schlachtensee (Photo credit: g-squared)

I like to swim in oceans and swimming pools, but freshwater lakes creep me out. They feel slimy underfoot. The reeds around them have snakes. Flesh-eating bacteria can live in them. In high school I lived in a part of Pennsylvania with a lot of quarry lakes, and hated the unsettling feeling of the sudden temperature plunge as you swim out past the point where the lake bottom drops off sharply. That people would believe leftover prehistoric monsters to lurk in the cold depths of glacial lakes does not surprise me in the least.

The area around Berlin has an abundance of both natural and quarry lakes. Many of their names suggest that whoever named them felt much the same way I do about lakes. Here is a small sampling, with literally translated English names:

Teufelssee: Lake Devil

Schlachtensee: Lake Slaughter

Pechsee: Lake Misfortune-or-Tar

Schlachtensee, a glacial trough that is probably the most attractive lake within easy S-Bahn reach of central Berlin and is thus usually packed to the gills on warm days, epitomizes all of my lake fears. Not only is it named Lake Slaughter (or maybe Lake Battle, which is not much better), its lakebed murk is especially slimy, and friends who go jogging around it report a lot of snakes in the reeds.

I used to work with a delightfully eccentric fiftysomething British woman who enjoyed both swimming laps in Schlachtensee and talking about how dangerous it was. “It’s always slender teenage boys who drown,” she would say. “They have too little body fat to absorb the shock of the change in temperature when the bottom drops off.”

“Another boy has drowned in Schlachtensee,” she said at lunch one day. “He was swimming across with his friends and they never heard a thing, just turned round at the far shore and he was gone. They sink like stones, those slender boys, they go down silently.” I gaped at her in terror. My son has such a lanky build that he has to wear drawstring pants every day because all other pants fall down. I began to imagine putting him on a regimen of bacon-wrapped cream puffs and sedentary activities to pad on enough fat to save him from the otherwise quite likely fate of someday drowning in Schlachtensee.  If fattening him up didn’t work, could I perhaps permanently affix a lifejacket to him? I have since learned that drownings in Schlachtensee are less frequent than my colleague made them out to be, but I still intend not to live anywhere near a lake when my son is a skinny teenager.

To end with a linguistic tangent: the German word for quarry lake is Baggersee. Bagger means bulldozer, and is pronounced almost exactly like the English word bugger. We visited my son’s British relatives during his toddler point-out-all-the-bulldozers phase, and I would like to say that it is highly awkward to travel around England with a small boy who keeps pointing in all directions and calling out bugger! bugger! bugger!

9 thoughts on “Schlachtensee

  1. I often feel too sheepish to own up to disliking lake swimming (when in Berlin/Brandenburg/Mecklenburg) since everyone seems to take it as a matter of course in the summer that swimming in lakes is a joy. I’ve even overcome my discomfort enough to swim across a (very small) lake a back – once. But as a child of California I must admit I’m much more comfortable in a nice chlorinated rectangular body of water. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one.

    1. As I wrote this, I was also wondering if aversion to lakes is a California thing — I definitely have a lingering sense that bodies of water are supposed to be either swimming pools or oceans. I’m glad there are other people out there like me!

      1. This just in! A German friend just told me on Monday that she was also frightened of pond swimming as a kid and, as an adult now, is still unenthusiastic. Lakes are ok, however, for “vergammeln,” by which I think she meant lounging around on the shore so lazilyt that you start to rot? I’m unfamiliar with that usage of the verb.

  2. I was also unfamiliar with that use of vergammeln, but it sounds like a nice, safe way to interact with a lake. Sadly, there has been a spike in traffic to my blog due to another drowning in Schlachtensee; most of the traffic I get is from people googling “Schlachtensee dangerous” or “Schlachtensee drowning”.

  3. When I first visited Germany, as a teenager on a school exchange, we were warned over and over not to swim in the lake “even though the German children do it”, as it was too dangerous. So I don’t think your fear is specific to California. The German children loved to swim in that lake, but I was always too scared!

    We Brits are obsessed with health and safety, and swimming in lakes would definitely go against all health and safety regulations. (We were also banned from going on the Rodelbahn down a mountain, as a pupil from another Glasgow school had apparently cracked his head open on this, so it too was out of bounds for health and safety reasons…not to worry, I finally got to go on a Rodelbahn when I was an English Assistant in Dresden a few years later – with a bunch of fearless12-year-olds – and I lived to tell the tale.)

  4. I think Germans are way less risk-averse about a lot of kinds of physical danger. Examples that come to mind are the slippery-jagged-rocks water feature at my neighborhood playground and the low rate of bike helmet-wearing (in Berlin I have often been told, mostly by men over thirty, that I shouldn’t be wearing a bike helmet because it doesn’t look cool – as if they and I weren’t way too old to be any kind of cool that is ruined by a bike helmet). On the other hand, I do appreciate that the German attitude toward danger is healthier than, say, my own country’s batshit-insane relationship with gun violence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s