Bodies of water

Dunja Kaczmarek was born in Yugoslavia in 1989 and moved to Australia with her family as a baby.  Dunja is one of the Founding Co-Editors-in-Chief of be:longing and enjoys interacting with others who feel similar connections to other places and cultures as she does.


Image: © Dušica Milutinović, 2017

“Namaži se, Marija.  Je l’ si se namazala??”

Ooh.  Well, had she?  The young mother’s question pricks up my ears, her native Serbian words rousing me from my afternoon haze, and now I just have to know what her daughter will say.  Looking up from my book, I clock my eyes onto the little girl, not wanting to miss her response.  The little one had just jumped into the pool, and through dark wet hair hanging like a tangled net over her face, she responds.

“Yeah-eh!!  Tata did it.”


“Just now!  Like two minutes ago.”

“Ok važi, uživaj onda.”

So that was that – all was well.  Dad had re-applied the sunscreen, mum was satisfied, and the girl could now go back to playing with her cousins in the pool.

I chuckle to myself, lift myself up onto my elbows and close my book.  A young Balkan family enjoying a simple day at the pool, and me, lying here nearby, incognito, inadvertently listening in on their familial exchange.  How sweet, and how funny that knowing another language lets you in on others’ lives like this.  Completely direct access.  I like that my lazy afternoon at the pool has been gifted with hearing my beloved mother tongue in the middle of Australia again.

I always love hearing the Yugo accent.  It’s so distinct – different from Czech or Russian or even nearby Bulgarian.  But no matter if the speaker is Serbian like my family or Croatian or Bosnian, or even Macedonian, that accent always sounds so sweet to me.  Like sarma and kolači.

Hearing the family’s exchange stops my train of thought, and now, no longer concentrating on the plot of my book but instead thinking about young families and sunscreen, I put my book down and get up from my towel, heading to the pool’s edge.  It’s time for another swim.  I was starting to overheat anyway, the concrete around the outside pool at Phillip Swimming and Ice Skating Centre radiating around the grounds.  A swim will cool me down nicely.

Stepping into the water, I get to my mid-thighs and lean my forearms down into the water, bringing handfuls of water up to my arms, stomach and back to help acclimatise them before plunging them fully into the cold water.  You’ve got to wade into bodies of water.  No sudden dives in my world.  And no rush this afternoon.

After a minute or so, I suck it up and bow my upper body down into the water, then let gravity take the rest of me all the way in.  I start my lap of breaststroke up and down the 50m pool, navigating my way past the young Balkan dad (uncle?) supervising the little girl and her cousins in the water.

The breaststroke I swim isn’t just any breaststroke.  It’s a slow breaststroke; the signature breaststroke of my mama and me.  Calm and enjoyable, I learned it from my mum by osmosis, and together we’ve really perfected it over the years.  These days it feels like we could swim across an ocean with it; with how little effort it takes.  It’s just fast enough to keep us afloat, but not so fast that our heart rates go up.  We could do it for hours.

Our breaststroke means a lot to me, for some reason.  It’s sweet.  Cute.  Makes me feel warm inside.  And every time I do it, it reminds me of our holidays in Montenegro over the years.  With each slow, rhythmic stroke, I think of our cousins in the Bay of Kotor, and of Julys and early Augusts spent at their local beach, stepping over the small pebbles and into the deep Adriatic blue, with tall mountains hugging us all around.

I love that you can swim a lazy breaststroke in the sea in Montenegro.  The Adriatic.  It’s like a pool out there.  A deep blue pool, calm because of the fjords that make that area of Europe so special.  You can breaststroke to your heart’s content, and float on your back, and never have to worry about a wave dunking you into the sand.  Breaststroke just doesn’t cut it here in Australia, with the wild Tasman and Pacific pounding wave after wave into the shore on my local south-eastern coast.  You’ve got to have a pretty solid freestyle and the ability to body surf if you want to jump into the water at Malua Bay or Broulee.

But like the Adriatic, you don’t need a strong freestyle at a pool either.  I think that’s why I love Canberra in the summer.  It doesn’t have a beach, but it has plenty of pools, and I can do my lazy breaststroke in them, and that’s all I need.  Man do I love pools.  And swimming like this, and days like this, too.  Despite it being a hot Canberra Saturday, Phillip pool is basically empty.  I guess that everyone is either keeping cool in the aircon inside, or else driving up and over the Clyde to get to Batemans Bay and beyond.  Me, I’m only too happy to be in Canberra.  I have books to read and manicures to give myself, and my local pool to visit.  And man does it feel nice being in the water this afternoon.

I finish my reverie about the same time as I’m finishing my lap.  I went all the way up and back, and now I’m in the shallow end again, and I watch as a woman – maybe 60 or 65 years old – walks along the shallow end of the pool, past the mastheads.  I touch my feet to the bottom of the pool and head towards the exit steps, letting my legs do the work and my arms drag along in the water behind me.  When I get to the exit, the woman is standing on the third step down, the water up to her mid-thighs and her arms dipping in and out of the water to get her upper body ready for the plunge.  A popular ritual, it seems.  As I had watched this woman enter the pool complex, I had thought to myself, still swimming, ‘how lovely – another pool-loving soul, here by herself to enjoy a dip in the early afternoon.  Just like me.’

As I approach her, I smile, and she smiles back.  Venturing to speak – as if my smile had asked her a question – she says to me, somewhat sheepishly, “I taking my time.  Is too cold for me!”, and giggles.  My ears prick up again, picking up yet another Balkan accent.  What?!  What are the chances.  How beautiful!

“Oh, take your time!”  I giggle back, and then add, happy to be able to pass on my own pool-time manifesto: “There’s no rush.”

Passing her up the steps, we make eye contact and smile at each other again, and then I step up and out.  I pop my thongs back onto my feet and walk back to my towel, thinking about how small the world is.  Three distinct Balkan groups – the young family, this woman, and myself – all at the same deserted pool on the same hot, long Saturday in Canberra.  What a lovely coincidence.

© Dunja Kaczmarek, 2020