Like most people of my generation, I thought I knew how to walk (even though I hardly ever bothered to) until I actually, very recently, learned how. I became what you might say a born-again walker or a peripatetic of some conviction. It started earlier in the year as an attempt at moderate exercise. It gradually grew into a good healthy daily habit as I traversed the streets of my beautiful sea-side West Sussex town in the south of England, in late winter and early spring, admiring the well-kept famous English gardens or gazing at the distant horizon beyond the ocean. It finally turned into an inspiration during my visit over the Easter period in my hometown of Heraklion in Crete.
Walking became more than an excuse for physical exercise. It became an effortless and very natural exercise in meditation. And it proved a soothing ritual in helping me prepare to face, and then face and process the exodus of my father from this life, during that same Easter period, following a short but severe illness in old age. Whilst I spent the time I could at his bed side, I was not always allowed there. And whilst not there, I was mostly out walking. His image, bound on that bed, eagerly anticipating the elusive recovery, propelled me onwards in my walks.
Beyond the obvious reminder that life is short and that we must be out there living it the best we can, there was a deeper realisation that life is movement, thinking, observation, feeling. I rediscovered my hometown. I found new corners or revisited old but changed areas. Cities are living things. With age we discover that what in youth looks ageless or motionless in the landscape, in later life appears ever-moving and breathing and shifting, ever-changing, ever-aging, ever-rejuvenating. I walked the alleys, admired the neo-classical buildings still standing, or the ruins of far more modest dwellings all having rich stories to tell and no mouths to speak – just their looks and wares or wounds.
I walked round the venetian city walls many a time, admiring the blooming nature, taking in the scents of spring, absorbing the sunshine. I visited (up at the highest bastion called Martinengo) the austere stone resting place of the city’s most famous child, Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of many books, including Zorba, and Kapetan Michalis, else known as “freedom or death”. I pondered at the inscription on the tombstone “I fear nothing, I hope nothing, I am free” – realising these are the words denoting death, the ultimate liberation. I did not long for such liberation, neither for myself, nor for any other. Unashamedly I still feared death and hoped for life.
Yet, the more I sensed such ultimate freedom inexorable, and the closer I got to the dreaded liberation, the more I continued on my walks and covered very long distances daily. I observed the city breathe as a living thing, wake, get busy, tire, take a break mid-day, re-awake and then carry on or party into the night. Life was there in abundance in the city centre, just as it flickered perilously elsewhere.
And I took inspiration not just by the great Dead of Martinengo, who was immortalised in his writings, but also by the great Dying at the hospital, whose stories I also tried to claim to posterity through successive recorded Skype interviews which I had typed out into a sort of a memoir during the Covid lockdowns. In my mind I noted the connection. Not long before my Easter visit, while still in England and unsuspecting the imminent loss, I remember reading out extracts to my father and mother on Skype from Kapetan Michalis, describing the island, the city, the death of Kapetan Sifakas (the father of the protagonist) in grand old age, the eternal fight for freedom. The book, the hospital, the bastion with the proud inscription, all part of a single pilgrimage.
And thus I saw walking in a different light. I saw how it could dilate time (and how I needed that then!). How to allow the fleeting present to own dimension. How it could allow the human brain to experience space-time unadulterated. And it made me perceive modernity through a critical and sad lens. In the age of automobiles, mobile smart phones, and the internet, we seem to have lost the ability to appreciate the journey. Instant gratification, a by-product of fast movement or fast communication, has compressed space without actually dilating time. Because the perception of time has also been compressed. In a fast-moving world, time itself seems to move ever faster. We think we save time, while we actually lose the feeling of it. Constantly transported to the future, while we permanently miss the present.
A long slow walk gives you back the longed-for slow time. And gives more than that: the appreciation of effort required to move from A to B. It’s then you may best internalise Cavafis’ lines in Ithaca: “as you set out for Ithaka hope your road is a long one.” A long walk is an antidote to this great ill of our time, instant gratification. The sort of gratification that breeds impatient and impetuous youth, who are always bored, who have no patience for thick books, Dickensian narration, or slow cinematography. The sort of gratification that also breeds impatient voters, susceptible to the sirens of populism, as they have no time for the hard effort of the necessary journey from A to B, but expect the instant arrival at the utopian political destination of effortless prosperity.
I recalled my father’s recounting of his long walks as a kid, in the years before the last great war, as they had to load the donkey with wood sticks from the mountainous village and set out at 4 am in complete darkness in order to descend to the city by daybreak on foot, and sell the wood, which was used for cooking, in order to then use the meagre earnings to buy a meagre quantity of food or other essentials and return late at night, always on foot, or as he had to walk for hours without shoes to go to school to a nearby village, or to carry drinking water. Scraping a living with bare hands, always on their feet. What a generation of stoic, patient, happy, hardy giants! How he never used a sofa, only a hard chair. As I knew he had walked his last, I also knew how full of “adventure and of discovery, how full of Laistrygonians, Cyclops, and angry Poseidon” his long walk to Ithaka had been and how full of life, with little fear, he always “kept his thoughts raised high!”
And so, paying jealous vigil for all my (remaining) fears and hopes, I have to keep walking …
You can contact Panagiotis at PPerysinakis@aol.com. See further writings on his blog Anileos.