Tuesday, 19 April 2016

"One does not love breathing"

"Until I feared I might lose it, I never loved to read.
One does not love breathing" Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Two weekends ago I was in Washington DC with the husband. The weather, which was supposed to be cold, turned out lovely, one of those perfect DC days when the sun is warm but not hot, the sky is blue, and the exuberant mid Atlantic spring turns every yard and every park into a riot of colour.
We were staying in north east, just off H street, at a friend's town house. We've stayed there many times. In fact the husband lived there for the year we were apart after I had to move back to the UK after finishing my PhD. So I know the area well. On the Sunday morning (to overcome the over indulgence of the night before), I went for a walk in the glorious DC spring. Ostensibly, I went in search of coffee. In truth, I went in search of what has always been my third place.
I grew up (as I may have mentioned before) in the heart of a big city. A big city where driving is very much optional, and far from practical. From the time I was old enough, I walked with my parents throughout our neighborhood. I walked to the gated square at the end of the block for which we had a key. Then later I walked to Holland park. My school was a twenty minute walk away, so sometimes my older brother or sister would walk me home. At eleven, I was giving my own set of keys, and permission to walk to and from school on my own. And from that day, London was to me as the Shire was to Bilbo: a place to explore on foot. In my head I have a mental map of most of the center of that city. I have walked from Ealing to St Katherine Docks, and from Camden to Clapham.
Walking in London became my third place: the whole city, as long as I was on foot, a place for thought and escape, a place that was neither at home not at work but that was mine. Walking home from school, I would take detours through the parks if it have been a long day, or if it was a sunny day. I remember once stepping out of school into driving summer rain. Rather than go home, I went to Hyde park, and walked in the downpour until I was soaked through. Walking became how I process my thoughts, how I establish what's important, how I calm my nerves.
In French, there is a word for walking aimlessly in the city: "Flaner". The closest equivalent in English is to stroll, though one can stroll through the country, or one can stroll to a destination. "Flaner" can involve neither. "Flaner" invites, encourages serendipitous, aimless exploration of the city. "Flaner" is what results in stumbling on a tiny church park one has never seen behind one of London's busy shopping streets, or stumbling on the Monument to the great fire on a sunny day and climbing it.
As I was strolling in vaguely aimless search of coffee in DC that sunny sunday morning, I felt closer to home, and closer to myself than I had in long time. And I realised, not for the first time, how much this inability to walk chafes me living in Ohio.
One can, and I have, debated quite how inimical to walking my current situation is. But it was in DC that I realised it was not so much the physical activity of walking that I miss here. It is the impossibility of "flaner". When I lived in the small town (little more than a highway exit) where our university is based, there was literally no where I could walk from my doorstep, not effortlessly, not pleasantly. The roads had no sidewalks and narrow verges, cars went fast, and there were no paths through the countryside to explore, no byways. Even the state parks, pretty as they are, have limited walking options. Paths are short and disjointed, and one must drive to the state park which to me, limits the spontaneity. The counrtyside of France and England that I am used to has footpaths at every doorstep, leading to fields and forests and home again. My aunt's house in Alsace has the local equivalent of Bilbo;s map of the shire in it: each path marked from doorstep to mountaintop. I could write an entire blog on how my European hiking habits are poorly adapted to American hiking, even though the rewards of American hiking are breathtaking.
 Even back here in the city, the walking options are limited. The layout of most American cities, ravaged by the construction of transurban highways, is confusing to the pedestrian. One will quickly end up on a busy road, side walks vanish, and, for the most part, there are no shops to discover, no hidden pubs to find, no magnificent flower beds in tiny squares hiding behind rows of sedate houses.
And so, here in Ohio, I have been robbed of my third place. And I am often restless, frustrated, in ways that I cannot quite identify, until I remember how I used to deal with that feeling: by grabbing my keys and my wallet and walking somewhere, anywhere, through the streets of London, my own Shire.

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