Swamp city

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).

5 thoughts on “Swamp city

  1. I never thought to follow those pipes, only admired them as unofficial symbols of Berlin, and am desperate to try this now with S. And oh, at least they enjoyed Habibi!

    1. J. totally had fun with S. (the serendipitous part of the pumpkin festival), just not the rides or face painting — I took some photos of him driving the little caterpillar train and getting his face painted and stuff, and they’re all so scowly! The excursion took a much better turn when we ran into you guys!

    1. Hmmm, the post going up later tonight is Halloween-related but not ghosty, but I’ll see if I can come up with another ghost post by Wednesday (there have been a few requests for more ghosts)…

  2. Hi there! I have never really followed these pipes with real follow-through, as it were… have walked along them for quite some distance on my way to other places, but have never gone all the way to an end to see water coming out! I was once contacted by a Frenchman, after I posted photos of them online, who was really excited to see them and asked if they were an art installation. He had been in Berlin recently, it turned out, and had not been able to discern their actual purpose!

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