Wednesday 23 April 2008

Sudden singing

I'm sitting in a bar in the University of Limerick, and some people have just showed up and started to sing (check out the mini-movie I've just made, scroll to the bottom).

It's kind of great, just wandering around all these buildings of activity, you never know what you might run into. They started to build a marquee in the front square a few days ago, a big production involving cement blocks, prefabricated sturdy walls and very carefully laid carpet (I watched him unroll it very carefully, today). Nobody seems to know what it's about. I've overheard conversations that go a bit like this:
"I wonder what it's for?"
"Probably some ball or something."
They peer in the window.
"It looks nice."

I've wondered the same thing. My first guess was some kind of graduation ceremony, but they've probably got somewhere fancier for that. So it's a mystery. And we walk closer together now, as we navigate the small path around the large white marquee of mystery.

I haven't been to the Olympic-sized pool yet. Not since my first time there, about 2 years ago, when I wore goggles and got a fright when I actually looked through them. 50 metres can look more intimidating than the ocean, to me. But I love saunas, and steam baths, ever since I fell in love with the Scandinavian model of hot and cold, in Denmark. Of course it's the Finns that invented the sauna (cool fact: there are three million humans in Finland, and one and a half million saunas.. everyone's got a sauna in their house/flat/dorm). But there are some old institutions in Denmark, some old art deco places that I loved deeply, profoundly, as often as I could. The Badanstalt (a gender separated old bath house from the turn of the 19th century, featuring a gorgeous large old wooden sauna in three tiers, and a mint green tiled changing area, with little curtained cubicles, and shredded wood slivers to exfoliate, and always a thermos of tea for whoever is hanging out naked in the lounging area, all for 25 kroner, or a little over 3 euros) was my version of a local pub. People smoke very heavily still, in Denmark, and pubs are very smokey, so I didn't spend much time in bars while I lived there. But I did spend lots of time in the Badanstalt.

The Badanstalt reaches back into the time when private houses and flats (mostly flats in Copenhagen, industrial living goes back a long way there) didn't have any private bathrooms. A block of housing units inhabited by several hundred people might have had a couple of jacks round the back, in an outhouse (an enticing prospect, in the Danish winter) much as things were in many western european countries, except for the fact that as recently as the seventies, these outhouse toilets still existed. I have been in flats there that had a toilet, but no bath or shower. And Danish showers are of course, uber functional anyway, the shower is commonly taken on the bathroom floor itself, which is tiled, and excess water wiped away. New York city bathrooms, even with their expert compression, could learn something from the amazingly minuscule yet innately beautiful, Danish bathrooms.

So what did people do to bathe? Well, they went to their local badanstalt, where they bathed communally, men with men, women with women. Children probably went with women, but I would imagine small boys sneaking upstairs to the men's section at the earliest opportunity, only to be trying to sneak down to the women's just a few years later... oh the fickleness of the human organism. There was a badanstalt in each of the city's main neighbourhoods, or bydeler, as they're called over there. And people went to bathe, to use the sturdy lovely saunas, and to socialise. Well, all of Copenhagen's badanstalter are gone, except for the one on Sjællandsgade, in Nørrebro, traditionally the working class neighbourhood of Copenhagen, recently become trendified and gentrified, of course... and the badanstalt struggles to survive. Every two years or so, some government officials try to close it down. Its faithful clients battle back. I remember hearing about one such threat, there was some kind of an image that came to mind under a cold shower moment (which were always my favourite moments) to consider chaining myself to the door of the Badanstalt, naked, mud covered, Irish. Twas not to be. Not yet, anyway. But this week I have asked all the major institutions of official bureaucracy in Denmark, to recognise that I have truly and actually, left the building. Hurrah!

So yes, perhaps I'll make it to the swimming pool of scary bigness one of these days, while I'm on campus. Small sauna, mixed gender, considerably chattier, bathing suits required (it's just not the same). It had better be before monday, though. For on monday morning, I fly to Barcelona, for a week and a half.

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