As the days draw longer, I enjoy my evening walk more. On Monday I strolled along the edge of Cymbeline Meadows towards the sunset, to catch sight of the moon, waxing crescent as it rose. I respect the older trees; here long before me, here long after me, their constancy reassures me.
On what was then the hottest day of the year, Easter Saturday, I was in Paris. And I was wondering why. There were travel advisories as a result of the heat generated by both the weather and a renewed vigour to the gilets jaunes protests. Their feelings of economic injustice had been fuelled by flash-funding fury following the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris the previous week.
With this in mind, I had chosen to stay at a hotel outside the city and to take a bus into the city centre. I was going to meet friends at Rue Saint Maur for the Atelier des Lumières Van Gogh Starry Night projection, and we had timed tickets for the late afternoon. The bus was stopped twice by police; the driver questioned, the vehicle checked. After an hour’s journey, we came to a halt at Opera.
I was ready to walk, having no intention of using the Metro; which I dislike. What I wanted was a calm route through Paris (I know, right? I also want to win a major cash lottery prize); away from building injury porn, running battles between police and protestors, and tribes of tourists. So I walked through business districts, closed for the Easter weekend, as endless streams of police vehicles drove past.
To the soundtrack of sirens, I then walked via Les Halles, through the Marais and on to Square Maurice Gardette, where I found a cafe in the shade and took a late lunch. I drank a large carafe of mint lemonade and reflected that walking is always the answer, whatever the question. I met my friends and we went to the novel, overcrowded, film show.
Afterwards, we walked on together up through Belleville towards Buttes Chaumont, punctuated by my stopping to take pictures of walls. We sat, as guests, to take in hazy, panoramic views of the city from a private hilltop garden near community vineyards while drinking ice-cold water provided by our bemused (we were strangers to him) host.
After we’d eaten well, and cheaply, at a packed Le P’tit Resto in the 20th to the sound of Da Capo Duo, I was offered a lift back to my hotel. The roads were clear, the drive was smooth. I arrived feeling content at a day well spent as I realised that I’d enjoyed a day in a Paris with its people quite different to any before. And I was no longer wondering why.
Last night, I left work with a colleague – we both walk to work and when we work together our paths cross awhile. We chatted about Spring – it was a mild evening for January and the birdsong was loud, there was an air of hope. As we do, we went our separate ways just outside the Roman walls marking the boundary of old Colchester. As he headed due south, up Balkerne Hill, I headed due north to cross the River Colne at the foot of North Hill. I stood on North Bridge and took this view as it took me. The warmth of home reflected on the river as I reflected on similarities with Hopper and Van Eyck and the intimacy of painted detail. Lighter nights are coming on, but real home comfort is now.
Walking to work along the River Colne in the first frost of this winter, with the ghost of the moon and a reflective swan.
This is a pedestrian story. Long ago, but not so far away, I went to live on Rhodes. I am a walker; not a hiker, not a rambler – a walker. I like it. It serves me well. The locals viewed my love of walking with curiosity; it was not within the realm of anyone’s experience to choose to walk. My behavior was passed-off as English eccentricity, which was fine. However, despite this ‘acceptance’, attempts were still made to change my mind.
On one memorable, quite typical, occasion, I set out for the coast to see how far I could go before nightfall. It was an autumnal Sunday and the weather was perfect for a walk; warm sunshine, cool breeze and clear air. I had only been on the road for ten minutes when my landlord’s car pulled up alongside and I was offered a lift.
‘Where are you going?’
‘For a walk.’
‘No, where are you going?’
‘For a walk.’
Five minutes later, I was able to start moving again, but the car motored next to me for a further five ‘in case I changed my mind’.
Now, I walk here and others choose to do the same. There are sponsored walks and runs. On medical advice, people walk up and down the waterfront at the nearly-new marina development. Dog-walking brings yet others out. This has seen a growth in sales of specialist clothing; many feel unable to take to the roads of Rhodes without the full kit. At one charity fundraiser, many of the participants were in outfits so new, they still had the price tags attached. They want to look the part. They want to be seen to have ‘changed their mind’.
People forget how to walk. It’s true. They can do the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other thing, but put them out in public and there’s no pathway code. This much is clear in the summer, when thousands of visitors are disgorged from planes and ships onto the streets. Far from their cars, in the heat of the sun, they forget (if, indeed, they ever knew) that they are in a living, working town and they wander. They wander everywhere. They wander off. Stop/start/left/right/back/forth. Walking with purpose becomes a slalom course. As a resident, you’re often invisible. I am at once irritated, frustrated and exasperated. Yet, I smile.
Why? You may ask. Because this experience, wandering on Rhodes, just might ‘change their minds’ when they return home and help them see that ‘for a walk’ is both a purpose and a destination.
Once upon a time, there was a young English woman who went to live on the island of Symi for a year. She worked at a brand new English language school as the teacher and manager and lived ‘over the shop’ in the brand new apartment. She had lived there before, in the summer, and so had local friends and knew her way around.
The school opened at the beginning of September and all went well. Registrations were high, students were (by and large) happy and so was she. As the nights drew in, she met others who were on the island for the winter for the first time, too. Friendships grew and fun was had. The work was interesting, if not challenging (unlike some parents’ expectations and resulting behaviour, but that’s a PhD thesis right there) and every day life went on.
As it was long ago and far away, there was no Internet and there were no cell phones (imagine that, children!). Post arrived once a week by boat (unless the sea was up) and she took pleasure in having the letters reach her addressed simply to her first name, Symi, Greece. The phone lines were in short supply but she was lucky enough to have access to one in the school room.
But this young woman was born walking. She had a restless nature and these simple pleasures alone were not enough to contain it, nor were weekends on Rhodes (and the fun one in Athens). The walls began to close in, the animal(istic) noises at night and the burning stares around the harbour (from those who couldn’t read) became oppressive. What to do? The answer came in a phone call. Come to Paros!
She bought a one-way boat ticket and then thought ‘how will this work?’. A good friend (who’s even better now) took her to the doctor with strict instructions to look miserable and say nothing. The three outsiders (none was native to the island) sat in the consulting room and looked at each other, then the young woman cast her eyes down and her friend and the doctor talked over her. It was clear, said the doctor, that the patient was suffering from ‘Rock Fever’ and needed a pass. The usual prescription was for a few days on Rhodes. The patient shook her head miserably (as instructed). ‘Hmmm, this is the worst case I have seen in a while’, he said before signing off on a seven-day pass, sighing, and wishing the patient a safe journey.
Two other good friends (they are better now, too) were taken into confidence and the young woman set off on the high seas (and they were) to Paros. It was a long journey, but never dull, ending in the kind of docking that can only leave a lifelong admiration for the skills of Greek mariners. When told to jump, she jumped and landed safely on the harbour side. There then followed a week wrapped in quilts and tsipouro, with occasional dashes into the kitchen for her to cook nursery food or through the driving wind and rain to the food, company and real fire of a taverna.
As all good things must, this one came to an end. One of the good friends (now better), managed to contact her to say time and the game were up. Fond farewells were said and a dash was made for a light aircraft. The seven-day pass expired, the young woman felt weller and returned to work. Nothing was said, except by the children who said they’d missed her and her drawings (she used to illustrate their note books for them, you see). A rumour grew that she’d been to Paris, but it simply made her laugh and she fed it enough that it became a fact. The seven-day pass from the doctor had worked so well, there was not even a hint of ‘Rock Fever’ to follow and the young woman was able to serve out the rest of her contract calmly.
First published on axrhodes on 13/07/2013
As a child, I admired characters, in life and on the page, who had no fixed abode in time or space. My heroes were loners who moved on at the drop of a (cowboy) hat. This was in me from the start and was fueled, too, in those rare moments when my father talked of his travels with the RAF. My maternal grandfather also played his part. One of the earliest pieces of advice he gave me was to beware possessions as they may well end up possessing you. Much, much later, I smiled to myself while watching the movie ‘Heat’ as Robert de Niro’s character, Neil McCauley, delivered the line: ‘A guy told me one time, ‘Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat…” Because, yes, that was it. In a way, it was what I aspired to.
I have always understood those creatures which choose the migratory instinct over the maternal, even though others may see this as ‘un-natural’. As soon as I could walk I was off. My maternal grandmother quickly nicknamed me ‘Dot’: I was off, at a cracking pace, into the distance. The dot in the distance. Ambulans solvitur joined me as my motto, and stayed. Walking does solve it, whatever ‘it’ is. I walk it out. The more I walk, the weller I feel. Kierkegaard felt the same: ‘Thus, if one just keeps on walking, everything will be alright’ (letters). Chatwin put it more sanguinely in ‘The Songlines’: ‘I had been sitting on my arse for a couple of weeks and was beginning to feel the disgust for words that comes from taking no exercise.’
For many years, I moved a lot and traveled very little. I was not myself and not at home. Once I broke through the glass wall around me, I grew into myself and learned to breathe deeply and fully. I do travel, and far, farther than others and not as far as some, and there’s farther still to go than I ever will or want to. Though I move and have no residential address, there are places I feel at home. These are the places I stay. There is a clear difference between living, visiting and staying. Living is what I do, gratefully, every day. For me, it has nothing to do with place, no connection with an address. Visiting happens with new places, or with courtesy calls to those who describe themselves as ‘living’ in a particular location. Staying is what I do when I find somewhere I like and want to get to know. That’s where I lay my (cowboy) hat. Before staleness sets in, though, it’s time to move – because there’s always back to come.
Is there a purpose? I cannot say. All I’ve talked of here is function. The best description was coined before I was born: ‘We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time’ (TS Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’). In any case, I shall leave the last words to a favorite of mine, John Donne: ‘To live in one land is captivity, To run all countries, a wild roguery; Waters stink soon if in one place they bide, And in the vast sea are more purified: But when they kiss one bank, and leaving this/ Never look back, but the next bank do kiss, Then are they purest. Change is the nursery/ Of music, joy, life, and eternity. (Elegy III: Change)