1015 Letters from the Pandemic 18: Walking in the time of Corona
ESSAY: Walking in the time of Corona
by Nina Watts
It was a Friday morning in May and I had arranged to meet my friend on a street corner close to her home in the Strathcona neighbourhood of Vancouver. We were planning an urban wander with no particular destination. As I walked west from my home near Commercial Drive, I noticed the paucity of traffic. Crossing Clark Drive: a major truck access to the port, cyclists on the bike path automatically pressed the button for the red light to halt traffic. But there was none to stop. I stood in the middle of one of Vancouver’s busiest commercial arteries on a Friday morning and there was not a car, let alone a truck, to be seen.
Covid 19 restrictions were radically impacting every aspect of our lives. Whereas I would normally have picked up my friend Susan to drive to a North Vancouver trail, the intimacy of the interior of a car was no longer acceptable within the pandemic guidelines. Remaining six feet apart outside was, however, acceptable. The result was an urban, rather than a rural, stroll. We would not have chosen such a walk, but the invisible virus was sending us in a new direction.
According to my Random House Dictionary of the English Language, “flanerie” is French for “dawdling” and a “flaneur” is one who engages in this behaviour. Rebecca Solnit has explored the term and its origins in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and although the term “flaneur” was made popular by Charles Baudelaire in the early nineteenth century, it would seem to be more of a literary concept than the description of an actual activity. Flanerie supposedly took place in Paris, by men of means, wandering aimlessly through the city, observing their environment but remaining unobserved themselves. “Primeval slacker” is a term Solnit uses, which could be used to describe the current version.
The term is back in the zeitgeist. It was mentioned recently in the New Yorker magazine with reference to the pandemic: “One of the silver linings of the pause in New York City has been seeing harried pedestrians become masked flaneurs, discovering the pleasures of walking for its own sake.” Although Susan and I could not strictly be described as flaneurs (or female flaneuses to be grammatically correct) as we were not alone, our walking habits have been modified as a result of the virus. In our contemporary version, we are walking through neighbourhoods known previously only by car or bicycle, both together and alone, and in a lazy twist, we sometimes find a ride share car to get home. Rather than needing to judge distance and time, modern life gives us the option to simply call it quits when we have had enough meandering. I doubt Baudelaire would approve of this less than purist approach.
Not only has the virus curtailed our usual mobility, but it is showing us a city in a different light. During the strict shutdown in the early months of the pandemic, Vancouver, like many other cities around the world, became more quiet. Less air brakes and more bird song. The giddy joy of crossing usually busy streets without having to wait for a flashing light to give me permission. The surge of pedestrians. Suddenly it seemed as if cars were the second-class citizens and not walking humans. It was as if park areas had expanded: we could walk with ease and safety on asphalt that was usually the domain of cars. Signs appeared on streets leading off thoroughfares informing motorists: “Local traffic only. Drive Slowly. Watch for people walking on the road.” This was accompanied by images of a person and a bicycle. Within a few weeks, motor vehicles seemed in retreat. Walkers had taken over. Writing in December, the signs are still on the streets, but have been pushed to the side and many are dented. The cars are again asserting their place in the traffic hierarchy. And we all know who loses in the fight between a motor vehicle and a human.
With gyms and other exercise places initially closed, and some again now, walking has become a new activity for many. Running seems to be less acceptable because of the heavy breathing (and thereby increased possible virus transmission), and seems to happen less frequently in heavily used parks. And the “Covid Dodge” (as I call it) is certainly visible with runners who come too close. It is the quick swerve when another person approaches: it is frequently accompanied by a turning away of the face, and in the case of passing a person without a mask, there is the addition of a frown and possible narrowing of the eyes and pointed stare.
The virus has also introduced new rules of etiquette. Never mind how to be the perfect host, or lay the perfect table; now we have to learn how to move around in public spaces. It used to be that wallet, phone, and keys were the necessities in my purse before leaving the house. Now there is always the ubiquitous mask. I am somewhat forgetful by nature (several friends have sets of my house keys), and consequently have masks in most coat pockets and of course several in the car. I will not be the person in the store without face covering receiving those silent withering stares. And I certainly register my internal schoolmarm sniff rising when I am close to a person in a small space, maskless.
Urban living can in itself be challenging. Surrounded by people and vehicles of various kinds, commuting to work in different ways and navigating contemporary life. The pandemic then introduces numerous uncertainties. Many have had their work lives impacted in diverse ways and home life too has changed. Those living alone have become more isolated and for a while those with children had to deal with them at home full time. In some jurisdictions, this is happening again. Walking could provide a welcome respite. “I walk in order to somatically medicate myself against the psychosis of contemporary urban living,” writes Will Self. And that was before the pandemic.
When writing about walking, one has also to consider how the experience of public space differs for men and women. A man might be concerned for his physical safety in certain areas of the city, but would never think of being morally judged for his clothing, or choice of area in which to saunter. The idea of a man condemned for the cut of his coat or the tightness of his trousers is almost laughable. Were it not for the fact, I would argue, that it is the norm for women to deliberate on our clothing and the impact or message we are presumed responsible for transmitting. Granted, women in Western cities no longer have the restrictions of the eighteenth century, when our virtue and reputation could be sullied by walking alone in public, but it can still be a challenging experience.
As a young woman walking alone in Paris, it was impossible to saunter. I was obviously not local, the dawdling alone was no doubt a giveaway, as was my less than Parisian attire. I was consequently easy game. And that’s what it felt like: as if I were being hunted. Looking in store windows seemed like an invitation, as did sitting on a bench in the Tuileries Gardens. When a particularly insistent man was waiting for me after I had spent over two hours lunching inside a café, the sense of claustrophobia and invasion of privacy was overwhelming. I remember walking with head down and sense of intention, ignoring his insistent requests, as I hurried to the closest Metro station to go back to where I was staying. My day off had been less than enjoyable.
I was seventeen and as I was studying French at school in England, had taken a summer job as an au pair. I stopped exploring the city because of the harassment and was depressingly relieved when we moved to the family’s summer residence, a fast two-hour drive south of Paris. They were restoring an old mill in a tiny village without so much as a bakery, let alone café or bar. It was extremely boring but I could at least walk around the small roads and fields in peace. I made friends with what I thought of then as an old woman (she was maybe fifty), who told me she had never married because she thought men were scary. It was hard for me not to agree with her after my recent experiences.
Age has brought the contradicting benefits of invisibility. Where I might mourn the odd smile of appreciation of a passing man on the street, I certainly don’t miss the leers, verbal abuse, and physical harassment that I would venture is the common experience of most women. I have returned to Paris several times over the years, but my visit in 2019 was the first time I again explored alone. It was a delight to move around with ease, window-shop, eat, dawdle, and gaze, and not have a single person pay me the slightest attention.
Although the actual mechanics of walking are merely placing one foot in front of the other, the reasons for doing it are many. Exercise, therapy, healing, pilgrimages, protest, necessity, and escape cover the basic motives. And now in a pandemic, it can help provide us with some micro-encounters that the consequences of the virus have taken from us. We can wave to a neighbour or mail carrier from a safe distance and still feel somehow connected. There is much that the pandemic has taken from us. Not only has it disrupted our working lives, but it has also impacted our agency. Many of us have a sense of being trapped. But we can walk, though.
Numerous authors, thinkers, and poets speak of the value of walking for allowing inspiration to present itself. Aristotle paced the colonnade in Athens, Thoreau sauntered for at least several hours a day around his home in rural Massachusetts, and Rousseau, walker supreme, regularly managed twenty miles a day. “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think,” he said, “my mind only works with my legs.”
Although pandemic-inspired walking cannot be directly compared to that conducted by great thinkers (or maybe there are indeed some nascent philosophers presently walking our streets), it allows, at least, for the mind to be soothed. “I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it,” maintained Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. And it works for me. Most of the time. I can leave the house upset, grumpy, miserable, sad, or these days just mildly stressed, and within fifteen minutes will feel a subtle shift. I observe my surroundings, notice the houses and gardens, and soon realize that I have become distracted and brought into the present. My breathing invariably slows and my shoulders drop. The problem at hand, real or imagined, is not instantly solved, but the simple act of placing one foot in front of the other seems to still the chattering mind.
The pandemic restrictions have also encouraged me to explore my neighbourhood and see it with “new” eyes. Before this altered time, I had a regular walk. The destination was a park with a small lake. My route there and back varied minimally and I always seemed to move around the water in an anticlockwise direction. Since the beginning of April, I have been walking in different directions, going clockwise around the lake when I end up there, and as I have been consciously walking without a specific destination, I have landed in neighbourhoods that, although relatively close, are completely unfamiliar.
“Two or three hours walking will carry me to as strange a country as I ever expect to see,” wrote Thoreau. “A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey.” Although I would not draw such a fantastic comparison (and what did Thoreau actually know of what is now southern Benin?), I did recently find myself imagining I was in a very different city when looking at a row of large and brightly-coloured houses surrounded by palm trees and vegetation of a much warmer climate. The street was only two blocks from a thoroughfare I have driven for over forty years. It took the pandemic and subsequent congestion of my usual mountain trails to allow me to discover, à la flaneuse, a gem in my own proverbial back yard. We may no longer be able to explore the backstreets of Paris or Bishkek, but our own cities can reveal their own jewels and surprises.
Speaking to a London friend recently, where they are in a considerable second lockdown, she spoke of going on a “walk and talk.” Any kind of visiting on private property is forbidden, but meeting outside is allowed; hence the new moniker. Friends who would normally meet in a private home or eating establishment of some kind, now closed, are finding themselves getting dressed for the invariably inclement weather of a British winter if they are to have any hope of continuing to meet in person. One can imagine the strength of friendships being tested. Meeting in a pub or café is one thing, but is s/he worth pulling on the wellies and getting out the serious raincoat from a tromp across Wimbledon Common? Maybe not. Maybe that friendship can be put on hold for now.
Another new development in Britain is the “Slow Ways Network.” It relates to a plan for connecting all of Great Britain’s cities, towns, and villages by footpaths. A seemingly daunting task. The project started at the beginning of lockdown in the spring of 2020 with over 700 volunteers plotting routes covering approximately 100,000 miles. For those of you, like me, who need help visualizing this distance, it is equivalent to two and half times around the Equator. The concept was the idea of Dan Raven-Ellison who describes himself as “Guerrilla Geographer and Creative Explorer.” He is also a bona fide National Geographic Explorer. As he wrote on the website:
Historically, footpaths were created for walking to work, visiting relatives or trading, but many routes have been forgotten. We want to reimagine them for today. People walk for fun of course, but we’re also interested in the idea of functional walks — walking to visit people often takes less time than you think.
It would seem that the extraordinary challenges caused by the pandemic also appear to be a catalyst for creative ideas and solutions. According to the Slow Ways website, 10,000 more volunteers are needed this winter to test out and give feedback to what was covered in the summer of 2020. One can only imagine the multiplier effect this could have through a population seriously limited in physical social activities. Although there may only be one person from a particular village involved in the actual mapping, the chances are high that she will share her experiences.
Britons are great walkers, and although paths are numerous, Slow Ways will be the first time there is a comprehensive method to access them all. Not only is this good news for the present, but it could also mean a much-needed boost for the hospitality sector in the future when restrictions are lifted. The system will allow for easy planning, allowing people to easily triangulate and come back to their starting point. This will hopefully lead to multiday walks thereby encouraging the use of pubs, hotels, and restaurants en route.
We do not know how long this pandemic will last. Several vaccines are or will soon be available, but despite conviction of their efficacy, questions remain about how they will be distributed and the timing and method by which they will be administered. And what of those who don’t believe the virus is real and refuse to be vaccinated? Will that impact the balance of the population? The 1918 flu epidemic started in March and lasted until April 1920. Will we have to wait that long? Uncertainty is troubling. Humans like to plan and believe they have control over their future. We gather to comfort each other in challenging times. Not now. I experienced my first funeral on Zoom today, a “Zoomeral.” I met with a few of the family members afterwards to share stories of the deceased, but we did not touch. They are not in my bubble.
With so much beyond our control, walking is the one thing that the able bodied among us can still choose to do. Mask firmly in place, we can step outside and simply place one foot in front of another and move. Paul Salopek, supported by National Geographic, is walking around the world. He started in Ethiopia in 2013 and is currently in Myanmar/Burma. With the uncertainty that infuses us all, I find solace and hope in his words:
Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster: Braked…. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle — an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go.
Nina Watts will be finishing the Graduate Liberal Studies programme at SFU in spring, 2021, which seems much too soon for her liking. She has had an eclectic and meandering work history and chance meetings and serendipity have led to volunteering on a nursing station in Labrador, cooking in Antarctica, and to importing textiles from Central Asia. The GLS programme was also unplanned but has been a welcome challenge and adventure. Special thanks to Sasha Colby and Stephen Duguid for their guidance and inspiration.
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“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster
 Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin Books, 2000), p. 5
 “Goings On About Town,” The New Yorker, September 2-6, 2020, p. 5.
 Self is quoted in Dan Rubenstein, Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act (ECW Press, 2015), p. xiii. In this essay I also benefited from reading Frederic Gross, A Philosophy of Walking (Verso, 2014), and Erling Kagge, Walking: One Step at a Time (Vintage Books, 2020).
 Lauren Elkin, Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. (Vintage, 2017), p. 286.
 Kierkegaard quoted in Rubenstein, Born to Walk, p. 43.
 Henry David Thoreau, Walking (Dover Publications, 2019), p. 12
 Paul Salopek, “Out of Eden,” National Geographic (December 2013), pp. 36-47; this quote from p. 47.