A moment ago I sat down to jot some ideas about the act of walking. It took seconds before I stood up again and paced to a balcony overlooking the sea. The scenery urged me to stroll down and begin a long and pleasing journey. Pilgrimages, expeditions, contemplating strolls: The act of walking has always been man’s way of relating to the world. It is said to be an active presence of body and mind, an amateur act, a simple joy, a ritual. From Diogenes and the Peripatetics to Rousseau, Kant, Kierkegaard and the figure of the European flâneur, the history of walks and walkers is long and rich. Here are a few examples of characters who have truly roamed around.
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When we go back and seek out ancient examples of walkers, we inevitably stumble upon the Greeks. The Muses had to cross a colonnade or peripatos to reach Apollo’s temple. If you look up peripatetic in the dictionary, you’ll find words related to walking and traveling. This gave Aristotle’s school its name, and the idea of ambulatory lecturing was born. The connection between walking and thinking is present and ageless. Bipedal movement conveys a sense of space and time. It is not only practical but also philosophical; just notice the rhythm of your steps, your heartbeat and your breath as your thoughts begin to drift and wander.
As Thoreau explored the woods, he hoped man could become a part of nature. In Walking, his 1863 treatise, he reminds us how the simple act of walking can connect “wild men with their wildest dreams,” and how walking is not only physical mobility but political and spiritual as well. In Rebecca Solnit’s outstanding Wanderlust: A History of Walking, there is a chapter called “The Legs of William Wordsworth.” Solnit talks about how Wordsworth links walking with everything from nature and poetry to poverty. The Romantic even set off on a 2,000-mile journey on foot. For him, the rural won out over the urban; in his words, “Happy in this, that I with nature walked/Not having a too early intercourse/With the deformities of crowded life….”
I find nothing more pleasing than arriving in a foreign city and setting off on an aimless stroll, looking at signs and façades, hearing unfamiliar voices and brushing by strangers. In Open City, Teju Cole’s Nigerian narrator wanders the urban grid of Manhattan, allowing the city and its inhabitans to give him insight. Two hundred years before Cole’s Julius strode through New York City, Søren Kierkegaard was famous for his pensive walks through Copenhagen. Jean-Jacques Rousseau also meditated best while walking. He would take solitary strolls through the Bois de Boulogne both to see and to think. Urban wandering might not be the same as rambling through bucolic landscapes, but both encapsulate a spiritual and physical aspect of human experience. One open to all, boundless and inspiriting.
The Oxford dictionary definition of the French noun flâneur is “A man who saunters around observing society.” The first time I was captured by the word was when reading Jorge Luis Borges and his sublime description of an abandoned neighborhood in Constitución. When Walter Benjamin highlighted Baudelaire’s notion of the flâneur in the 20th century, he brought the modern urban explorer to the eye of attentive scholars. In Robert Walser’s magnificent The Walk (Der Spaziergang), the writer embarks on a journey through a provincial Swiss town encountering all kinds of unexpected characters. Even though flânerie has become more difficult these days, if you open your eyes, you’ll see there are still some passionate wanderers among us.
The 21st-Century Walker
Everyday life in a city may not be as it used to: Everything from globalization to smartphones has changed the look and feel of urban sidewalks. But that has nothing to do to with getting up one fine morning and having the urge to take a walk. In a matter of seconds you can hurry out into a street and encounter a stranger, a bright sky or a colorful display of cupcakes in a patisserie. You have permission to stroll, to wander, to look, to think and enjoy your thoughts and meditation. This is what makes walking so amazing and enduring. Perhaps it is time to leave the desk and take a stroll before the sun’s last ray is gone.
By Susana Lay for Savoteur
Susana loves long walks and sometimes loses her voice while teaching literature classes. She reads Anthony Browne Gorilla to her five-year-old son and researches universities with her 18-year-old son. She loves to write, watch movies, eat and sleep. She also loves to travel and to write about her travels. You’ll never know where to find her — most of the time, she herself doesn’t know.
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