After high school, I moved to Paris for an internship. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, but I was far from fluent in French and too young and shy to find my footing. I lived in a tiny shoebox of a studio in the 11th arrondissement and, for a while, I didn’t meet anybody my age. The tight corners of my 14 square meters felt safe, but exhaustingly isolating. The city was irresistible, however, with its people, streets and other things to encounter luring me away from my hide-out, so I would out for walks whenever I had the time. To get out, I got dressed to a T in what I imagined ‘Saskia in Paris’ would look like. I put my earphones in, turned on my iPod (yes, this was a while ago) to either Daft Punk’s Alive, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid or Feist’s The Reminder, and I would step outside onto the cobblestones. Inconvenient cobblestones, falsely referring to a small town aesthetic, that I could sense had carried so many people’s stories that my energy rose as soon as I turned my first corner. As I lived through those first months of, at times, profound loneliness, Paris was my partner, and walking was my remedy.
In the last year, I’ve come to nurture a similar relationship with my current hometown. Living through the pandemic in a shared apartment next to a concrete road in the middle of Utrecht has often left me counting corners. To escape the monotony, I started walking. At first, I would take a familiar route through the city center, but soon the circle expanded and I would often challenge myself to find other streets, other neighborhoods, other things to encounter.
These walks were generally a source of happiness, since they were some of the few moments in which I could perform an act of spatial freedom. I would move according to my mood, I would greet or ignore other walkers, I would go solo or meet up with a friend. For many of us, walking has become a significant highlight of the past year. It has become the rare occasion that allows us to relieve our square eyes from blue lit screens, and move, meet and meander. With spring soon turning into summer, and sunny days already creeping in, Paratext’s next theme will be: “Promenade.”
To promenade is to take a leisurely walk with, perhaps, a touch of exhibition, because it is often paired with the expectation to encounter or to be encountered by other walkers. I am reminded of Charles Beaudelaire’s flâneur, a (seemingly unavoidable) literary and philosophical character, made further iconic by Walter Benjamin, whose perambulations are characterized by a curious kind of anachronism. The flâneur explores the space of urban modernity, but continues to reminisce the past. He, (or she) is an observer, but is simultaneously part of what is observed; they are both radically different as inherently same. At times, living through a pandemic has felt exactly like this: an estranging reality.
Etymologically, promenade can be traced back to its Latin origin ‘prominare.’ Tellingly, the suffix ‘minare’ can be understood to mean to drive forward, with a hint of menacing threat to motivate the action. We are currently constantly driven, pushed forward, pushed out of what we knew as normal, with a haunting sense of contamination or the threat of containment. We move to avoid illness and we move to feel free. To walk, to promenade, then, becomes an act of survival and a source of freedom away from enclosure.
I have made walks along the Seine (Paris), through the Noorderplantsoen (Groningen) and by the Oudegracht (Utrecht), and I have met up with Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), Alexander Supertramp (Into the Wild) and Leopold Bloom (Ulysses). I have Fran Lebowitzed through the city as I got irritated by the invasive species that is the non-distanced passing stranger. I have flaunted my new summer dress and hid my face from passersby. I have listened to stories as I continued to put one foot in front of the other, I have shared anecdotes to ears that moved along with me. I have promenaded more than I would have probably done otherwise and have seen parts of the city that I would have missed.
Have you become somewhat of a flâneur yourself? Or have you journeyed in other ways? What riches have you found on your walks? We from Paratext are eager to find out where your walks have taken you, or what to promenade may entail for you. As of now, we are open for submissions for our May/June theme “Promenade,” and look forward to hearing from you! Posts may vary extensively: we accept poetry and prose, essays and fiction, video essays, music, collages, paintings – you name it! Should you want to submit or brainstorm with our team, feel free to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get back to you!
Happy walking ❤
written by Saskia Soelaksana