I walk, therefore I am

I went for a walk the other day.

Not just any old walk, mind you. I spent a day rambling along the coast with a man who is traveling the length of the Mediterranean Sea on foot.

One of our stops while walking the Costa Brava: Pals, Spain

One of our stops while walking the Costa Brava: Pals, Spain

Juraj Horniak calls his quixotic year-long odyssey the 8 Million Steps. His aim: to explore the tradition of slow living in southern Europe.

And what better way to do so than on foot? After all, walking can be a supreme act of slowness.

Nowadays, though, faster forms of transport, powered by engines, winged and wheeled, hold sway. When we do walk, it’s often with a very modern blend of impatience, distraction and hunger for achievement.

Witness the rise of speed walking and power walking. The boom in gadgets for counting steps. Or the wired hordes scuttling along with eyes glued to their smartphones. No wonder the World Health Organization described walking as a “forgotten art.”

It is an art worth preserving. Walking is the workout that Mother Nature designed for the human body. But it also does wonders for the mind and the soul.

When you walk without purpose or haste, with nothing more to do than put one foot in front of the other, you start to see the world afresh. You notice flowers and trees and birds, the shapes of clouds in the sky, hills on the horizon, architectural quirks and flourishes, the faces of passersby.

Quick selfie on the Slow walk on the Costa Brava.

Quick selfie on the Slow walk on the Costa Brava.

You also come to know yourself better, thanks to the internal monologue that is the soundtrack of every good walk.

By relaxing the mind, walking turns on the creative taps, too. Ernest Hemingway went for a stroll whenever he felt deflated by the blank page. “I would walk…when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out,” he wrote. “It was easier to think if I was walking.”

Nietzsche put it more succinctly: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”

A recent study by Stanford University showed that even walking on a treadmill gets the creative juices flowing.

Small wonder then that many thinkers have written about the power and the glory of a good stroll: Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Vladimir Nabokov, WG Sebald, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas De Quincey, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Bruce Chatwin.

As the speed of everything ramps up in the 21st century, a renaissance in walking could even be the first step to kicking the modern habit of hurry.

After all, everyone has their own natural walking speed, their own tempo giusto. You know when you’re doing it too quickly (or too slowly) because it just feels wrong.

The same goes for life in general. When you’re living too fast, you feel out of sorts. When you slow down to your own tempo, everything feels right.

Checking out the frescoes in one of the houses built in the 19th century by merchants spending fortunes amassed in Cuba back home in Begur, Spain.

Checking out the frescoes in one of the houses built in the 19th century by merchants spending fortunes amassed in Cuba back home in Begur, Spain.

 

Done properly, walking can reintroduce us to the idea of living at the tempo giusto. To enjoying what sociologist Franco Cassano described as “the sweet anarchy of inventing your own path, every single moment.”

That was how my walk with Juraj felt. We set off along Spain’s Costa Brava on a morning of blue skies and bright sunshine. Our path meandered up and down hills, through forests and small villages, past ancient stone walls, alongside steep, rocky cliffs rising up from quiet coves and inlets. Parts of the trail had been worn into the ground by shepherds tending their flocks over the centuries.

Stairway to heaven: One of the many inlets and small coves along the Costa Brava.

Stairway to heaven: One of the many inlets and small coves along the Costa Brava.

We paused to marvel at unusual rock formations  and a butterfly of such ethereal colouring that it must have floated in from a Gabriel García Márquez novel. We stopped to gaze at boats bobbing on the glistening, rippled surface of the Mediterranean. Or to inhale the sea air and bask in the simple joy of walking in a beautiful place.

Along the way, we chatted about food, travel, family, books, art, history, music and everything else. But there were also interludes of companionable silence, moments for arranging our own thoughts or just letting the mind wander.

At one point we took a wrong turn and got lost. But neither of us minded since hurry was not part of the excursion. Plus the unplanned detour served up a sweeping view of the coastline we would not have seen otherwise. Finding our way back to the path turned into a small adventure that had us giggling like schoolboys.

After the day’s walk, we spent the evening in a restaurant in Begur, drinking cold white wine and chomping through platter after platter of local seafood, including a “sklop,” a rare prehistoric crustacean that looked like an extra from Jurassic Park.

In one of those delicious twists of fate, the fisherman who had landed the ugly creature that morning was sitting at a nearby table. When he saw us tucking into his elusive quarry, he bought a round of drinks.

IMG_4950_2

Juraj holding up the sklop before handing it over to the chef….

 

I went to bed that night feeling full in every sense of the word. Stuffed from the meal, of course. But my mind, my heart and my spirit were also brimming over.

That is what walking can do for you.

It’s also what makes 8 Million Steps a wonderful undertaking, and Juraj a very lucky man….

The sign says it all, really….

Pit-stop on the Costa Brava

Pit-stop on the Costa Brava

Going Dutch

I’m in Amsterdam now – one of my favourite cities. I love the art, the energy, the architecture, the sense of humour. Small wonder the Dutch capital has inspired legions of painters. Bathed in spring sunshine, the canals, flanked by rows of tall, narrow brick houses and willow trees swaying lazily in the breeze, are achingly beautiful. I always feel like I could happily live here.

Amsterdam could teach the rest of the world a thing or two about being a Slow city. It mixes the dynamism and swagger of a major metropolis with the approachability of a smaller town. Much of that comes from the way its citizens get around. Amsterdam is not in hock to the car. The streets are a buzzing ecosystem of trams, pedestrians and cyclists – and the car is kept firmly in its place.

It’s the cycling that really makes Amsterdam stand out. The city has dedicated paths and traffic lights for cyclists all over the place. The locals bike everywhere. You see businessmen in smart suits pedalling home from work. Or elegant women in high-heels cycling off to meet friends for lunch. Even bad weather doesn’t put them off.

If only the rest of the world would follow suit. Imagine if you could cycle round London or New York or Buenos Aires without fear of being squashed by a bus or an SUV.

No one in Amsterdam wears a cycling helmet, by the way. Apart from the tourists.

In Praise of Snow…

Talk about climate change. Britain is grappling with the largest snowfall in nearly 20 years. London is buried under seven inches of the white stuff – and there are still flurries blowing around outside my window. The country has ground to a halt. In London, there are nobuses, no Tube, no school, nothing.

This is a huge inconvenience for many, but there is also a silver lining. To begin with, children are over the moon to have the day off school. Mine dashed outside in just their pajamas and boots this morning before breakfast. My son declared it the “best day of his life.”

Many Londoners know how he feels. The absence of traffic has changed the whole mood and feel of the city. Streets normally clogged with cars and buses are now full of children (and adults) building snowmen, throwing snowballs and even tobogganing. Neighbours who usually avoid eye-contact are stopping to chat about the weather. This is hardly surprising:Studies around the world show a direct correlation between cars and community: the less traffic that flows through an area (and the more slowly it flows) the more social contact among the residents.

I do not mean to demonize cars. I drive one myself. The trouble is that driving has gained too much ascendancy over walking. For decades, urban life has been haunted by the words of Georges Pompidou, a former president of France: We must adapt the city to the car, and not the other way round.

How wrong can someone be? The city of the future – a truly Slow city – must take a different tack. It must adapt not to the car but to the citizen, to the pedestrian, to human beings. And it shouldn’t wait around for a snowstorm to do so.

By coincidence, this snowfall has hit Britain on the day that alandmark studyon the statechildhood hit the headlines. The report sounds fascinating and flawed, and I will blog on it later once I’ve actually read it. But a quick comment now.

On the BBC this morning, one of the report’s authors blamed the unhappiness of modern British children on career-obsessed parents, competitive schooling, broken families, excessive consumerism etc. But he failed to mention our collective reluctance to let them run around and play outside on their own. If we want happy, healthy kids, then we need to redesign and rethink our cities so that they have plenty of outdoor space for play. And surely reclaiming the streets from traffic must be a first step to achieving that.