Updated: Apr 19
It somehow feels right to leave my stripy togs in Copenhagen to be recycled. On the last day here, after nearly three years away, I put them in a recycling bin, saying goodbye to winter, but also to COVID-19. The water is five degrees Celsius cooler and spring a month later arriving than in London, which is where I am heading tonight. The short flight back to the UK is a fast track to springtime and away from what has been a mild winter. The pandemic? Well, Copenhagen is open for business and leisure, for swimming pleasure, the corona-years now being fast forgotten in a sort of social amnesia – no-one wants to talk about it and I have quickly learned not to ask.
Apart from the swimming – the winter swimming club I am a member of has a membership of two and a half thousand people, and a waiting list of three thousand. The waiting lists are huge, bigger than ever before, at every club in this swim-city, population nearly one point four million. There are many places to swim here that are free, and during my stay I visited three of them, witnessing a steady stream of people coming for their daily sanity-fix of cold water, then dressing and disappearing into the day or the evening. The corona-burst of enthusiasm for winter swimming has been as big here as anywhere.
So goodbye to winter, with its many pleasures intimate and large. And goodbye to COVID-19? Because it seems to be normalising fast, even though people are still dying, people are still catching the disease, the scale and intensity of effect is small enough to treat it like getting influenza. Friends I have met here, Anne-Katrine, Esther, are very happy to hug, and do so like it’s something to be relearned. At the start of the pandemic I was due to come to Copenhagen, but cancelled the trip along with so many more trips, on a surreal Saturday morning when it finally clicked that I would be going nowhere fast, nowhere far, for a while unspecified. It has been good to be here in Copenhagen, expanding my horizon northwards again. And my stripy togs? I bought them online soon after my horizons were contracted, to cheer myself up when it became clear that swimming could continue, at least very locally in Oxfordshire, as part of my one opportunity for exercise every day. This for me usually comprised the cycle ride to the river or lake, a swim, and the cycle ride back. This didn't seem to stretch the rules - I wasn’t meeting anyone, going mostly with Pauline or other members of my household bubble. I wasn’t out partying. My stripy togs followed me to many of these swims, spring, summer, fall, winter, and then all over again, as I made waves through the several waves of the pandemic, never close to surfing the pandemic waves, often just keeping my head above the water. My stripy togs remained loyal through these two years, through thick and thin, on peak and in trough. I feel shabby putting them into the recycle bin, hoping for them some worthy future - if not to be reincarnated as some high-end elite swimmers togs, then at least as part of the fabric of some shoe, bag or other product using reconditioned materials. I feel that they have a far better shot at that in Copenhagen, where sustainability and sustainable design is part of the DNA, than in the UK where there is still so much to be put in place.
They look tired, my stripy togs, at the end of winter, at the end of the pandemic. The elastic around the crotch has worn out making them close to indecent to wear. The white stripes carry a tinge of brown, a trace, a memory of the water my stripy togs have seen. I apologise to them as I fold them respectfully and place them in the recycling bin. As in Japan, where people attach notes of apology to domestic items they take to second-hand shops, I write my own mental note to my stripy togs. “I am very sorry for sending you for recycling. We have had some very good times together. You have made me smile and you have made others smile too, especially during the difficult times. I hope that in your next life you will be part of something useful and important. Leaving you here in Copenhagen gives you the best chance of that”. With that, I let go of them, promising them also that they will be remembered.
I have a practice, a behaviour, now a tradition, which is to leave an item of clothing behind in any city or country I would like to return to, as if by doing so I have to return to find it. Before the pandemic I accidently left my togs at a swimming place on the Copenhagen Canal called La Banchina. I returned in 2019 to see if they were still there, in lost property – I was disappointed that they were not, but I did go back to see.
Now at the end of winter, I have managed to visit my club, Vinterbad Bryggen, after a long pandemic pause. Like my togs, the place looks tired, even though people swimming here are bright-eyed and enthusiastic for the coming springtime. I have come to catch the last few days before the winter sauna season ends. The pool looks ready for a clean-out, with a thin film of green-brown sea algae clinging to the bottom. I am careful to avoid touching the floor of this small rectangle of water, trying avoid stirring up the algae - the water is otherwise clear, slightly saline, pleasant. I have been swimming usually 400 or 500 meters at five degrees Celsius, to be warmed up in the sauna's gentle dry heat and by the genial cross-conversations of fellow swimmers. Only to go in again for another half that distance again, then to warm up again in the sauna, and to finish with a short cold plunge, invigorated. I leave each day cooked to perfection, glowing and glistening like a warm pastry just out of the oven.
The sauna too looks tired of winter, in need of a thorough scrubbing, which I know it will get. The pool is to close the next day, for a clean-up before reopening in May for the summer season. I walk by on the day after closure, and see a woman is getting dressed inside the pool area; she has come for a swim without a sauna. turn away from the harbourside pool to see the sauna being slowly towed away by a pick-up truck. It seems strange to see this happen – a semi-trailer of a sauna being taken away to its summer resting place. I try to think of where saunas might go and what saunas might do during the summer Maybe it goes to a communal sauna resting place, a place where saunas get to swap stories of their winter season? Maybe saunas migrate north with the warmer weather, as birds do? Winter is shutting down for business here in Copenhagen, palpably so. Having come back, I will be back now more often, imagining my stripy togs being incorporated into a bag or a pair of sneakers cycling past me. Living a new life, literally woven into the fabric of Copenhagen society.