Yes, I had a car, but it wasn’t my first choice of transportation.
Instead, I walked just about everywhere. All the time. Might be why I was still relatively svelte back then, too. We lived in a third-floor flat with no elevator. The laundry room was in the basement.
Hah! YOU hump a week’s worth of laundry for three people down and up four steep flights of stairs in several rounds and tell me that’s not exercise!
I had a wire-haired Dachshund named Max who had to be walked first thing in the morning and a couple of times at night, more often on the weekends. These weren’t short walks, for the most part. Ol’ Max liked a good trot to stretch those stumpy legs of his, so unless the sky was actually falling we did a complete circuit of the neighborhood, probably about a half-mile most times and often, a good deal further than that.
At first, it seemed like a real chore. I wondered what I’d been thinking of, wanting a dog when I lived on the top floor of my building. But it wasn’t long before walking Max became a pleasure. He was a good excuse to get outside and away from everyday chores and troubles at home, a half-hour vacation I took several times a day.
And it was while I was out with that little dog that I learned all the shortcuts around my part of town. After a while I started noticing things like the elusive fragrance of star jasmine on dark summer nights and the nervy wonder of linden trees literally filled with honeybees in the daytime. I learned, with Max straining at the end of his leash, the joys of walking in all kinds of weather. We walked in sleet, rain, wind and snow, sunshine, fog and in the deep, clear, razor-sharp cold, the kind that nearly takes your breath away. We walked in all of it, day in and day out.
There were a lot of other reasons to walk, not least of which was that parking a car was always a chore. On one of my walks with Max, I found a little coffee store tucked back in a quiet neighborhood about eight blocks from my flat. A nice German woman ran it out of her home, and I thoroughly enjoyed the walk, early on weekend mornings. I’d walk home carrying my bag of rich, warm, freshly ground coffee and a little paper sack of Gummi bears for my daughter. The aroma of that coffee – oh my.
Another frequent destination was the local park, a gigantic, glorious place of grass, foresty trees and a lake with swans. I’d walk for hours there, and that was after walking to it. In six years, I never drove the car to that park once, even though I went there frequently.
For more serious shopping downtown, I usually rode the city bus. Once there, I’d hop off and start hoofing it. I’ll admit, the first six months or so, as a spoiled American, it took me a while to get used to, but after a while, I didn’t even think about it anymore. The only time I ever drove my car and parked it downtown was when I was in a hurry (not often) or when I knew I’d have to tote around a lot of heavy shopping bags. After wandering through the open-air market, I’d end up with bags full of cold cuts, sliced cheeses and German candies, fresh vegetables and jars of kraut and aromatic knockwurst wrapped in butcher paper. I’d bring home heavy, fresh-baked loaves of dense, chewy German bread and bouquets of bright flowers, wrapped in crinkly cellophane and tied with curlicue ribbons.
And of course, I’d window shop, too, smelling the smoked fish, the meaty butcher shops, the coffee places and the luscious scents wafting from the bakeries. Sometimes I’d stop and treat myself to coffee and cake at one of the little cafes.
The U.S. Army base where I worked as a civilian writer/editor for the Public Affairs Office was too far away from my flat to walk to, unless I wanted to set out several hours early and do it in the dark (though in the summer I rode my bike fairly often). So I rode the bus. The best part of that was that I got to know my fellow riders. My German absolutely sucked – I was struggling to learn, but it was a slow, slow process – yet I’d be greeted with big smiles and hearty “Guten Morgens!” when I climbed onto that crowded bus at oh-dark-thirty. I made them laugh with my fractured German, but they were kind and encouraging. My neighbors taught me a lot on those rides.
I’d encounter many of those same people on the bus during weekends or on the streets downtown as they did their shopping, too. Always, there was a smile of recognition and cheerful, exchanged greetings.
When I was living in Germany, I felt part of the community in a way that I’ve never felt here. I miss that.
I don’t walk anywhere now. I live eight miles in any direction from towns of any size, so I have to drive to go shopping, or out to dinner, or to a movie. Even if all I want is a pound of coffee, I’m looking at another 16 miles on the speedometer. There are no sidewalks in my own little town, and while there’s one, small, overpriced convenience store, walking the main streets to get to it means risking being hit by a car or, godforbid, a lumber truck.
Because I don’t walk here, I don’t know my neighbors very well. Down the mountain, where I work in a sprawling bedroom community, walking is lunatic. It’s two miles to the nearest grocery store, with nothing in between but McMansions – and no sidewalks. Cars hurtle by at 50 mph. So I get in my car in the morning, drive down the mountain, walk 25 feet into my office, sit in my chair all day, walk 25 feet back out to my car at the end of the day and then drive back home.
If I have to shop, I stop along the way and park as close as I can to the store, especially if it’s dark. It’s not just laziness – it’s not safe in parking lots at night. And I’d never consider just taking a walk at night, alone, like I did in Germany. I’m afraid to, even in this lovely little mountain town.
Maybe there’s a blessing hidden in our rising gas prices. Maybe we’ll all be forced to find work, somehow, closer to home. Maybe we’ll start walking again, getting to know our neighbors, becoming part of the communities in which we live. It’s hard for me to imagine what I’d do here – there’s no newspaper and little industry besides the lumber mill and the orchard farms – but it’s something to ponder.
Change is coming. It might not be all bad.