On Society, On Travel

Found in translation and footsteps

while back I wrote about the negative psychological externalities of city life: the paradoxical feeling of isolation in claustrophobic environs; dissatisfaction caused by too much choice; and fear of missing out (which has even become a popular acronym, FOMO). If I were re-writing the piece today, I would add ‘busyness one-upmanship’ to the list – another urban pet peeve.

What struck me recently is that the English language doesn’t cater to those trying to convey the need to get away from city life from time to time, for a certain kind of respite. The German word Waldeinsamkeit denotes the feeling of being alone in the woods – a very specific sense of solitude that I believe urbanites crave on occasion. Fernweh describes the need for distance, a kind of homesickness for a place unknown. Staid surroundings can make one feel lethargic.

We can’t express it, and a lot of the time it seems like we can’t experience it either. How does one capture woodland solitude or satisfy the travel bug when in full-time employment in London? The answer may just be found in the wisdom of walking advocates.

Adam Gopnik is a New Yorker writer with a flair for dissecting the banal. In his article Why We Walk, he summarises what other writers have opined on writing as something more than merely a mode of transport. Walking as a sport seems a little far-fetched; however walking to spur contemplative thought is pretty compelling. Recalling briefly his own experience:

“For a long time in the nineteen-eighties, I seemed to do nothing but walk around the city. I was blessed by several bits of new technology: by the first great age of the modern sneaker, for one, which allowed even the flat-footed to stride on what felt like cushioned air. And then the Walkman made every block your own movie. Just as the period of the first flâneurs falls between the rise of gas street lighting, which opened the city to twenty-four-hour circulation, and the onset of the automobile, which made cities loud again, so walking in the nineteen-eighties lay between the invention of the Walkman, which suddenly neutralised the noise of the automobile, and the onset of the iPhone, which replaced isolation-booth serenity with our now frantic forever-on-guardness.”

This side of the Atlantic, Will Self champions the city walk. His articles on the subject argue for reconnecting with the physical environment and people, and not falling prey to the constraints of corporate culture. Similar to Gopnik, he laments how mobile devices have – ironically – disconnected us from the world.

“Her responses to her fellow city dwellers, to the road traffic, to the business of finding her way using a handheld GPS system while listening to music on her MP3 player are all quite normal, and yet, set down like this they seem to me to be indisputably analogous to a clinically defined psychotic state. Like a sufferer from psychosis, our young woman’s conception of reality radically diverges from her environment: she is surrounded by actual buildings, with a defined and apprehensible nomenclature; the people she passes are neither clones nor individually known to her but a mass of strangers; neither these people, nor their vehicles are moving in sync with the music she listens to; and finally: her perception of distance is distorted, while her ability to negotiate her environment is dependent on systems external to her own mind that, for all their technical efficacy, are as opaque to her as the magical rituals of a shaman.”

For me, walking is a joy. Sometimes an adventure. A time for reflection. For new ideas to germinate. Walking can also be a great comfort, helping to alleviate all sorts of emotional stresses and strains.

So naturally, I concur with Gopnik and Self and would offer the following advice to others. Wander aimlessly. Look around you and tune out of the podcast. Put your phone somewhere hard to reach (and don’t buy an Apple Watch!). Indulge in the moment, rather than focusing on where you’ve got to get to or fogging over with nostalgia. Do as the French do, and flâner.

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