On Walking

Having now been in Cambridge, England for a few weeks, I can say something definitively: there is a lot of walking.

Cambridge is a university city and village town of roughly 120,000 people. It feels small and quaint – the city center spans about three miles, and centuries of architectural styles. The University of Cambridge owns a large portion of the property. It seems as though most every building is labeled ‘Department of Something’ or ‘Office of This’ or “Such and Such College.’ You can visit the pub where the guys – I really shouldn’t say guys, scientists Watson and Crick, –  discovered DNA. One afternoon, I walked past what I thought was a seemingly normal house, until I read the plaque, “Charles Darwin lived here..”

Academia and intellectualism is everywhere, in structure and feel. The city seems entirely populated of students and professors. I just assume that everyone that I see on the street is researching quantum mechanics – It seems like the safe bet. And some other time we should talk at length about the amount of tweed that I see.

But back to walking. So, as I said, the city is smallish, and, thus, easily walkable.

First, a pro-tip: try not to arrive in Cambridge directly following any events, for example your only brother’s wedding, that have required you to wear heels for days and, therefore, develop blisters. In all of my years, blisters have never enhanced the walking experience. Also, Darwin, what is the evolutionary purpose of blisters?

I live approximately 1.5 miles from the city centre and my faculty (department classroom buildings). The main form of transportation in Cambridge is bike. However, after seeing the traffic – bike and car, and a few bike/car and bike/pedestrian collisions, AND knowing my general clumsiness level, my inexperience riding a bike, and my lack of knowledge of English traffic laws, I have opted to forego the biking experience. At least for now. At least until I work up a much greater level of commute courage. Or some serious blisters.

The walking is pleasant. (I realize that this is starting to sound like an internal rationalization of my decision to walk 4/5 miles per day.) I have really only one appointment to make most days. This is a screening or seminar time. Therefore, everything else arranges itself around this point, and the amount of travel time factors in simply. It means that days are more devoid of rush. I’ve figured out the basic routes, found and field tested some great coffeeshops and cafes.

Before I arrived in Cambridge my days were incredibly full. I flew from one thing to the next, and I loved it. I packed my days with things I loved doing. Here, I still live full days, but the pace feels much different. There really isn’t a sense of running late, because there is no speeding up or cutting time. The walk will take as long as it will.

And, the walk gives the occasion for observation and thinking, or not thinking. Sometimes it is simply a time for mindless music. Sometimes it is uncomfortable, sometimes I am cold, or tired, or hungry. But I always know that I must walk. It is the only way, and that is constant and character-building.

Since I am studying Screen Media an Culture, some thoughts: Early cinema was partly fascinated with the idea of trains and train travel. The Luminere Film company produced a short film “L’Arrivee d’un train en Gare de La Ciotat.” It is 50 seconds of a train arriving at a station and the passengers spilling out. There is the dimension of space: will the train not stop and run over the viewer? There is also the idea of moving picture: a train window is a frame through which the passenger observes the world in a cinematic way. So, I think, is walking a cinematic experience.

The walker moves through space and creates a film. The music streaming through his ear buds is the soundtrack. The city is the set. The other walkers are the actors. His thoughts are the narrative. Therefore, the whole walk is an aesthetic experience – if we want to think philosophically about it. Which is what I try do here, because the guy next to me with the funny socks is probably solving math problems in his head.

In my first few weeks, then, amidst the craziness that moving across the world, knowing no one, and beginning a new track of academic study prompts, I’ve slowed down. Or maybe, not slowed down, but I am moving differently. I am patterning my days differently. I am trying to be present here, while thinking so much about what I’ve left at home. It counters the perhaps American idea or norm of “the daily rush, the daily grind.” It’s difficult to not feel as though I am wasting time, or not properly using time. It’s difficult to not think ahead and wish ahead. But this pure experiencing, the freedom to walk, the freedom to read and explore, and not do everything all at once, that is a luxury of this experience – not an inconvenience. The liberal arts were originally considered arts of leisure.

Do we watch the films that we make on a daily basis? Do we recognize the art in which we live? The amazing historicity of our surroundings? The amazing beauty of our co-stars? Or do we spend our time thinking about what we are missing, what we will do, what we have done? Do we try to rush in a place that begs us to slow? Do we think of the blisters?

I experience both sides. The presentness, the appreciation, it is a practice. A test of balance and patience and courage. I am a student of the street and the city.

I have time. We fill our hours each day. The importance is how. It is why.

And here, for me, has rearranged time. Seconds are steps.

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