“As waiting is the genuine state of the immovable contemplative one, so does doubting seem to be the state of the one who goes for a walk”
– Walter Benjamin
I have always enjoyed my own company, probably more than most: I have no qualms about eating in restaurants by myself or strolling for hours with nothing but the sound of my own steps to accompany me. When I went to Germany last autumn for a couple of weeks, this is mostly what I did. Large portions of this excursion were spent on my own: the nervous wait for unknown trains; the frustrating search for hidden hostels booked at the last minute; the painful lugging of a too-big suitcase up and down U-Bahn station steps; or solo falafel at the side of the street in Berlin.
In Dresden, I stayed in a new, high rise apartment block with lurid lime green fittings in a stark school-grey room. Here, there was a kitchenette without any oven where I cooked peculiar meals using the two stoves and a kettle provided: toast fried in a hot, dry pan and then spread with budget Nutella from the local cheaper-than-Lidl supermarket; pasta dishes with peppers and onions and typically-odd German sausages tightly packed with herbs and other ingredients that seem so unnecessary in a sausage; even worse still: those squidgy tortellini parcels that take two minutes to boil with a scattering of still damp-from-the-fridge-feta cheese. My unorthodox and unsatisfying meals mark the nature of this trip: as budget, solitary and unexpected.
Despite its destructive past, Dresden is a quiet city. A pretty city with such stunningly picturesque squares and streets that at times it feels all too much almost like over indulging in a decadent box of chocolates. Luckily, it is a city divided in two with the curious disposition that the Neustadt is in fact older than the Altstadt (the old town was of course re-built following World War II). Where the old town is all ornate lampposts and Baroque palaces, the new town, across the Elbe, is quirky with interesting bars, funky vintage stores and spacious parks.
Through my solo perambulations, I became well acquainted with Dresden on both sides of the river. I trotted up and down the halls of Dresden’s lavish galleries, picked through bric-a-brac alone at a flea market and aimlessly floated through shopping centres. I ambled along the picturesque river bank and roamed among the historic buildings. I walked for miles, or so it at least seemed to me, and by the time I arrived home, the heels of my black boots with the clicking gold buckles were worn down to crusty stumps.
We tend to think of walking as a banal ritual: the mere process of getting from A to B. And yet, walking can be so much more than the mundane and necessary movement of feet. When you are alone and not quite sure which direction you should be taking, walking takes on a new guise: it becomes more than motion, but something fundamental to how we navigate not just physical space, but something of our psychic state too.
While the current cult of running promotes the lofty and ambitious pursuit of a new and better self; walking, meanwhile, is just something that we ‘do’, or more bland still, something that we do in order to save money. Frequently, walking is associated with toil and hard work – I am reminded of well-worn tales of parents, grandparents and ancestors who walked miles and miles to go to school or work on any given morning. Indeed, there is nothing glamorous about walking.
I think that there might be an entire philosophy behind walking which participate in even if we are not entirely conscious of it. Walking is a frequently lonesome and wearisome activity, as Joni Mitchell sings in California: ‘Oh it gets so lonely/ When you’re walking /And the streets are full of strangers’. So very often, walking is attributed to the outsider: the nomadic image of being ‘on the road’, a vagabond, far from home and making tracks along the dirt path. To walk is often to set oneself apart, to drift and to wander. We think of Baudelaire’s flâneur: the leisurely stroller through modernity’s city streets. The flâneur is not merely someone who prefers to move on foot, but he is also an avid spectator who traverses the bustling crowd, detached and alone, observing the ‘ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite’.
In her essay on Walter Benjamin’s re-interpretation of the flâneur, Anke Gleber writes of the ‘walking cure’ and certainly, walking functions for many as a type of therapy. We take walks to clear our heads, to think straight and gain new perspectives. We walk hand in hand with lovers as a simple and perfect declaration of feeling. We take clichéd long strolls on the beach to escape ourselves and the world we find ourselves in. We take walks in the snow, through fields and along headlands to immerse ourselves in the beauty of this world. Walking may be a humble, everyday pleasure but sometimes, without us even noticing, a walk has changed the very way in which we see and feel and think.
I had never gotten lost properly before that night in Dresden. In the early hours of October 3, a German bank holiday, I caught the tram from Louisenstrasse in the Neustadt back down to Postplatz across the river. I was sleepy and the tram came to jittering halt and I found myself following the flood of people who were hopping off. On stepping onto the platform, the crowd dispersed and there I was, alone, and suddenly aware, as the tram moved ever further into the night, that I had departed at the wrong stop.
As it was a holiday, the trams were not operating as they usually would, and so there was nothing else to do, but walk my way home. Looking back, it was a reckless and silly thing to do, and I should just have gotten a taxi, but for some inexplicable reason – probably a combination of pride, money-saving and over-confidence in my sense of direction – I chose not to, the punishment of which was to walk for two hours in a silent city that I did not know half as well as I thought I did.
I walked in a loop and along a straight road and back again, and I walked far out of way. My map reading skills had somehow failed me, and briefly I felt real fear: would I ever find my way back? It was not just dark and cold, but a pressing fog had descended on Dresden’s neat and quiet roads. By walking in the wrong direction, I missed the tram that would take me back to Reichenbachstrasse by mere minutes, and I eventually only found my way by following the tram tracks.
I could not make sense of the city by night. That dense and suffocating fog did little to help, and it assumed metaphorical weight as I struggled to elucidate my surroundings. In the most literal way possible this was the unknown, and I was up against it now, in total blackness, willing it to open up and illuminate the direction home.
At times, there is nothing romantic about walking – it is pure purpose – but there is something about these peripatetic pursuits that bring you into direct and dazzling contact with the uncertain. The writer and activist Rebecca Solnit has written significantly about the profound relationship between walking and the unstructured and unquantifiable in her books Wanderlust: A History of Walking and A Field Guide to Getting Lost. For Solnit, there is a substantial connection between walking and the ‘wisdom of not knowing’. Of walking in the city, Solnit writes: “Cities have always offered anonymity, variety, and conjunction, qualities best basked in by walking: one does not have to go into the bakery or the fortune-teller’s, only to know that one might. A city always contains more than any inhabitant can know, and a great city always makes the unknown and the possible spurs to the imagination.”
On the desk that I write this on, I have propped a postcard of Dresden against a photo frame, and observe it now as I type. I picked it up in the Old Town in one of those touristy stores that are tucked into the sides of the pretty, old buildings. It is a reproduced photograph of Dresden taken in August 1949 when the city still stood in devastating disarray and ruin. For Benjamin, the flâneur’s movement through the new metropolis was rooted in memory, provoking a melancholic contemplation of the past. It may depict a different Dresden, but that postcard reminds me of a specific time in a specific place: of doubt, yes; but perhaps also something of discovery. To meander is to go off-course, to be aimless and uncertain, but eventually that might just lead to possibility.