Saturday 12 September 2009

On Walking

Whenever I find myself in a new city, I like to walk. I find a map; I pick a direction, a neighbourhood, or an arbitrary destination; I put on comfortable shoes, and I walk somewhat aimlessly, just taking in what I find. Often I'll do this for days in a row, each time in a new direction. The endpoint and the route are irrelevant because it's about the journey itself.

There seems to be no better way to get a true sense of a city. You're really missing out if you think that Paris is all about the Eiffel Tower, that Beijing is characterized by the Forbidden City, or that you'll get a full understanding of New York by riding the subway and visiting Times Square. Oh sure, make time for those landmarks if you want, but what's really interesting is a city's people, its architecture, back alleys, corner stores, sidewalks, graffiti, parks, and used bookshops.

In Beijing I walked for weeks—hours every day—trying to puzzle out hànzì characters and discovering hidden temples, noodle shops, and bicycle repair stands. Day after day, I remember being constantly astounded by the sheer quantity of life that is lived every day in that vast city, by the amount of observable change from week to week.

Wandering in central Berlin one day, I stumbled across a brick line in the road, marking the former path of the Berlin Wall. I traced this line from Brandenburg Gate, through quiet residential areas, alongside concrete walls covered with vibrant murals, past memorials, and down renovated green spaces. As I picked my way east towards Warschauer Straße across the river, I felt a real sense of the history and the difference, still visible, between west and east.

In Kolkata (Calcutta), on possibly the only occasion when "the children" (we were 26) were allowed to roam the bustling downtown streets freely by ourselves, we stumbled across a serene old church with a graveyard full of interesting 250-year-old tombstones. There we hid from the beggars and hawkers and attempted to decipher the epitaphs engraved in old-fashioned English script.

The last two days, I wandered Frankfurt. Yesterday I took in the riverside, with its grassy banks, apparently covered with runners once the work day ends. I wandered downtown, enjoying the modern low-rise office buildings and German-style half-timbered houses, the quiet cobbled squares and the wide-open bustling shopping street. Frankfurt is perhaps not the most noteworthy of cities but it has a comfortable scale and pleasant feeling of balance.

Today, wanting to go farther afield, I caught an S-Bahn out of town, thinking I'd look for the Cincom office, which I knew to be in that direction. Only 20 minutes out of downtown, I got off the train in South Kronberg and discovered apple orchards, corn fields, vistas of church towers and rolling hills, and people riding horses right past the business park! In a field beside the passing cyclists and trail-walkers, a middle-aged man practiced paragliding. Wandering south through Niederhöchstadt, I then lucked upon an Apple Festival and made lunch out of apple wine and bratwurst before catching a return train.

Each city has a rhythm and you won't find it sitting in your car, your hotel room, or the ticket queue for the tourist sight of the day. So get out and walk.

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