I will give the Swiss this much; they know how to float.
In the nearby town of Zuchwil, there is a sprawling sports center with tennis courts, mini-golf, soccer fields, ice rink, and a maze of pools. All kinds of pools. Indoor and outdoor. Heated and not-heated. Baby pools and adult-only pools. So many ways to differentiate one pool from another.
There are pools with slides and inner-tubes and kids diving for neon-colored sticks, just for the giggles of it, and lots of splashing and screaming and laughing and some intermittent crying. Somebody always cries. But the girls, just like the boys, are free to wear only swim bottoms and the women of all ages—both mothers and the grandmothers –have wonderfully fit bodies—sensible, modest, whole-grain-responsible-farming-type bodies that look like they have never been sick a day in their life and don’t have artificial preservatives holding together their joints.
They all wear bikinis—not like Americans wear bikinis, because you want to get the most frontage out of your boob job just because it’s a sensible thing to do. And the men, well, the men wear Speedos, of course, and I suppose they find this sensible too, but they all look like spandex targets to me, with hallucinogenic psychedelic swirls that center in the hot-white, game-winning zone: and here, meine Damen und Herren, here is my Swiss penis.
Then there are the pools were toys are not allowed. These pools are for the serious swimmers with swim caps and goggles and giant, water-proofed watches and those dull, athletic swimsuits, and lanes designated by speed. Here are the swimmers who push and pull themselves through the water—not really good enough to look effortless—but they do look determined with their timed breathing and head-switching and pre and post-swim stretching on the side. They are all giving Death the silent treatment.
Then there are the pools for the floaters.
Outdoor, heated, quiet except for the sound of bubbles jubilantly popping to the surface, with willow trees bobbing their hairy heads all around, a serene a view of the Weissenstein Mountain and its bushy greenery rising above, and only the clouds in the sky to set the pace for today’s floating.
I am a floater. There I am in my grandmotherly American swim-dress that sold me with a tag that proclaimed Miraclesuit: Look ten pounds lighter instantly! My mother has the same suit. She tried it on in the dressing room, took one look in the mirror and said, Well, I’m waiting for the miracle, where’s my miracle already? There’s no miracle for me either, but the miracle-suit does what it can to hold in my back fat, and I appreciate that the built-in came with a small crew of pirate-trolls who Ho, ho, hoist up the sails, mateys.
I have a soft body, and a fairly healthy one, of which I am grateful, but it is honestly the kind of body in which one glance will tell you I ate Spam as a child. And Steak-umm sandwiches and Buddig lunch meat. Not just a meat-eater, but an artificial meat-eater. I’m, you know, jiggly. One time, a friend of a friend, upon meeting me over lunch, took one good long look at me and said Gosh, I wonder what your colon looks like.
I ordered the hot pastrami on rye just to make her squirm.
The Swiss have taken floating to a new level. The Wellness Pool is like an Olympic-sized hot tub—with one ingenious difference: you lay down on a bed of pipes and the water jets bubble underneath your entire body. You are floating with even less effort than normal floating because the jets are thrusting your body upward, and your whole body is bubbling at the surface of the water, nearly weightless.
Bubbles are giggling in your ears, the water jets are massaging every muscle in your body, and closed eyes bring a warm orange behind your eyelids and open eyes bring the sight of two falcons, hovering into a headwind, wings not flapping, body tilting slightly in minor adjustment. The falcon is floating on the wind and you are floating on the bubbles.
And it hardly matters that the air jets have inflated the dress portion of my grandmotherly swim suit into a nice rounded puff of front butt that seems to share a deliriously happy affinity with the clouds passing by.
I am watching these two falcons, common kestrels that dwell on the cliffs of the Weissenstein and hunt for small rodents over the farmer’s fields. Now they are soaring in gigantic figure eights with the swoop, the glide, the turn, the choreography of the two—all soundless. When the birds pass each other in flight, I swear something else also passes between them. A wordless knowing, a unity between two creatures united in purpose, and maybe even, a kind of joy, to be together, and maybe even the kestrels themselves have not only the flight, but also the wonder of the flight inside of them. Maybe not even the birds know the secret of their flight.
The birds appear massive, even so high overhead; it’s a brownish-whitish dinosaur-spanned winged creature, with yellow feet, pulled up close to the body in flight. It is this patch of bright yellow, dancing against the pale blue sky, dancing against a backdrop of deep-secreted green on the mountain, above the lively chatterbox green of the farmer’s fields—interspersed with the spent blond of harvested wheat, this yellow is part of the magic and the marvel. The yellow flies, up and down, in and around, and I cannot fix my eye to its motions, cannot predict its course or its curve.
I forget everything when I watch birds. I even forget that I myself am in a rather unusual floating situation. It’s like the feeling of waking from a deep sleep and not knowing where I am—and it doesn’t much matter physically where I am—because my mental state had trumped the physical, overthrowing all notion of space and time, and I am all feeling, gliding on the wind, like a bird, like a patch of yellow against the blue sky, in some sphere that is both not-quite-conscious and yet so hyper-conscious that the material world dissolves. There’s just this dab of yellow, up and down, up and down, impossibly dancing in the air, and my own breath, in and out, in and out, and somewhere off in the distance, in some other place, there are bubbles tickling my ears. And who knows how long it has been this way.
At the indoor family pool there is a rather svelte young fellow making a show of it. He is maybe eighteen years old and three hundred pounds. He is noticeable, not only because there are very few overweight people in Switzerland, but more because he is literally throwing his weight around. He walks the length of the diving board, not looking around him, but aware he is gathering an audience. One flat-footed bounce and he is sprung into the air, all 300 pounds of him, and there, in the air, he quickly forms a cross-legged seated position with arms folded across his chest, almost like a Buddha, blessing Namaste.
But then the Buddha hits the water flat with a raucous splat—he knows how to get the most bang out of his body surface—and the water sucks him under without a thought and spits back a gigantic wave that rises out of the pool like its own tsunami, violently crashing onto the tiles around the edges. He does this not once, but again and again.
The Swiss are dumbstruck.
They have paused all their activities, mid-sentence, mid-throw, mid-towel-wrap—even a serious swimmer sitting on the edge of the lap pool has removed her goggles to see better– and all are looking at the young man. Swiss families are having their finely-packed snack on the sidelines and Vatti (in a Speedo) is freshly-cutting fruit with Swiss army-knife and Mrs. MuttiFrau has brought along the most perfect homemade Bundt cake I have ever seen, whipped light and dreamy with pure butter made from Picture perfect Swiss cows and sepia-brown eggs from free-range chickens, of course, because the Swiss know no other way to treat a chicken. She unwraps it like a present and then, out comes the powdered sugar and the Sifter, mind you, an honest-to-God god-damned metal sifter is in her pool bag, and she is sprinkling the heavenly Bundt cake so lightly, with such loveliness, as the sugar snows upon the buttered crown—and even SHE, even the Mutti-frau, has paused mid-sift, mouth agape, to gawk at the grobber jung.
Grobber jung is what my grandmother used to call this type—and it is a type—they use their weight like a weapon, like a dull knife. In Yiddish it means a really big boy and the boy in question could be eight or twenty-eight. Picture overalls or hefty jeans with reinforced knees and dragging a really big stick behind them. In the neighborhood growing up, we had a pair of brothers, one year apart, but grobber jung twins if ever there were any. The Bundt brothers you think I can make this shit up?—wide and cakey, but made with margarine and high fructose corn syrup and xantham gun. Double Dolly Madison Bundt cakes. They’d troll the block between meals, dragging tree branches like dead weight and looking for something, anything.
My grandmother would pull the curtains back as they lobbied past the house and say: Why do the grobber jungs always have to have a stick in their hand? Are there really so many things in this world to poke? She’d let the curtains fall back in place and say, Lost souls, God help em, they should sit in the sun and eat an apple for a change, and then she’d put her velvety olive face in her velvety olive fingers and cover both eyes—the good one and the blind one—to see that blessing through.
The grobber jung never outgrows his boyhood and his boyhood is somehow intricately tied to his big-ness. There is almost normalization to his obesity, innocence, like a fat toddler would have, sucking down the whole milk like his thirst is insatiable, unquenchable, the well of the belly always running dry and deeeeep. The thirst cannot hide—or be hid—it is the thirst itself that bellies up to the counter and orders its requirements. Or, better yet, the thirst find an all-you-can-eat buffet and deftly piles its plate with savory meats and gravied casseroles glued together ingeniously by layers of mashed potato. America is a country made for the grobber jung. Switzerland is not, and yet, there he is, making his way up up up the tall ladder to the long and windy pool slide. It’s hard not to hold your breath.
There is also mischievousness to the grobber jung, and a pride, like he knows he can get away with things, because he is so damn BIG. And he doesn’t give a shit what you think about it—hence, the showmanship quality of the type, willing to act a damn fool for the sake of it, just because if you are going to look at him anyway, he will give you something to look at.
The only person in the world who truly understands the heart and mind of a grobber jung is his mother. And she’d rather not think about it too much.
And here comes our Big Boy now down the children’s slide and it sounds like God has thrown a bowling ball down from the heavens and I watch the giant metal bolts of the slide wince as he barrels through the orange plastic pipe, and the children in the pool scramble their way to the edges, always looking backward, so they don’t miss anything, and out comes our big boy with a horrendous crash and matching splash. I shudder involuntarily.
Nobody says anything to the grobber jung. He is clearly too big for this children’s slide. And the Swiss are not meek when it comes to making the rules and enforcing them. I look around for authority, always hovering within range of sharp discipline, but everyone is pretending not to see. Everyone is embarrassed, except for the grubber juin himself, and his non-embarrassment increases everyone else’s embarrassment two-fold. And so the grobber jung climbs the ladder to the slide again, like a monster who can’t get enough of his own roar. And the atmosphere at the pool turns heavy, in a melancholic way.
I can’t understand: Why doesn’t the grobber jung float? Seems like a perfect escape from the bodily. To just let it all float, release all the bodily weight, and all the spiritual weight that comes with it. Be a cloud, a bird, a leaf, a fossil, if only for a few moments.
But for all I know it is a Zen moment for the grobber jung to splay the water with the power of a whale tale. What do I know? I am a floater and he is a flopper. Maybe there is a release in hitting the water, an all-over sting that fades to all-over tingling that fades to all-ever erasure of self. The body could be shocked into the sensation of disappearing, or maybe, even for a few seconds, into never-being.
But doesn’t it hurt? Isn’t it like running full speed into a wall, again and again? Is there not some kind of masochistic element to it? And that’s why no one can say anything to him. Because in the end, after the show, after the shock, after the assault to the senses, it’s a kind of self-loathing. The grobber jung is, above all —sad.