An ode to walking (by an ardent <em>flâneuse</em>)


An ode to walking (by an ardent flâneuse)

Walking, like reading, encourages MARITA VAN DER VYVER to get lost in her own mind, give free rein to her imagination, reflect on life, question principles and engage in self-examination. And to feel heaven beneath her feet.


WHATEVER the problem may be, it can probably be solved by walking. It's not me saying so, it's a recent headline in The New York Times, but I'm inclined to agree. After all, more than 2,000 years ago Hippocrates recommended that you should go for a walk if you're in a bad mood. And if you're still in a bad mood, he added, you can go for another walk.

Who am I to disagree with the father of Western medical science or The New York Times?

The recent newspaper headline was about the actor and travel writer Andrew McCarthy's new book, Walking with Sam: A Father, a Son, and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain. McCarthy, who embarked on a long walking journey through Spain a quarter of a century ago, took the same route as a middle-aged father with his teenage son, and it seems the book he has written about this adventure is going to be another bestseller.

I can only shake my head in admiration. Not just about the bestseller (yes, that too), but about the courage it must have taken to do something like this with your teenage child. As many parents can attest, you have to be brave to tackle any long distance even in an air-conditioned car with a bored teenager. When I wanted to walk a section of the Camino de Santiago with my husband and children about 15 years ago, they laughed in my face.

I had a vision of us all singing, laughing and walking together, almost like the Von Trapp family in The Sound of Music. But I just didn't have that kind of family.

Eventually, I walked alone over mountains and through valleys while they tackled the routes in a car, relaxed by swimming pools at campsites, and sometimes waited under an umbrella in a village square for their panting, sweaty, flushed mother. I stumbled towards them with an overly heavy backpack and blistered feet, and we had something to eat together. It was the hottest week of an infernally hot summer, and my low point was stumbling through Pamplona as sober as a ghost while thousands of drunk and noisy tourists celebrated the annual Running of the Bulls festival around me.

Poor timing, I know. But despite everything — the wrong time of year, the wrong hiking shoes, the unbearable heat that made my feet swell so much that I ended up losing a toenail afterwards (the same catastrophe that befell me almost 30 years ago after a hiking trip in the Fish River Canyon) — that exhausting week on my own in Spain remains one of my most precious walking memories.

Probably precisely because I walked alone.

The power of solitude

There is a reason why avid walkers are often avid readers too. Walking and reading are two of the few pastimes you can still enjoy on your own. People who live by themselves are not called solo walkers for nothing.

I don't live by myself, but when it comes to striding out, I prefer to be a solo walker. Walking, like reading, encourages me to get lost in my own mind, give free rein to my imagination, reflect on life, question principles and engage in self-examination.

And for a writer, there's nothing better than walking when the threads of words get tangled in your mind. Just as Hippocrates could have said: If you get stuck with writing, go for a walk. If you're still stuck, go for another walk.

(While I was writing this article for VWB, I went for a walk several times.)

As I walk, my thoughts wander to all the philosophers and writers who have sung the praises of walking through the centuries. Nietzsche's most famous quote, even among people who know nothing of his philosophy, is various versions of a sentence he uttered about walking: All great thoughts are formed while walking. Kierkegaard wrote that there is no thought so weighty that you cannot walk away from it, and he tried hard to walk away even from fear and trembling.

A century before these two gentlemen, Immanuel Kant was already a brave walker, in his case the same route at the same time every day, so regularly that his neighbours supposedly could set their watches by the hour and minute when he passed their houses.

Changes of pace

This type of walking would drive me to madness within a month. I have friends who walk more or less the same route every day at more or less the same time, usually in a suburb or a spacious park or around a dam, accompanied by dogs or fellow walkers. They claim they need that regularity and discipline, otherwise they would stay in bed or get stuck in front of the TV. For me, it would feel like reading the same book over and over again until I can recite it from memory.

Sure, there are books we can read over and over again, but what about all the other wonderful books I still want to read? Just as I enjoy reading books in different genres — literary fiction or memoirs, crime novels or humorous essays, depending on my mood or what is available — I also seek different genres as a walker.

Walking alone is completely different from walking in a group. Wandering through the busy streets of a big city is different from walking on an expansive beach. Walking up a mountain requires much more breath than walking on a flat path in a field, and walking in a European forest is not the same as walking in the South African bush.

In rural France.
In rural France.

Blisters and slippers

Long ago in South Africa, I embarked on challenging backpacking trips with friends at least once a year. I was never fit enough, and the result was usually a mixture of great fun and deep pain, but I remember the fun much better than the pain.

The stories told around a campfire at night, the times when everyone shed their inhibitions and stripped naked to jump into a pool, the jokers and the complainers, the super-fit girlfriend who walked faster than the rest just so she could sit on top of the hill and smoke while waiting for the stragglers.

The foodie friend who didn't pack any clean clothes so he could fill his entire backpack with the most delicious food (including a roasted chicken), and at the other end of the culinary spectrum, the girlfriend who didn't want to carry any food except for a can of powder that could be mixed with water for “drinkable instant meals". By the first evening, she was so hungry that she offered the foodie friend with blisters on his feet a pair of slippers in exchange for a piece of his chicken. By the second day, the foodie friend's feet were in such a state that he couldn't put on his shoes, so we quickly helped him get rid of the remaining food in his backpack and tied the slippers with ropes around his ankles, like ballet shoes with ribbons, so that he could walk to the nearest “emergency exit" of the mountain trail.

That image of the slipper-ballet shoes on a steep path still makes me smile.

Walking without haste

In the past 20 years in Europe, I have not walked in groups, and most of my hikes no longer involve heavy backpacks and blistered feet. I prefer to walk a few kilometres daily, or a few hours at the weekend with a light backpack filled with picnic food, mostly on my own or with my husband. Sometimes even with one or more of our adult children, who have truly become hikers themselves.

That lazy teenage son who laughed at me when I invited him to walk the Camino with me walked for six weeks three years ago with his girlfriend on a French pilgrimage route, from Le Puy-en-Velay almost to the Spanish border. He carried a massive backpack that even contained a tent and camping equipment.

I can once again only shake my head in admiration. Perhaps it's proof that children learn from the example set by parents, even though you would never guess it when they are teenagers.

These days, my favourite type of walk is a “randonade," a word I created out of ignorance, much to the amusement of my French relatives. It's halfway between the length and exhaustion of a “randonnée," which in English we would call a hike, and the comfortable brevity of a “promenade," which is understood in both English and Afrikaans. Perhaps a randonade is simply the rural version of what flâneurs would do in the city. The French verb “flâner" means to walk without haste while appreciating everything around you with all your senses.

The moment I find myself in a city, I become a dedicated flâneuse — even more so after a friend gave me Lauren Elkin's book, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City. The shout on the cover, by Deborah Levy no less, describes Elkin as one of our most valuable critical thinkers, the Susan Sontag of her generation. That was enough to make me eagerly dive into the book, and from the first page it was pure pleasure.

Elkin writes in protest against a long tradition of male writer-walkers — “As if a penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane" — and leads us in the footsteps of famous creative women through famous cities. We walk with Virginia Woolf through London, with George Sand and Jean Rhys and the filmmaker Agnès Varda in Paris, with the photographer and conceptual artist Sophie Calle in Venice, with the war correspondent and lifelong traveller Martha Gellhorn (the third of Hemingway's four wives) in Madrid, and, of course, with Elkin herself in every city she writes about.

A flâneuse, according to Elkin, is “a determined, resourceful woman, finely attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk". A creative, walking woman, therefore, who changes her own life step by step. A definition that I often thought about recently as I embarked on a so-called grey gap year with my newly retired husband.

In New York.
In New York.

A spectacle that never gets boring

During the 15 months of our senior wandering on three continents, I've walked through many famous cities, some for the first time, others for the umpteenth time. The pedometer app on my cellphone shows that I've averaged 20km a day in cities such as Rome and Florence, Athens and Edinburgh, New York and New Orleans, Washington and San Francisco. And every time, I've realised anew that there is no better way to get to know a city (or yourself and your own limitations) than with bold and steady steps.

Now that I'm back in the French countryside, where I sleep in the same bed under the same roof every night, my cosmopolitan flâneries have turned into peaceful randonades in nature. Far fewer people and manmade things to observe, but still never a dull moment. My walking routes take me past colourful cows and long-haired ponies, donkeys and sheep, sometimes a small deer that quickly runs away, and just the other day, to my astonishment, a huge kudu that stood and stared at me challengingly.

And the landscape constantly changes, especially now in spring. Bare branches adorned overnight with pink blossoms, green elderberry bushes suddenly filled with creamy white flowers, a field full of red poppies where just a month ago there were splashes of golden yellow dandelions, white daisies and purple wild sage against the hill behind our house, and the first yellow patches of broom flowers along the fences by the road. Even if I were to walk the same path every week at the same time of day, the changing seasons, weather patterns, plants, birds and insects would still provide a spectacle that never gets boring.

But I'm not yet ready for such regularity. I am still far too curious about all the other walking routes further from home.

(And now I'm going to walk again because I don't know how to conclude this story.)

It worked. While walking, I remembered that the American Henry David Thoreau, another famous thinker-walker, claimed that heaven is not just above our heads, it is also beneath our feet. And now I remember why I want to keep walking, in forests and in cities, on beaches and over mountains (although preferably not too steep). I want to continue feeling heaven beneath my feet. Step by step, for as long as I can.

♦ VWB ♦

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