Visiting the Swiss town of Basel from New York, where our rivers are somewhat less than ideal for swimming, it is always wonderful and bizarre to see locals floating down the Rhine after work or even during a lunch break without a care in the world, often accompanied by a floating bag shaped like a large fish holding their clothes.
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I’ve always wanted to learn more about the practice, and so I am delighted to report that the S AM Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel (which shares its home with the Kunsthalle Basel) has a charming exhibition called “Swim City” that dives in deep. Curated by Barbara Buser, Andreas Ruby, and Yuma Shinohara, the exhibition takes up not only the centuries-old history of fluvial swimming in Basel, Bern, Zurich, and Geneva, but also initiatives in cities like Berlin, Paris, London, and—yes!—New York to make the waterways habitable for swimmers. (Most of the initiatives, as you might imagine, remain very much in the conceptual stage.)
There’s also an immersive three-screen video by Jürg Egli that gives one a sense of the magical experience of floating through Swiss cities, and I suspect it will encourage a few new swimmers.
For anyone who needs more convincing about the merits of swimming the Rhine, there are also video interviews with locals including a middle-aged gentleman who proposes that, for those looking to handle a bit of business during the Art Basel fair, the Rhine presents an ideal location. “I really needed to meet someone during Art Basel who didn’t have any time,” the unidentified man explains. “But he wanted to go swimming in the Rhine.” And so, naturally: “I said, ‘Let’s have our meeting in the Rhine then!’”
He continues: “That’s the special thing about swimming in the Rhine: It’s not swimming in the proper sense—it’s floating, drifting. You can easily do it with other people and since you barely need to use your arms and legs it allows you to do other things in the meantime such as [have] a conversation. It’s comparable to taking a stroll along the boulevard with two or three people and having a chat with them.”
The man continues his pitch: “You can come here with people who are visiting Basel and want to see the city. You can tell them everything about Basel while swimming … You see buildings, pass under bridges, and get a glimpse of other countries. It’s great!”