Saturday, May 12, 2012

When in Rome, Walk as the Romans Do

Australians, as I've argued previously, don't walk enough.

It's partly habit, partly poor infrastructure, partly the need for speed: get from garage to carpark in as few minutes as possible.

Driving has become so normalised, that many of our acquaintances are genuinely baffled by our preference for walking.

As Mary Beard explains, in a new review for the TLS, this is not a new clash of values. She cites a story from the historian and geographer Strabo, in which Spanish tribesmen were baffled by the Romans' predilection for wandering and chatting:
One group of tribesmen, he explained, visiting a Roman camp and seeing some generals taking a stroll, “walking up and down the road”, thought they were “mad and tried to take them back into their tents”, either to sit down and rest, or get up and fight. Despite Strabo’s patronizing tone, it’s one of those rare occasions where we can catch a glimpse of the barbarian point of view on the Romans. The Spaniards presumably thought that walking was something that got a person from A to B (or from tent to battleground). What on earth then were these Roman generals doing as they ambled around, chatting, but not actually going anywhere?
One answer, provided by Timothy O'Sullivan, was distinctly philosophical: they were conversing while walking, as did the ancient Greeks of Aristotle's school, the Peripatetics (from the Greek for 'walking around'). The point was not simply transport, but communication - without the need for haste.

And this, reports Beard, drawing on O'Sullivan's book Walking in Roman Culture, distinguished Romans from the barbarians: walking was a sign of cultivation, refinement.

This obviously has a class and status message, of the sort noted by Pierre Bourdieu: meandering as a mark of social distinction.

But the emphasis on cultivation identifies something of genuine value, which is healthy regardless of one's social stratum. As Ruth Quibell has argued, walking provides exercise, but also opportunities for conversation, meditation, heightened observation. I'll leave Ruth with the last word, as she describes our walks to and from school:
'Most parents will have earnestly asked their child about their day, only to meet with a mumbled ''good'', quickly followed by ''I'm hungry''. This is also my experience. But somewhere over the daily walk more about my son's day tumbles out, prompted by association from the things we see. I hear him making sense of friendship and its limits - his moral code being constructed just as solidly as his cardboard and sticky-tape box constructions. This is the unexpected and rare parental opportunity to hear more. As we walk, the space for emotional support and empathy opens up.'
(Photo: Paul Vlaar)


jenniesisler said...

This hits on all the reasons why I love to walk. At the end of a crazy day at work it just feels good to get out with my husband and work out any issues I may have had during the day while I get some much needed exercise.

Damon Young said...

Thanks, Jen.

Normally I walk to my son's school and back before writing (a round trip of 5-6km). Recently I took a taxi and I was antsy all morning.

(And felt like I'd missed a chance to chat.)

Terry said...

Thanks Damon

The Greatest Hits of walk writings would also include works by Will Self, Guy Debord, Bruce Chatwin, Jack Kerouac (yes, despite 'the road by barrelling fast car' reputuation, he was very much a walker), Walter Benjamin and MANY, MANY MORE!

Damon Young said...

And the Bangles, circa 1986.