“Are you going into that? Now?”
My Mexican-born husband looked at me in disbelief as I headed for the fjord on the very first morning of our holiday. To him, swimming in the North Sea, a slightly southern neighbour to the Arctic Ocean, certainly when one like me went straight from bed to the water, was nothing but pure lunacy.
“Absolutely!”, I said.
Looking for an opening between a couple of jellyfish, I plunged in Norwegian style without checking the thermometer. At these latitudes some things are better left unseen, certainly until after one has safely exited the water. At nearly 14 degrees, summer had certainly arrived in southern Norway. I reasoned that my difficulties in breathing while swimming was due to the fact that we now live in Andalucía on Europe’s southernmost tip, so I was out of practice when it came to ice bathing.
A morning dip or a morgenbad as we call it in Norway is a time-honoured tradition, probably practiced as long as people have lived on our rocky shores. One does not have to go far back in history to find a time when washing one’s body was a seasonal or biannual event, certainly for the masses. Therefore, seawater, like snow, must have been the common man and woman’s alternative, free and abundant for all to partake in. When it came to delousing and ridding oneself of other bodily pests, a fresh swim in near sub zero water would have killed nearly everything as a further bonus. (Actually, some men claim it even kills their reproductive capabilities.)
But why swim in the morning, you may ask? Would it not be better to do it later in the day when one has woken up properly, when the weather is a bit more temperate and when one have had time to psyche oneself up for the daring act? Are we a nation of masochists?
Though the Scandinavians also indulge in ritualistic night swims (nattbad in Norwegian) and other unnamed swims in between dawn and dusk, the morning dip is the most commonly practiced and the most widely cherished.
Take my own family for instance, where my paternal grandfather took to the sea at the family summer residence every morning rain or shine, allegedly even after having his leg amputated. He also started his day with a big slug of seawater, not gurgled down unintentionally while crawling back ashore, but ingested intentionally as his sworn cure-all health remedy. Since he had an abundance of ailments in his latter years, I am not sure how efficient this particular resolve was. However, the tradition of morning dip in the sea was brought down the family line, so that when I now come to Norway I feel that I simply have to jump in the waters first thing or I would let down a veritable mob of sea loving ancestors. Particularly in honour of my aunt Else and uncle Hasse who now have passed on, I feel I must swim out to the weather-beaten pole, cemented into the ocean floor about three-dozen strokes out from the pier. To me, as to most of my ancestors, a Norwegian summer without swimming around the old pole is simply unfathomable.
Generally, the slightly pagan ritual of the morning swim is something we like to do alone, preferably naked and with the sea as our sole companion. From an early age, we the late spawns of the Vikings are trained to brave the Nordic waters, and like any early childhood indoctrination, it often becomes a life-long obsession. There are groups of morning swimmers, such as the unofficial sea dunking society called the Bathing Boys of Oslo (Badeguttene), which name sounds more like a band or a sauna of questionable repute if you ask me. Anyhow, the group, including my 22 year-old son, dive into the Oslo fjord all year around, ice flakes notwithstanding. But the morning dip does not end with the young. Just beneath my mother’s fjord-side flat in the coastal town of Sandefjord, at least half a dozen merry widows also meet every day for a morning swim.
We Scandinavians know that this straight out of bed cold-water immersion is not everyone’s cup of tea. We do not expect foreigner visitors to understand, nor to partake in this rather barbaric tradition. Therefore, when we went to the airport to pick up a couple of Spanish friends who had come for their first Scandinavian holiday, I never in my wildest dream thought I would see them in the water.
Our friend Antonio, a tall and lanky surgeon originally from Madrid, had just celebrated his 66th birthday and kept saying
“In all my 66 years and 3 days I have never eaten shrimps like these”, or “In all my 66 years and 4 days, never have I used a two-seater outhouse before.”
His wife Juncal, a spa owner originally from Lerida also had many first time experiences, such as stepping into a perfect replica of a Viking ship, which to their surprise sat moored and completely unguarded on a pier in the town of Tønsberg. In spite of what many Spaniards think, Norway in the summer is not freezing, nor covered in snow. In fact with global warming, it is rather temperate. Yet, our friends enjoyed the repose from the near 40-degree high heat in Ronda where we all reside. They admired the pristinely clear coastal water and were genuinely surprised at seeing streets and parks without garbage thrown everywhere. They were amused by the fact that almost everybody seemed to follow the traffic rules and stay under the speed limit. Their jaws dropped at the sight of the fresh seafood in the local fish store, and they concurred that the taste of the local fruit and vegetables were second to none, especially the Norwegian strawberries, which the locals of course claim are the best in the world. As expected, they were shocked at the prices, having to pay 5 euros for a coffee or a greasy spoon hotdog. Another first for our Spanish friends happened when we as responsible more-than-mature adults were refused to buy a couple of beers at a supermarket on a Sunday and then the following day were refused to buy the same beverages because it was 5 minutes past 8 pm, which we were told was the deadline for alcohol sales on Mondays. Even this clean law abiding north had its drawbacks, but it was one more item for Antonio’s “Never in my 66 years…” list.
After an excursion to yet another picturesque little fjord town, Juncal said that she would join me for a swim. I would not have believed her, were it not for the fact that her mother was Catalan and her father was Basque, thus she has fiercely independent thinking genes on both sides, in addition to a pinch of feisty Gypsy blood from her great grandma. So, on day three of the Spanish visit my Catalana friend came into the North Sea with me, while the husbands claimed to be on the lookout for jellyfish.
On the very last day of their holiday Juncal told Antonio that if he wanted to swim in Norway, it was now or never. Being late July, the water had now reached a balmy 18 degrees. The Madrilleño could not ignore such a challenge and though he has less body fat than any of us and other things to loose, he came down to the water, embalmed in my mom’s spare bathrobe that we all used on rotation.
“Is it cold?”, he asked me, as I already had done my compulsory tack out to the pole.
“Cold? Heaven’s no!”, I said, “It is lovely!”
At this point it is only fair to come with a small admission. You see, if you ask any bathing Norwegian how the water is, regardless of the temperature we will never, ever say that it is cold. We will use expressions such as refreshing, invigorating, fresh, or maravilloso if you happen to speak to a Spaniard. And temperature notwithstanding, it does feel all the above, particularly after you have gotten out of the water so you can feel your fingers and toes again. It is at this post-bath moment when the real magic begins, as silvery drops of seawater run down your skin, making every cell tingle, saying Yes, I am alive!
Barefoot and disrobed, Antonio drifted carefully out onto the pier and started inching himself down the wooden ladder. Ignoring Juncal’s calls or trusting my long time proven advice to just jump in to save himself a lot of agony, he entered painfully slow. Finally, with a few soundless gasps Antonio was under the water. And as us sea-bathers know, once you are in, it gets better and better. The Madrilleno even joined Juncal and myself in rounding the pole, which for a Spaniard must be the equivalent of swimming across the North West Passage.
With the biggest grin ever, Antonio gave us a new version of his holiday refrain:
En todo mis 66 años …
In all my 66 years and 9 days, I have never before swum in the North Sea!