Walking in Sydney: From Beach to Campus (And Back)

I like writing about walking–to work, and around New York City, for instance–on these pages. I like walking through new cities, for it remains the best way–at the right remove–to experience their offerings. One walk that combined commuting with exploration was one I undertook, sporadically, for a few months, in Sydney, Australia, while living in Bondi Beach and working on a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of New South Wales in Randwick.

My normal commute to work was by bus: I rode any one of a number of buses to Bondi Junction, and then transferred to the 400, which dropped me off at university. I soon tired of waiting at bus-stands for buses that didn’t offer me a seat; I tired too of the hassle of a transfer. I realized, quickly enough, that Sydney–situated in a particularly salubrious temperate latitude–had gorgeous weather aplenty that was simply going to waste by my riding in buses; I should walk instead.

A quick calculation with maps showed the most direct route–Bondi Road to Council Street to Carrington Road to Frenchman’s Road to Avoca Street to the university entrance on High Street–would take some fifty minutes. If I left home at 8AM as I usually did, I would arrive at my desk at about the same time as I did when I rode in by bus.  And in the evenings, I would be back home by six.

My walks, of course, soon became much more than simple commutes. I had moved to Australia from the US and left many friends–including a long-distance girlfriend–behind; I was in an uncertain phase of my life as far as my career was concerned; walking each day for close to an hour on each leg of my work commute gave me ample time to think about emotional crises, intellectual anxieties, and to endlessly, and fruitlessly at times, examine and speculate about my many insecurities in both the personal and professional domains. I would be lying if I suggested that my walks were merely taken up by a leisurely examination of whichever problem in the logical modeling of human reasoning I was working on in those days.

But I was in Sydney, and Sydney is a beautiful city. I could take small detours–visiting the many beaches that lay on my way back home–to explore more of its offerings and I often did. Sydney’s light in the evenings was golden;  the eastern suburbs I was walking through were framed at their prettiest by its rays. Sometimes, storms would threaten, and then, I would be treated to dazzling sunsets–the most colorful manifestation possible of the seemingly mundane phenomena of the scattering of light,  to ominous clouds and to deep, persistent rolls of thunder. Somehow, I felt reluctant to hurry up and seek shelter, sensing that even more spectacular visions were soon to be available if I could brave a soaking to the skin.  And then, of course, in the evenings, on my return home, as I walked down Bondi Road, there was the first sight of the breakers of the mighty Pacific, rolling in relentlessly against Bondi’s crescent-shaped sands.

It wouldn’t have looked the same from a seat in the bus.

Walking the City: Random Walks Through Manhattan Streets

In Street Life: Becoming Part of the City, Joseph Mitchell wrote:

What I really like to do is wander aimlessly in the city. I like the walk the streets by day and by night. It is more than a liking, a simple liking–it is an aberration. Every so often, for example, around nine in the morning, I climb out of the subway and head toward the office building in midtown Manhattan in which I work, but on the way a change takes place in me–in effect, I lose my sense of respectability–and when I reach the entrance to the building I walk right past it, as if I had never seen it before. I keep on walking, sometimes only for a couple of hours, but sometimes until deep in the afternoon, and I often wind up a considerable distance away from midtown Manhattan–up in the Bronx Terminal Market maybe, or over on some tumbledown old sugar dock on the Brooklyn riverfront, or out in the weediest part of some weedy old cemetery in Queens. It is never very hard for me to think up some excuse that justifies me in behaving this way…

I lived in Manhattan from 1993 to 2000 and often walked ‘aimlessly in the city’; Manhattan’s layout encouraged such roaming. It felt like a gigantic playground, laid out so as to invite exploration. I moved across the Hudson to 95th Street and West End Avenue in 1993, and soon began walking regularly to and from my classes on 42nd Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues). I wanted to vary my walk, so I chose different methods for changing my routes: sometimes crossing straight over to Broadway and then walking uptown, sometimes heading for Central Park West, sometimes letting the lights regulate my path. The feeling of stumbling onto a never-before explored city block never grew old; I often thought of checking them off a list but felt too lazy to do so, trusting that time and my randomizing algorithms would eventually exhaust the possibilities. When I moved to the Lower East Side (5th Street between Avenues A and B) in 1997, I continued walking to 42nd Street, and was able to conduct my explorations while heading uptown. As always, I found storefronts, buildings, street characters, food, and sundry other urban features and residents I would not have had I stuck exclusively to taking the subway.

Manhattan encouraged expansive walking. I dreamed up extravagant routes and sometimes acted on these plans. On one such jaunt, I walked from 5th Street to 110th (the northern edge of Central Park), moving from 59th to 110th along Central Park East, turned west, walked south along Central Park West down to 59th again, turned east to Lexington Avenue, walked south till 28th, where I stopped for some Indian food, before heading back home. I planned too, to walk the entire length of Broadway, never pulled it off, but haven’t given up that dream yet.

Walking on Manhattan streets reminded me, as always, that the best way to experience a city is from street level; the pace is right, its features pop into focus, you can stop and stare and sample. A city is made up of streets; walking on them is still how one best finds out what makes it tick.

Walking, Head Down, on a Damp and Grey Day: How Virtuous It Is

On days like this, many residents of the US eastern seaboard are apt to question their decision to ever inhabit these spaces. The temperature is in the thirties (that’s just a couple of degrees above freezing point for all the folks living in Celsius-land); a steady, persistent drizzle is falling; and the most familiar color of all here on the East Coast, grey, has been used to paint, yet again, New York’s urban landscapes. Many of us will stay indoors today, but those who venture out will find that that experience brings its own reward, one which I suspect underwrites the tolerance that long-term East Coasters have for this benighted clime. Which is that walking, head down, through near-freezing temperatures while water drips off your hat, beanie, jacket  or whatever–because you know, many New Yorkers, like Pacific Northwesters, disdain umbrellas when rain of this intensity is falling–is often prone to provoking an acute sense of virtuousness in oneself.

Why would that be? For one thing, the mere fact of being outdoors puts you on the side of the Spartans. You have disdained comfort, the domestic hearth, and have ventured forth boldly. Not for you the safety of the familiar, the quotidian. No, suffused with the spirit of the intrepid, you have dared to look into your closet, laced and buttoned up, and sallied out. And once outdoors, the physical particulars of the day are conducive to a very distinctive mode of daydreaming.

As you walk, head bowed, grimly determined to make it through and past the damp and cold, you enter a zone similar to that entered by many who persistently engage with the uncomfortable: the once seemingly impossible barriers that your task seemed to have raised start to melt away, leaving you with the pleasing possibility that your abilities have the magical effect of making life more tractable.  This is gratifying in the extreme.

But even more importantly walking in bad weather forces a mode of concentration upon us that is increasingly hard to find and persist with in our normal, constantly-interrupted, notified, pinged, paged, and remindered existence: for that span of time that the walk persists, its just you and the execrable weather. And when things are that intimate, when using the smartphone might not be, you know, all that smart, why not just retreat a little bit into the ever more unfamiliar space of introspection?

I suspect these ventures into that space are often found by us to be pleasurable, that we enjoy our retreats into these rare moments of solitude. Thoughts move a little differently, they are not so easily displaced by external stimuli. Because, lets face it, on an East Coast day like this, who wants to look about and around, and stop and stare? Better to press on.

And that pressing on is really the clincher, I think. Nothing quite makes you imagine yourself as the relentless, courageous, explorer like a walk in really, really, shitty weather.

And yes, I did go out today.