Walking past the point of no return

tafers

I walked all day, more than I ever have before or ever will again. Up steep forest paths, along by babbling brooks, across fields of barley, through farmyards and back and forth over a railway line, I walked and walked as far as my legs could carry me. And then I stopped, defeated.

I had reached the outskirts of Bern and I had two pressing problems – my feet. You see, the walk didn’t exactly go according to plan. The plan was that I would walk from my home in Fribourg to my old place of work in Bern – a distance of 40 kilometres – over two days.

The first half of the walk would take me Schwarzenburg, covering part of St Jakob’s Weg, the pilgrimage route that leads from Konstanz across Switzerland and France to Santiago de Compostela. I left home at 9.30 in the morning, having delayed as long as I possibly could when I was hit by last minute nerves.

Five hours and eighteen kilometres later I was sitting in a bar in Schwarzenburg, sipping a beer and studying the map. I felt well, the pains in my legs and feet were tolerable, and it was clearly too soon to stop. But could I do the same distance again to reach my final destination? I had to give it a shot.

signs

Walking alone over a long distance is a great way of being present in the moment. The senses take over, the awareness of your own body going about its quiet work of being alive. You look at the ground, you look at everything alive and growing, you look at the horizon. The landscape is gracious, letting you pass – at times opening up far and wide, all rolling hills, woods and meadows; at times closing in to usher you through corridors of stone or dark tunnels of green.

It was a windy day, an east wind with a cold bite known as the ‘bise’ in this part of the world. I ate my lunch in a sheltered spot at the edge of a wood near Heitenried and watched the wild wind rushing across fields of barley. I was thankful for the sun which kept up a regular appearance all day.

sense

An hour and a half after Schwarzenburg, I stopped for a break at an old restaurant beside the bridge and railway station of Schwarzwasserbrücke. According to the hiking signs that I had come to depend on, I had two and a half hours to go. When I stood up my legs were so stiff and sore I half-waddled, half-hobbled out of the place. I felt a pain on the sole of my foot that made me unwilling to take my boot off. The ankle on the other side was already a problem area. I pressed on and the aches faded for a while.

Over the next two hours I crossed some of the loveliest country, farmed in peace for generations. That is the ultimate prize every country should be so fortunate to have.

path

I had my route printed out on ten sheets of A4 paper. On map eight I was still enjoying the view but by map nine I didn’t want to look up anymore to see how painfully slowly I was approaching the next village. The turning point was Niederscherli.

There’s a wonderful approach to the village across a wide area of pasturage called Rifishalte. That part I appreciated. Also the two sweet boys on skateboards who helped me get on the right road out of Niederscherli towards Gasel. But that interruption cost me. A small eternity of twenty minutes later, I limped past Gasel and set my sights on Schliern, every step a trial. I will not forget these places.

There was no possibility of me walking another hour or more across the city of Bern to get to my original destination of Ostring. In Schliern I saw a smartly-dressed old woman going in to a restaurant, every inch the widow. I longed to follow her. It was seven o’clock on Saturday night and I had walked well over thirty kilometres since morning. I turned a corner and saw a bus, a Bern city bus sitting at its terminus, a most welcome sight.

That’s where my walk ended. The bus was due to leave in three minutes. I bought a ticket from the machine, the best two francs I’ve ever spent, and allowed myself to be carried in total luxury four stops to Köniz. All that was left to do was to call my trusty driver to come and get me, and sit content and patient in the last of the sun. I was ready to go home.

I’m going to walk my commute

The road less travelled © Clare O'Dea
The road less travelled © Clare O’Dea

It’s almost exactly 40 kilometres, or 25 miles if you prefer, and I’ve decided I’m going to walk it. I should say I’m not much of a walker. And yet I love it every time I go walking.

Yesterday evening I took a walk to the next village. It took just under an hour. Not a big deal, except it was the first time I had covered that short distance on foot. I probably do that five-minute drive to the local shopping centre three times a week, always in a rush. Never did I expect to become so car dependent.

This time I took the lanes that you don’t see from the road, the natural pathways from farm to farm, through woodland and meadows, fields of rapeseed in bloom. In was delightful, in the true sense of the word. That perfect fifty-minute stroll along country lanes with the sun going down over my right shoulder gave me an idea. Or it reawakened an old idea.

I’m going to walk my commute. It’s not my commute any more but it was for the best part of ten years until two months ago. I worked at the international news service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. The office is in Ostring, on the far side of Bern from Fribourg, where I live. Because it takes twice as long to get there by public transport, I drove to work, most of the way along the highway at 120km per hour. I got to know that route so well but I don’t know the country at all.

A lot of my life is governed by routine. That’s a good thing with children but it’s important too to have days out of the ordinary. My first proper self-employed project is starting next month. Meanwhile I’m getting tantalizing crumbs of hope for my first novel from submissions to agents, but I’d rather not sit around waiting for emails.

A walk like this will be good for body and mind; this specific walk even more so. I’d like to be able to say I walked it once, that I really know the way. Technically you could do it in a day but I think I’ll give myself two days. There’s no time like the present so let’s say I have until the end of this month to start and finish the challenge. I’m using the word challenge loosely here because it’s a beautiful time of year and, although the view has been a bit of a blur until now, a beautiful route too.

This blog has a small following, mostly self-employed people or writers who probably don’t have a commute. But I’m still hoping one of you might have a yearning to do something similar and join me in spirit. Any takers? If you do embark on a special walk, why not send me a photo at the address on the Contact page and I’ll include a mention in my next blog post.

Let me know if you have done something similar, or would consider it, or just like the idea. I’m off to buy hiking boots!

Take a walk with an old man

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Most English speakers will go through life without ever reading a Swiss novel. It’s not surprising. There are so many countries, so many languages – and not enough of their literary treasures are scooped up in the English translation net. But the ones that make it are well worth opening, if only to look at the world through a different lens.

You might find something beautiful, something completely different to anything you’ve ever read before, something like Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon.

I just finished the book on the train on the way home this evening. I also read it while sitting in a department store restaurant in Bern at lunchtime, and in between flipping pancakes for breakfast on Sunday.

The Zbinden of the title is Lukas Zbinden, a frail elderly widower living in a retirement home who loves to talk and loves to go for walks. His progress is his slow journey from his room on the third floor down to the ground floor entrance, on the arm of a carer. The bulk of novel is narrated in his voice during this arduous trek. I can’t imagine how Simon pitched the book but within the confines of this device, he manages to skilfully and movingly present a life story, a love story and a comedy of manners.

No doubt you’ll soon take a shine to them all: the respectable ladies and eccentric gentlemen, the talkative widows and taciturn bachelors, the seasoned walking-frame users, shuffling stay-at-homes with faces like dried meat. The confused ones, whose thoughts roll around like peas on a plate. Those on medication with a cocktail in their veins of which blood’s just a minor ingredient. Veteran engineers, tradesmen and -women, office workers, housewives, civil servants, army personnel, fire extinguisher inspectors, bus drivers, over-achievers, service workers, stationary shop staff.

Zbinden’s Progress is a slim volume but we get to know a lot of Lukas’ fellow residents and their foibles. But most of all the old man likes to wax eloquent about walking, and he puts a lot of energy into trying to convert others to this noble calling.

Do you know what it means to go for a walk? Going for a walk is: acquiring the world. Celebrating the random. Preventing disaster by being away. Speaking to the bees though you’re already a bit too old for that. Not being especially rushed on a street that’s like an oven in the afternoon sun. Missing the tram. … Going at your own pace. Going for a walk is: saying hello to more people than you know. Losing Frau Dürig amid the turmoil of the Christmas market. Sensing a storm brewing, from a distance.

The endearing thing about Lukas Zbinden is that he knows how ridiculous he sounds. A former teacher, he realises he is a pedant but he is never pompous. This is probably because he was married to Emilie, a thoroughly practical woman who combined rock solid self-belief with exceptional generosity of spirit. We hear a lot about his love for Emilie and relive the defining moments of their marriage.

What I love about Zbinden’s Progress is that the main character both encapsulates and subverts the Swiss stereotype. On the surface he has led such a conventional life – army recruit, schoolteacher, married father-of-one, enthusiastic walker – but at heart he’s a revolutionary. I’ll keep an eye out for him on my walks from now on.

Yes, this book will stay with me. Its message of stopping to smell the roses is one we need to be reminded of more than ever in the communication whirlwind modern society has become.

And I really like what he says about competition, “the lion tamer, constantly cracking his whip and rushing people”.

Competition takes us up a very high mountain, from which you can see far. It opens the curtains and we can see all the riches of the world and all its splendour. Competition says to us: I’ll give you all of that if you are industrious enough and compete well.

Zbinden’s Progress (Spaziergänger Zbinden) was translated by Donal McLaughlin, a prolific translator of contemporary Swiss fiction. I mentioned before that I met McLaughlin in Bern recently when he was over from Glasgow for a reading from another of his translations Naw Much of a Talker by Pedro Lenz. I’ll be able to link to a podcast discussion with McLaughlin and Lenz next week when it is published on swissinfo.ch.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your recommendations. What book, translated or not, has awakened strong feelings in you?