Breaking the Ice: Jessica J Lee Talks About Her Berlin Swimming Memoir, Turning

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Jessica J Lee Ice

During a swim at Orankesee, Berlin, last month we bumped into Jessica J Lee, author of Turning. A few days later we caught up over coffee to talk about her book and get some tips for swimming in and around the German capital.

What’s the most important item in your rucksack when you set out to swim in a Berlin lake in the middle of winter? Thermos flask? Bobble hat? Map? For Jessica J Lee it’s a small hammer – essential for breaking a hole in the ice, of course.

During her year of swimming 52 Berlin lakes, a journey documented beautifully in her swimming memoir, Turning, Jessica perfected an excursion checklist that’s as comforting as it is compact: Boiled egg, cheese sandwich, coffee, swim towel, goggles and one or two friends – as long they share your adventurous spirit and open mind when it comes to outdoor swimming.

The book itself is an elegant hybrid. Part travelogue, part love story, part environmental treatise, it’s one of those deeply satisfying reads that connects you with a swimming kindred spirit and astonishes with its breadth (and depth) of watery knowledge. That’s hardly surprising. Jessica has a doctorate in environmental history and aesthetics, perfect preparation for handling the pressure of publisher deadlines too.

Turning, a Berlin swimming memoir, by Jessica J Lee

Bathing in silk

Reading Turning, I discover that marshy Brandenburg, the region which is home to Berlin, was drained by Frederick the Great with the help of Dutch engineers. Moss can survive even when it loses 98 percent of its moisture. A later chapter heading explains ‘stratification’, the process where cold water ascends to the surface and freezes, shielding the lake from a further fall in temperature. I also pick up some useful German vocabulary: Arschkalt (‘arse cold’) looks like it could come in handy.

There’s also great advice for exploring one of Europe’s most famous regions for outdoor swimming. Although the water in Berlin has an overall softness, each lake has a personality: Carp Pond is like swimming in a painting; Orankesee is a better bet than its nearby cousin Weissensee; and in the summer, Nymphensee is like bathing in silk.

Over coffee, Jessica also offers never-to-be-forgotten survival skills. Treating mild frostbite involves bathing the afflicted areas in warm water twice a day. To overcome chill blains, you should apply a healthy dose of sesame oil and black pepper, although you will end up carrying round an air of stir fry for a few hours after.

Homeward bound

I’m full of bravado for these ice water swims, before Jessica reminds me that she acclimatized to extreme cold when growing up in Canada, where the winter temperatures of minus 30 centigrade make a Berlin winter look positively balmy.

More importantly, her childhood environment is a reminder that Turning is full of questions around identity and what ‘home’ really means. Jessica describes her swimming journeys as “an exercise in being a local, a way of being at home for a traveler with Taiwanese, Welsh, and Canadian heritage.”

Germany feels like home when she is away and one of the most pleasant surprises was the local response to her book. “People in Berlin and beyond really picked up on it. I was pleased that people noticed it, and then delighted when the German press gave it such strong reviews.”

She’s also spotted a change in the Berlin swimming demographic. “It’s great to swim with the established outdoor and winter groups in the city. At the same time, you can see more and more younger people enjoying swimming outdoors throughout the year.”

New adventures

Being a successful author also brings new adventures. With the success of Turning, Jessica is turning her sights towards her next project. At the end of 2017 she travels to Taiwan to research her new book, an exploration of the island’s geography, along with a history of her mother’s family.

Before we finish chatting I get one final tip. If you are out in the woods around Berlin and you see a naked rambler with an axe, try not to worry too much. It’s probably an advance party on their way to smash a hole in a nearby frozen lake for the local swimming group.

There’s a bad joke in there, surely, about breaking the ice, but I leave it behind. More important to get to the hardware store before closing time and find a sturdy, portable hammer. Hellsee, Lubowsee, Krumme Lanke – and Ikea – here we come.

Turning, by Jessica J Lee, is published by Virago

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