Persuading Maman to Take the Plunge

The Danube is one of Vienna’s greatest assets on warm summer days – but it can take some time before one dares the first dip.

Growing up on the French Atlantic coast, for as long as I can remember, sand and saltwater have shaped my life. So when I moved to Vienna, I missed it – no seaside, not even a lake. What a disappointment summer would be!

Then, I remembered the famous waltz, An der schönen, blauen Donau. Thanks to Johann Strauss II, I was reassured! If the Danube was beautiful and blue, swimming in it should be as nice as the ocean! Well nearly, anyway. And sure enough, I spent all summer riding my bike along the Donauinsel’s 21km, enjoying nature and the beautiful bleu – or maybe dark green – Danube.

But when your French mother comes visiting, swimming in a strange body of water anywhere in the vicinity of swans – famously territorial and belligerent – is an altogether different story. Persuading her to dip into Central Europe’s longest river was not going to be a cakewalk, I realized, as we were sitting in front of the Gloriette pond overlooking the city. The July sun was pounding down hard on Sissi’s garden. So as sweat trickled down my neck, I threw the idea on the table: “So… let’s have a typical Viennese experience!” I said, pushing the enthusiasm. “You’ve brought your bathing suit with you, right?” She looked at me skeptically, and reluctantly nodded back.

While the U6 took us eastward, I tried to reassure her with a bit of context: The Donauinsel is a 37 km artificial island created in the ’70s and ’80s to prevent floods, with wonderful walks, bike trails and a nature preserve, I told her. But some of the most charming spots for swimming were beyond, in the Old Danube, which got cut off from the main channel when the river was dredged the first time over a century ago.

“And that,” I said, with bravura, “is where we are going now!” But maman was not impressed. After all, she is a “sea person,” and didn’t regard a “stagnant pool of water” as anything to get excited about. But people can change, right?

Island In the Sun

Actually, judging by the look on her face as we stepped on the Lagerwiese, not really. Then again, at 35 degrees and with a bustling crowd, it was hardly inviting. After 15 minutes of noisy kids screaming and the unmistakable aroma of a “herbal cigarette,” we decided to move on. So far, my first attempt was a complete wash out.

We headed back to the Donauinsel, enjoying the unspoiled nature as cyclists and rollerbladers passed us by. Sunny and peaceful, we felt miles away from the city – a far cry from the previous spot. As luck would have it, we stumbled on one of the blue pontoon platforms that sporadically line the Neue Donau… And it was unoccupied!

We laid out our beach towels, as I opened a tepid can of beer. “I told you,” I prattled, “when in Wien, do as the young Viennese do! Ottakringer or Gösser?” Maman chose the former. Still, I could see she was unconvinced. So I finished mine and dove in, resigned that my bribe hadn’t worked. Happily, it turned out I was wrong – just minutes later, Maman followed suit, cannonballing into the water, as if to say: “Make hay while the sun shines! YOLO!”

Had my beer gambit worked? Not for long. As soon as she resurfaced, her panicked face screamed, “I can’t see anything underwater! Things are touching my legs!” And she left as quickly as she went in. Tired of adventure, we ended our excursion at Copa Beach drinking mojitos, somehow channeling Havana in the shadow of the DC tower … typical Vienna.

Truth be told, I am not sure whether the day was a failure or a success. How do you persuade your French mother to enjoy a swim in the Danube? I am not sure I’ve found the answer. Surely river swimming is not for everyone, with their murky waters and underwater plants wrapping around your legs – and clearly not for my mom, not even with the beautiful blue (or is it green?) Danube on my side.

Emma Hontebeyrie
Emma Hontebeyrie
Born and raised in France, Emma graduated with a degree in Cultural and Humanistic studies. Since summer 2020, she has been living in Vienna where she is currently an editorial intern at Metropole. She is also working on podcast production for the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (Vienna) and Radio Libellules (Bordeaux).

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