Exotic British Masochists

Since I’ve been in Salvador I’ve established the habit of having breakfast at one of the many little bars and cafés in Dois de Julho while reading a local paper. It’s a way of getting me through my morning blues, reading some Portuguese and keeping up with what’s going on. There are always some interesting crime stories which I find fascinating because of the human drama behind them.

Today A Tarde carried a section called ‘The New York Times: International  Weekly’ in Portuguese with various stories from around the world. The one that caught my eye was by Katrin Bennhold. It was a story about the apparently growing popularity of winter swimming in unheated outdoor pools in London.

It was a lively piece, with little comments from the eccentric Brits who brave near-freezing water that apparently makes them feel more alive and less prone to winter depression. The bonding in the little groups of swimmers comes across as they share their enthusiasm and various survival tips. Although winter swimming is popular in a several countries, the article claims the  London swimmers suggested there was something essentially British in taking pleasure in discomfort. The word not used, but clearly applicable, would be masochism.

The piece relates to exoticism, which I have been thinking and reading about. Victor Segalen writes: ‘Peu d’exoticisme polaire’ – there’s not much polar exoticism. But here there seems a clear fascination with an experience difficult to imagine if you live in the tropics. For Bahians reading it here, sitting in 35 degree heat, it must conjure up a strange mixture of fascination and horror. People here do feel the heat, and invest in air conditioning and electric fans to ameliorate it. Drinks tend to be chilled almost to absolute zero. So the idea of coolness is surely at some level attractive. Advertising pictures quite often feature Alpine scenes and snow. Many however also have a horror of the cold, or recount how they found it difficult to put on enough clothes when they were in a cold country. There is a sense of the simultaneous fascination and fear of the unfamiliar experience.

My situation in reading about this is strange. I am from a cold place, reading an article in a hot place, about the coldness of a cold place, served up for the delectation of readers in the hot place, who might find it particularly interesting because to them the cold is exotic. Exoticism is the fascination with otherness, with experience so different it is hard to imagine living it, so foreign that we know we can never own it. Yet for a Brazilian to vicariously experience the bracing thrill of plunging into the winter waters of unheated Brockwell Lido, is to know that life is rich and full of experiences so different, they liberate the imagination. And that is why exoticism attracts us, because it gives an impetus to imagine a different world and a different life, even if we could and would not actually live it. It is about the possibility of another way being.

At the end of the article the swimmers are talking about how to get warm after they have arrived home. ‘How about a warm bath?’ ventures the journalist. ‘You definitely don’t want to do that,’ counters one of the masochists; ‘take a cold bath!’