Among Berlin’s greatest pleasures is the proximity of the outdoors. In summertime Berliners ride the U-Bahn to Krumme Lanke and Schlachtensee, curving urban lakes surrounded by sandy beaches and tall pine trees that are reminiscent of Scotland. Or they catch local trains to Havelland and the Spreewald, to sail, punt and follow earthen footpaths from which bathers step down to favourite coves.
Winter brings skating, sledging and cross-country skiing. But this year many Berliners have felt cheated. It’s been very cold, yet unlike the rest of central Europe there has been little snow – until last weekend.
On Saturday the whole city seemed to have pulled on their thermal long johns, made a thermos of hot chocolate and plunged out into the brilliant February sunshine. With friends I headed to the Großer Glienicke See, near Potsdam and once part of the West Berlin/East Germany border. On the lake hundreds of Berliners slid, slipped and skated across the glassy surface. Others played hockey around members of the local ice anglers club who pretended to catch fish while indulging their real enthusiasm for glühwein.
As this city has hardly any natural hills, Berliners also crowded the few urban slopes over the weekend. My favourite hill is at Die Insulaner park in Steglitz, south-west of the old Tempelhof airport. The first time my son and I dragged our sledge there, I felt as if we’d stepped into a Bruegel painting. As many as a thousand multi-coloured Berliners were hurtling downhill at breakneck speed on a web of criss-crossing runs. If that wasn’t risky enough, the long, curving main slope cut across all the shorter junior hills. Before our astonished eyes, high-speed teens sideswiped shrieking toddlers. Teetering grandparents crashed into tree stumps. Laughing school kids hurtled towards the foot of the hill beyond which, protected by only a spindly hedge, ran wide Prellerweg with its four busy bus routes.
In wintertime I am often gob-smacked by Germans’ near-suicidal disregard for ‘Health and Safety’. This country has created one of the world’s finest health care systems. Most Germans willingly contribute 15% of their annual income to maintain their health and extend their lives. They take out comprehensive insurance policies on everything that moves, and doesn’t (e.g. apartment dwellers are required by law to protect themselves and their neighbours against washing machine flooding). But when it comes to winter sports, as with Silvester fireworks, Germans abandon all cares for personal safety and throw themselves into enjoyment headfirst (usually without a helmet).
Last Saturday at the Glienicke See I watched in disbelief as a scuba diver broke an access hole in the ice and – with a companion uncoiling a safety line – dropped under the ice sheet. When he emerged twenty heart-stopping minutes later I asked him why he undertook such a dangerous sport. ‘Es macht mir Spaß,’ he replied with a nonchalant shrug. It gives me pleasure.
Why do risk-adverse Germans unclip their seatbelts and flirt with Death the moment snow starts to fall? Quite simply, in pursuit of the joy of being alive. And over (what was probably) this winter’s only snowy weekend, I was with them: gliding over the Glienicke See’s cracking ice on Saturday, and on Sunday pulling our sledge uphill, balancing on the icy crest and then – with a shriek of delicious delight – launching down toward the toddlers, the buses, and into life.
But no matter how long I live here – or anywhere else for that matter -- you’ll never catch me scuba diving under a frozen lake.