Ask an Englander what he likes best about Germany and he’ll say Bier, Wurst and trains that run on time. Most Brits haven’t travelled on Deutsche Bahn. But any Brit who has ever lived in Germany will tell you this country is Weltmeister for one thing in particular - outdoor swimming pools.
When I first came to Germany I thought a Freibad was just that – a free bathe. I soon discovered you have to pay – but not much. Most public pools cost less than three Euros, leaving plenty cash for pommes, pizzas and other poolside goodies.
Most Brits associate open-air pools with their worst childhood memories, either on holiday at some awful campsite or in their school pool, with its bitterly cold, piddle-green water. Or worse still, shivering on the poolside all lesson as a punishment for splashdiving.
Not in Germany, where school kids actually seem to enjoy lessons at their local Freibad. Kids obediently swim alongside poolside teachers, armed with clip boards and stop watches. Good German discipline. Kein Splash-Diving.
The pools are run with military orderliness – and are sparkingly clean. Toilets all have McDonalds-style tick-box charts on the wall, with an official stamp and signature showing how often they’re cleaned. And they smell better than McDonalds too.
Brits marvel at the wonderful network of open-air pools because there are so few in the UK. London, for example, has a population of around 8 million but only 15 open-air pools. Munich is eight times smaller in population but has twice as many outside pools. In my area alone there are four within almost walking distance, including an olympic-size pool and a Waldbad in the middle of the forest.
Older Germans are particularly keen swimmers. Frühsportler arrive at 6 o’clock in the morning and plough up and down the pool as if they’re training for the Olympics. Don’t dare get in their way - they can get quite angry. Middle-aged Germans, on the other hand, don’t actually go to swim at all. They just lie, read, eat salt sticks and watch. Some even bring their barbecues. They seem happy spending all day lazing around on the “Liegewiese” – a lovely green lawn next to the water.
Our local town has only 14,000 burghers but a pool lawn almost the size of the English Garden in Munich. It feels like a park too. There’s almost always someone pushing around a lawnmower or trimming hedges. And it’s über-tidy - Germans don’t know the word litter lout.
I’m not sure what swimming arrangements they’ve made in London for the Olympics, but I think we could learn a lot from the Germans.