I just came home from a walk. The terms “home” and “walk” as used in this sentence, at this particular point in time, being written in this particular place, contain a variety of meanings. What I refer to as “home”, would have not been the same if I had started to write this text a week ago. A “walk” would have been a very different activity than the one that I just referred to, performed under very different circumstances, accompanied by a very different set of emotions, and, of course, evoking a very different collection of thoughts. This very recent walk was performed in my small hometown in Greece, where I spent the first 18 years of my life. I allow myself some room for sentimentality, and hold on to the following realization for a few moments: how interesting it is, that I am choosing this particular wording, in a language that is not my own, to describe something that, a few years ago, would be a “weirdly long walk in and around town, for no reason”. Άσκοπο περπάτημα για πολλές ώρες, μέσα και έξω απ’την πόλη. It seems that here, one must feel “braver” to do things like that• or that is my perception, at least. I have the impression that, in this vibrant small place, people mostly walk to go shopping in the city center, or to go to work, or to grab a coffee and a bite in one of the numerous cafès and restaurants of Trikala, but they don’t really “just” go on walks. Thus the frequent use of cars and bicycles, which, to me, is almost completely irrational for the size of the place. Thinking about the long walk I just took here gave me some perspective: I am thinking of myself as a young woman who lives, works and studies in Berlin for the last three years, and only comes here to visit family and friends every 5-6 months. That can feel “isolating” enough. Going on solitary, three-hour-long walks in and around town, just for the sake of it (let alone it also being part of a “research process”), makes me feel a little extra of an alien. Writing about it, intensifies my fear, rooted deep in my self-consciousness, that I am being phoney. I guess, this is a thought that has come up plenty of times so far and will keep coming up while I am writing my thesis, but I will try and not let it undermine how close I feel to the subject I have chosen to write about (and create from). Intense introspection has always been a part of my thinking -frequently in ways that caused more harm than good. In that respect, it feels quite fitting that I am now re-framing a simple, personal, embodied act, so attached to who I am and how I exist in the world, to explore more complex sides of it. Walking has been increasingly connected to how I feel about myself, as a migrant, a woman, and a person experiencing a pandemic. I view this project as an opportunity to discover why that is, whether it relates to other people’s experiences, and if so, in what ways.
There is, however, one group of thoughts that is as present currently, as it was when I first started venturing out of my room for long hours, almost a year ago. Pandemic-related-thoughts. My strolls have started and are still happening during a global pandemic, taking shapes and forms that fluctuate through time and space. COVID-19 is still spreading at various rates, at different points in time. Changes in public health measures are being announced week after week, lockdowns are being imposed, contact restrictions are being constantly reevaluated• It feels like walking is the sole activity that can remain almost unaffected in this chaotic, confusing reality. It offers a sense of control and of (some) freedom. Last winter, when the first wave of the pandemic hit Berlin, I remember trying to console my frightened self with this thought: even if everything collapses, even if all places shut down and you are not allowed to see a single soul, even if your work and studies freeze completely for months, you can still go for your walks.
In November of 2019, I had a bike accident. I fell off my bike and severely damaged my left shoulder. It did not require surgery to recover, but I had to wear a sling for almost three months. A bike accident is, objectively, a very unpleasant experience. If you are a person that has suffered from intense health anxiety for the most of their lives and is a migrant in a place where the language spoken is not their strong point, it can feel a little more challenging. The above occurring during a global pandemic makes the experience especially painful, both physically and emotionally. Up to that point, cycling and working out had been my main coping mechanisms for the darkness that, what felt like a “sick joke”, had imposed on the lives of most, if not all, humans on earth. So, given my physical state, and the fact that the world was on pause and there was an abundance of free time, I started engaging in the one form of physical exercise that was possible• long walks. Longer than I have ever taken before, lasting two to four hours every day of the week.
There were many things that I think of as utterly remarkable about these first long walks. Firstly, I had never before in my life pushed my limits in such a pleasant way, almost accidentally. I did not know that I was capable of walking around for so long, without really getting lost, or, to put it better, getting mindfully lost, most of the time. I did not care about the cold weather, I did not feel fear, or tiredness, or guilt for spending time without really “being productive” (although, I later came to realize that, for me, these walks have been the essence of productivity and mindfulness). Secondly, I discovered that this kind of walking made me feel more grounded and humble. I acquired a sense of how small I am in comparison to the city. I had also the opportunity to observe a place transforming rapidly, taking various forms• from silent and empty, to reluctantly lively, to almost too lively, and a little less lively again, as pandemic-related regulations changed over the past months. Thirdly, I, for the first time in my life, was able to describe a clear trajectory in my thinking, while on these walks. I always started with worrying about to-dos and schedules, and about my inability to deal with them properly, while my COVID-anxiety and pandemic-related dread was occupying my mind, more largely by the day. After the first hour, I, more often than not, found myself having moved to recollections of past events -mostly pleasant ones. Moving into the second hour, I was now at the stage where I have started imagining positive possible future scenarios• a kind of manifesting. That specific development of my thinking process repeats itself, almost in every walk that exceeds a certain amount of time (approximately ninety minutes). This is a very personal and, of course, not always accurate timeline of how my thinking process develops during a long stroll, but I found it profoundly moving when I stumbled upon the following sentence, written by Rebecca Solnit, in her book “Wanderlust”. As Solnit puts it “Moving on foot seems to make it easier to move in time, the mind wanders from plans to recollection to observations.” (2001: 5). I felt closely connected to that description of a mind’s inner workings, and, although the stages described here are not the same ones that I have identified as my own, I could see, without really being able to grasp the science behind it, how a repetitive, simple, physical activity can have an effect like that in the human psyche. And I find that grounding and beautiful.
A couple of months ago, I was still very reluctant to make the pandemic a point of reference in this project. I think it came from wanting to remain in denial about its severity and duration. I have recently changed my mind about that. I realized that, if life had been like “before”, I would not have allowed myself to view simpler notions, such as taking time to just be outside and observe my surroundings during a walk, as important for my personal growth. I remember feeling grateful for Berlin• for how wide and big its streets seemed to me, for how easy it was to navigate through it because of certain landmarks that help one identify where they might be on the map, and for how unique and different from each other the neighboring areas within the city are. My walks started from and ended at Prenzlauer Berg, where the apartment I was living in at the time was. Moving from Prenzlauer Berg to Mitte and then to Kreuzberg, or from Prenzlauer Berg to Wedding and then to Charlottenburg, often felt like channel surfing while watching tv. The change in imagery that someone is being exposed to by moving from east to west Berlin is profound. That, enhanced by the vivid soundscape of the city, a product of many different languages spoken by members of multiple international communities that co-exist here, transforms a city walk into a rich audio-visual experience. My most pleasant memories about connecting to the urban environment, are of random encounters with bodies of water, like small ponds or the canal, and green areas, such as large parks that I found myself having to pass through to either move further away from or closer to home.
As my senses were gradually being heightened during these walks, I started paying closer attention to people around me. I have always indulged in people-watching, especially when I went out by myself to read or work at a cafè or sit at a park to enjoy the sun in the spring or summertime. The practice transformed from sedentary to active/mobile, and I started thinking more and more about my fellow city-walkers, frequently wearing masks (during the first phase of the lockdown) and walking in pairs (as for a certain amount of time we were only allowed to meet people from the same household) or by themselves. I remember feeling sad, but also curious about this change in how people occupied public space. I will never forget a silent encounter I had with an old couple, both wearing masks and holding each other's hands while they were slowly walking towards me on a narrow sidewalk. They had to stop to make space for me to pass by them, as the distance that has been marked as “safe” by the public health authorities is that of one and a half meters between two individuals. We exchanged looks, and I think I could feel a sense of “we are so sorry this is happening now between us” in their eyes. I was younger and safer from this invisible threat, and they were older, and more vulnerable, even more so because vaccines were not yet available by that time. And we were all sorry.
People have also made me hopeful and positively emotional during my winter pandemic walks. I had the sense that many of us started walking for the same reason -because there was nothing else to do, and being confined in an apartment for most of the day makes you feel bad. I felt a sense of “masked” solidarity in the air. Random, small “moments of joy” that I happened to witness on the streets (like a young parent chasing a toddler on a tiny bicycle, or a couple briefly removing their masks to kiss) had a significant impact on my mood, that I carried with me when finally returning home. I remember joining a small, socially-distancing crowd, pausing to look up at a balcony, where a very skilled musician was playing cello, accompanied by a saxophonist at the neighboring balcony of the same building. Music, like walking, is always going to be, no matter what.
During my long walks, I started a very vigorous message exchange with my friend Hanna. When on my strolls, I would record voice messages for her, and she would reply with equally long and interesting recordings. We would reflect on our physical and mental state at the time of the recording, on our relationships (with our partners, friends, parents, employers), and then, very frequently, we would listen to our recordings again and we would further examine the reasoning behind our arguments, our tone and how it was shaped by our moods, and our thinking processes or behavioral patterns we would spot coming up in our conversations. I think, what made our discourse important for me, was that we share common characteristics that made us compatible as conversationalists, while also maintaining a different perspective on things and on each other’s lives (she lived in Istanbul at the time). Very frequently, we reflected on our personal experience as migrants living and working in big cities and how that experience is related to greater societal issues (for example, how do we feel as young women that are trying to establish different types of careers at a place where we do not exactly speak the language perfectly and that both come from countries of the “global south”). I realized that this intense tendency for self-examination and self-psychoanalysis might be the main reason why I so strongly feel the need to relate to other people and their emotions – because it makes me feel like a part of something bigger, it makes me understand that my experiences and feelings are not as unique and important as they sometimes feel. It makes me feel small, and I love that feeling. Exactly like when I envision myself as this small dot, moving through the big city.
An important part of this voice-recording exchange was revisiting them, either right after the end of the walk during which they have been recorded, or after a couple of weeks or even months have passed from the time of the recording. The latter has always been interesting because my feelings or opinions about the things that had been confessed or discussed might have changed by then. Thus, it always amazed me how transparent this process of evolution and growth could seem, just by revisiting a conversation recorded a month ago, about a person or a situation that is not at all relevant in the here and now. There has been a pivotal moment in the shaping of my perception of this “digital choreography”, my friend and I were creating through our message exchange. That was the moment I realized that the messages that I have recorded for her while on my walks were very different than the ones recorded while at home, or at work, or at any other place that would require me to be still, in a “spatially confined” state. My “moving” messages were clearer and, I think, more interesting. Deeper and more self-reflexive. They projected a version of myself that I like more. And they would reveal, what seems to me, a clearly defined journey of rumination, from the mundane and personal to the extraordinary and universal.
Autoethnography (the I)
It is impossible for me to talk about anything, at least in a way that I feel is interesting, without relating it to myself. It sounds awfully egocentric, and probably is, but I think of this research and writing process as an exercise in transparency and truth, as well as an academic endeavor, so I choose to reveal and explore my true motives. I like to think that my research trajectory imitates my walking trajectories. It is certainly not linear, it comes in different shapes and sizes, it expands and contracts and it fluctuates according to where I am, physically and mentally, at each moment of my process. It started as a coping mechanism• it got enriched by an establishment of a “digital friendship”. It then developed into a practice I would include in my daily life for practical reasons, as, due to severe financial difficulties I have been facing for some time, I try to avoid paying for tickets for public transport, and also, because of my bike accident, I try not to cycle when the weather is bad (which is frequently the case in Berlin). So, I walk to think, to entertain myself, and to commute.
Autoethnography has been a valuable tool that “gave me permission” to adapt my research process to my personality, and, mostly, avoid the opposite. My intuition would tell me that all anthropological/ethnographic research is much more interesting and rich when conducted from an Autoethnographic perspective• as it is impossible to separate one’s practice from the self, the societal biases, the feelings and emotions, and the physicality and embodiment of the above, that come with experiencing life as a human being. From an ethical perspective, my rational mind would urge me to become critical of the integrity of the method: How can it be, that a scientific process blended with and influenced by the profound subjectivity of one’s personal experiences, is still a legitimate and meaningful contribution to any subject? However, that argument never really resonated with me emotionally. I believe that the truth of one’s experience is as unique and valuable to themselves, as it is to the receptors of its narrative. If performed carefully and “holistically”, Autoethnographic Research can allow space for both the researcher and the audience to read through the multiple layers of meanings that it entails. A great help in answering the many questions and critical thoughts was reading Carolyn Ellis’ “Heartful Autoethnography”, where she answers a Ph.D. student’s questions about the validity of the Autoethnographic approach to her research about women survivors of breast cancer. During one of their walks, Ellis (1991) is trying to explain to the student, a survivor herself, that transparency, and being able to talk about her own experience with cancer from a very personal point of view, are critical factors that, in the end, are going to assist in raising empathy and awareness in individuals that might, or might not, are going through something similar. She goes on to answer the woman’s question about whether not having been able to journal about her experience while going through the treatment would be problematic for her research, saying that even writing about the aftermath of it, exactly how she remembers feeling at the time, is equally important and valid. That reassuring statement felt significant for my project: I, too, had not been journaling while on my walks. Or, at least, not in the conventional sense.
My documentation of my walks was a process of thoughts being materialized in a couple of ways: firstly, in numerous audio files of voice messages I have recorded for my friend, revisited multiple times and categorized into thematics we tended to focus on more while talking to each other. Some of the categories are: “Us and the Pandemic”, “Dreams”, “Thoughts on being a migrant/commentary on the people and culture of the ‘hosting country’”. Secondly, in keeping an “archive” of screenshots of my Google Maps Timeline, of almost every day I had gone on a long walk, from the start of the pandemic, until a couple of weeks ago. Editing that archive has been a very interesting process. By looking at the different locations, I was able to revisit memories and feelings that I had almost completely forgotten. Some locations kept coming up, of course, and they are now “registered” in my mind as the things that have managed to remain consistent during these turbulent last couple of years (e.g. the locations of my piano lessons or the house of my current partner). Some others would appear just once or twice, and they would remind me of certain events that felt significant at the time (e.g. the location of a clinic, where I accompanied a trans friend to be admitted for his top surgery, or the one time I visited the last place a close friend was living in Berlin before she moved to Paris, to spend New Year’s Eve together). Thirdly, there has been, of course, some kind of journaling done after the walks, about thoughts that came to me during strolling around the city, but I would say that the volume and quality of that would not be enough to showcase the impact that walking has had on me during the last couple of years.
Psychogeography (the I in the We)
While trying to figure out how to make this small contribution to the subject of walking meaningful, I started thinking about what in my current circumstances could make it unique. I am trying to discover how these long walks in Berlin, where I live as a migrant, are helping me to understand my relationship to the city better. Guy Debord’s psychogeography emphasizes “the practice of defamiliarization” to re-discover the city again, and I think that a huge part of living abroad is about being “defamiliarised” from the version of yourself you had been familiar with before you moved. A practice that makes someone familiar with a place is building memories in it. When the memories are being built as you walk in it, then the connection between you and the (in my case) urban environment grows stronger. Especially because, this particular place, has acted both as the landscape and the taskscape in which I have generated the thoughts and ideas that have felt the most important to me. I got familiar with the term “taskscape” when reading Tim Ingold’s “The Temporality of the Landscape” (1993). Relating it to the following quote Solnit wrote in “Wanderlust”, “The rhythm of walking generated a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts”, made the relationship between introspection and walking through the city more clearly defined to me. Psychogeography also pointed out another aspect in this process of re-thinking the meaning of walking. Playfulness. Playfulness is an element that my personality lacks. I tend to take things seriously and personally, and sometimes that can negatively affect my well-being. The Situationists, the concepts and ideas of the dérive, the flâneur, the techniques for purposefully-getting-lost-in-the-city for one to “become one” with it, physically and intellectually, inspire me to understand the scale and gravity of my presence in Berlin in a more fun way. I am small, moving, thinking and feeling, smelling and hearing, inhaling, and exhaling. I am playing.
Artistic Research and Practices of Embodiment (the We in the City)
Thinking of playfulness as the means to re-discover an act as deeply integrated into the human experience as walking, pointed me towards looking into how different artists or artistic groups have incorporated walking in their practices. The various projects I stumbled upon using walking as a vehicle to create an experience for participants and/or audience that would focus on sociopolitical topics to raise awareness, empathy, and a sense of togetherness amongst people. An example that I found particularly interesting is a project called “Walking: Holding”, created in 2011 by the Glasgow-based artist Rosana Cade. Rosana encouraged one audience member to walk through the city of Glasgow, while holding hands with various individuals representing various cultural and gender identities, following pre-designed routes. “The Green Line”, a project created and performed by Francis Alÿs in Jerusalem in 2004, is another piece of work that uses walking as a means for political commentary. The artist walked for 24 kilometers, holding a leaking can of green paint, recreating the line that was drawn as the border between the two parts the city was divided in, due to heavy conflict that lasted from December 1947, until June 1948. Another point of reference that I found inspiring is a project called “Human Cartographies”, by Emilie Beffara and Namer Golan. Soundscapes recorded from people going on walks in different locations (for the moment: Toulouse, Balma, and Tarn) create “a map of sound walks in cities tracing spaces through their echoes and their movements, through those who are contemporary to them” (source: https://www.blindsignalberlin.com/human-cartography).
I have stated above that walking has been increasingly connected to how I feel about myself, and that I view this project as an opportunity to discover why that is, whether it relates to other people’s experiences, and if so, in what ways. The first part of this thesis is my attempt to approach my research autoethnographically, writing about my thinking processes related to walking and the effect of my surroundings on my psyche, my emotional experience of drifting in the city during the different stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the relationship between my strolls and the formation of a digital, remote friendship, that increased my self reflexivity. Inspired by a) the artistic processes I mentioned above that used walking as their main tool for creation, and b) the words of Levana Saxon, facilitator, trainer, and educator committed to supporting community-led change for Beautiful Trouble, about the practice of “Artstorming”: “When seeking to awaken collective intelligence, brainstorming can only get you so far. “Artstorming” invites participants to jump directly into the unmediated experience of creation, engaging the full spectrum of our creative intelligence. Better ideas, and often amazing creations, result.” (Saxon, 2016), I decided that the best way to further develop and deepen my research is to create a collective, “artstorming” experience. The input of the facilitators and the participants in my research and the workshop, I believe, touched upon most, if not all the aforementioned inquiries. We explored the notions of memory, embodiment, exploration of one’s identity, and the effect that observing the city we move in has on how we feel about ourselves in relation to the world. The final product of this research is a website, where all the material of both my processes of documenting my walks and everything that was collectively produced before and during the WALKshop by all the facilitators and participants, is put together in the form of a “digital exhibition”. I intend to further develop the project through a series of future workshops so that this platform can be expanded and informed by different individual and collective experiences about walking and its relationship to ourselves and the places we move in.
During our interview, Filipa said something that deeply moved me and that I feel I relate to very strongly: “I am really attached to the ground actually. I like it, I feel safe. So, if someone invited me to go on a trip around the world, I would be pleased to go walking.”
If someone invited me to go on a trip around the world, I wish I could go walking too.
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FAUVE (2018) Jeremy Comte, Canada, 16:24 min
Hamish Fulton, Significant Insect, 06 March to 17 April 2021 (2021) Stefan Haenhel, Berlin, Galerie Thomas Schulte, 10:44 min
The Green Line (2004) Francis Alÿs in collaboration with Philippe Bellaiche, Rachel Leah Jones, and Julien Devaux. Jerusalem, Israel, 17:41 min
Walking (1968) Ryan Larkin, Canada, The National Film Board of Canada, 5:06 min