridge. For some this is the first round of the day. Other are returning from downstream to have another go at it. This could go on all day. It is a perfect way to spend Sunday in Basel in July.


At the water’s edge, thirty to forty people gather in greater or lesser stages of preparation for departure, dressing, undressing, removing shoes and packing drybags.  They enter the water gingerly at first, splashing themselves to accustom their skin to the water temperature.  Some duck under and emerge just as suddenly, throwing back their heads and blowing water out of their mouths.  A Swiss boy throws his drybag into the current and launches out after it as his mother scolds him and his father laughs.  Two German girls coo and cluck about the cold. A couple of hairy-chested Italians egg each other on, and then dive in together.  Their faces burst forth from the water at the same time and they explode in laughter.  Older couples hold hands and step out over the stones until the current lifts them off their feet and their mouths stretch into smiles and I can hear them softly chuckling as they float away.  A couple embraces with a lingering kiss as through they have the river to themselves.  A little girl with a foam tube belly-flops into the river and screams with delight as her father tickles her feet.  An entire family joins the stream and goes bobbing away with a swirl of laughter and chatter and squeals.   And everywhere I hear German and Swiss German, French. Italian and English, among other languages I don’t recognize.


The current is strong and the water is cold.  I want to wait for Sebastien and Malvena, but I am already in the water and I can feel it pulling me downstream.  I let myself go and feel my feet lifting up.  I try to swim against the current, but as I watch the shoreline, I can see that I am hardly even slowing myself down. The water is too strong.  I let myself drift, and lean my head back on my drybag, taking in deep breaths to keep my body afloat, and watch the city of Basel drift past me, apartments with terraces, windows with bright shutters, the Münster, the bridges, the vendors and the sunbathers on the stone banks and the scent of sweet water and the sounds of people swimming and splashing and laughing all around me.



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