I always assumed that draining a swamp was a one-time deal. You drain the swamp, it’s not a swamp anymore, you build a city on top of your new not-swamp. But the pink-and-purple pipes in Berlin have taught me otherwise: however long you build on a swamp, the groundwater stays just below the surface, where it needs to be pumped out of every new construction site. In Berlin this job is done by above-ground pipes in Easter egg colors that carry the water to the nearest canal. Apparently a lot of people take these pipes – especially the ones at Potsdamer Platz – for a Centre Pompidou-style art installation. This weekend I discovered that following one of these pastel pipelines until you find the canal into which it is dumping swamp water can make for a surprisingly fun kids’ activity.
Not only is Berlin swampy, it is essentially named “swamp city”: the root berl- means “swamp” in the intriguing-sounding extinct West Slavic language Polabian. Last Saturday my son and I were cycling through Mitte, the heart of the swamp. He was in a scientific sort of mood – he’d insisted on packing a magnifying glass in his jacket pocket – and wanted to stop to look at a building site. Once there he was drawn to the swampwater pipes, perhaps because the colors pink and purple attract small children. I explained what the pipeline was for and we started following it. It snaked across lawns and between buildings and along sidewalks until it emptied out into the Spreekanal. Just before the canal you could hear the rush of the water if you put your ear next to the pipe.
One of the great effortlessly defiant things about children is that how much they enjoy a given activity rarely correlates with how fun for them adults have deemed it. They totally defy the distinctions grown-ups draw between Designated Special Fun and the quotidian. You drag the kid across town to see the new baby elephant at the zoo and she’s only interested in the line of ants on a tree near the elephants. You take the kid on vacation to Spain and he remembers it only as “where I ate a croissant with chocolate sprinkles on the train”. My son enjoyed the swampwater pipeline far more than the carnival rides and face painting at the pumpkin festival I took him to the previous weekend for the Express Purpose of Children’s Fun.
Also: if you are interested in both construction materials and the colors pink and purple, or find yourself in Mitte with a three-to-six-year-old, I recommend checking out the pile of piping components currently on Schlossplatz (as seen in photos above).