Sunday, April 16, 2017

drops in the river

here's a post I started years ago but never got round to finishing, that is until I started reading the reprint of Nairn's London and read this quote in his description of the Monument 'the view makes most sense to a stranger in that – unlike most London views – it shows how the city is completely formed by the river yet has turned its back on it'. this brought to mind another city, at least partially, formed by a river:
 
on new year's eve 2012 a friend asked me what was the highlight for me that year. I instinctively replied that it was swimming in the Rhine through Basel.

I'm fully aware that I had been happier at other moments that year, that I had had more fun, felt more alive and been more excited at other times. I also know there are several other things – most other things, really – that had had a more profound effect on my daily life than those few occasions I drifted in that river looking up at the city around me. but had I felt more at peace with the world and my place in it? probably not. and then I'm more at peace with the world than I've been in a very long time.

of course being on holidays had something to do with it, of course being on holidays after having worked way too much all spring had something to do with it, of course being on holidays after having worked way too much all spring and knowing a new exciting job was waiting on my return home had something to do with it.

it was something more than that, though. something about lazily seeing the world going by, of changing perspective and suddenly being in the thing you normally cross over going somewhere else, that was incredibly relaxing. and the city of Basel has done almost everything right in the way they have used that great big resource of theirs.

I remember my first visit to Basel, three years prior: a friend and I had been on a study trip going from Milan via Como, Bellinzona and Chur looking at beautiful architecture and sublime landscapes. the trip ended in Basel where we had a day to take in all the sights we wanted to see and as the city is littered with interesting architecture we set about it with gusto: driving here, taking a tram there, walking this way and walking that way back. in the end we had managed to rack up an impressive amount of sights – in hindsight I barely understand how we managed to fit it all in with it still feeling like a fairly relaxed day – but that time the Rhine was just something we happened to pass on our way somewhere else.

a year later I was back, visiting another friend that had moved there in the meantime, and I realised that far from just being something you cross a lot of the life in the city actually circle around the river; be it the harbour, the medical companies and factories occupying long stretches of the riverbank or the people having a beer out by the river during the evenings.

yes, I know, of course the river as a piece of infrastructure is one of the main reasons there is a city there to start with, but I have never been in a city where the water hasn't been turned into either just a piece of infrastructure or something picturesque you look out on while sipping a coffee or a glass of wine. in Jönköping, my hometown, the lake Vättern is somewhere you can go swimming in summer and a provider of horribly cold northern winds throughout the rest of the year, in Stockholm the heavy traffic on lake Mälaren is routed south of the city leaving the huge expanses of water in the city centre as a picturesque element elevating the prices of apartments while rendering the inner city incredibly cumbersome to get around. but in Basel you have people swimming in the river only 50 meters away from a fully loaded barge, you have that same barge passing the beautiful, current-powered, ferries at a right angle: you have the utterly contemporary and the antiquated and the picturesque co-existing side by side in a way that resembles the city itself.

in this way the quays on the Kleinbasel side with their steps leading down to the water lets you witness the new and old, the beautiful and the ugly as well as leisure and labour all at the same time.

it must be said that the reason we missed most of the river on my first visit was because it is only really on the northern shore, in Kleinbasel, that the city connects with the river. in Groβbasel there is a higher and steeper bank and long rows of houses that hide the river from view in the central parts. the upside of this, from the point of view of the inhabitants at least, is that a lot of the tourists will miss this beautiful stretch of the shore, merely seeing it from one of the bridges or, if they're splashing out on accommodation, while having dinner in a fancy hotel restaurant.

but the inhabitants do flock to the river during summer days: bobbing along in the river – using water-tight bags for their belongings as flotation devices – or having a picnic on the stairs leading down to the water. I guess it makes sense that it's on the northern shore that the city connects with the water as Kleinbasel is traditionally more working class than Groβbasel. and now that things have changed, when connecting to a body of water is suddenly desirable to the middle and upper classes there is the risk of going down the route that London seems to have taken, where the riverside seems to have been taken over by luxury developments, Basel on the other hand have upgraded the quayside making sure it's still a public amenity and all along the river is still used for transporting goods and people. no use is forcing the others out, instead they're all co-mingling, seemingly happily. in a way I guess Copenhagen have tried something similar in the way they've built their harbour baths, but they are only tiny spots in a strait, in Basel it's a stretch of water all through the inner city dedicated just to swimmers.

if I were to guess the fact that the river is harder to reach on the southern side is a huge part in the fact that different uses can co-exist as the natural conditions for swimming is missing along the southern shore so that whole side of the river can be reserved for traffic while the northern two fifths can be turned over to recreation.

it seems the only reason anyone could possibly complain is if you're a drummer wanting to practice on the bongos but in that case I think the rest of the people there are thankful for the ban.

of the cities I've visited Basel is the one that most successfully relates to the water it's situated at; and still I entirely missed the river on my first visit. but I'm not sure it's only a negative thing that tourist miss some spots, at least not from the perspective of the locals.

well, in all honesty we've got something similar here in Malmö, at least in parts of the city: first there's the long sandy beach and the open-air baths at Ribersborg as well as the promenade with steps leading down to the water at Västra hamnen but they're on the outskirts of the city, and Västra hamnen is a very expensive part of town. thankfully that hasn't stopped people appropriating the promenade there and a lot of people from other parts of the city go there for a barbecue and to hang out on summer evenings but compared to Basel it is still peripheral and like in most cities the productive uses of the sea are spatially separated from the recreational ones. so in Ribersborg and Västra Hamnen the sea is a picturesque recreational amenity (and occasional cause of harsh climatic conditions) while in Mellersta and Norra hamnen it's still just infrastructure if, admittedly, picturesque at times. of course you can argue that this is the luxury of having a lot of water, you don't need uses to juxtapose, but I can't help but to think that the city is actually poorer for it.

lastly: sitting on the stairs leading down to the water on the Kleinbasel side, a beer in hand, while seeing the sun set behind Groβbasel is a fantastic way of ending a summer's day.