Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Walking to work

I've always loved walking, but not the sort that involves hefty boots, countryside (yawn), real ale, and facial hair.

I like walking through towns and cities, especially to and from work.

Paris was fantastic for it of course, although much of the industrial and office space is actually well outside city limits in the red suburbs, so often the distances were too far. Mind you, when the annual public transport strikes occurred, you didn't have a choice, and it was a matter of getting up an hour or two earlier and setting out, A to Z tucked into an inside pocket.

Suspiciously, the strikes always seemed to take place in June or July, when the morning walk in particular was just wonderful - cool crisp air gradually warming, making steady progress whilst thousands of Parisians sat grid-locked in their cars experiencing "le stress." The little loves, the most individually talented but collectively stupid people I've ever come across.

But the best place for a walk to work was on the face of it the most unlikely - Lowell, Massachusetts. The first place I lived was about 35 minutes from the office, past a huge cemetery and then onto a disused railway track. I'd step from sleeper to sleeper feeling like Hemingway's Nick Adams. It was a brilliantly romantic start and end to each day, and every now and again some unexpected Americana would occur.

A few times a group of pale, slightly grubby young men squatted in orange jump-suits painting the iron railings to the cemetery watched by a couple of sharp looking officers armed with rifles - "Cool Hand Luke" right in front of you. The inmates would smile weakly, and wish me good morning or a howyadoing? No greeting from the guards.

Another time walking back home on a lovely September evening, the moon was low just above the trees and looked at least five times bigger than normal. A harvest moon, shimmering, hallucinatory and an optical effect I've never seen before. I stood there gawping for a minute or two and then continued on my way home walking towards it, amazed that such things actually happened.

But the best time was another sunny evening, strolling down the rusty line, under the bridge with the slightly sinister graffiti that changed overnight, and I stop, horrified. Someone's parked a huge goods train on the "disused" track. I laugh, amazed, then squeeze carefully past flat car after flat car, past bushes bent back and broken, past a small silver birch uprooted and carried hundreds of yards jammed between the wagons, and finally up to the embankment where I turn left and up into the empty factory yard and onto the road. No end to the train, 30, 40, 50 flat cars long, curving around the bend out of sight. The railway line wasn't disused after all, merely "seldom used." The next morning the train was gone, and if it wasn't for all the damaged undergrowth, I might have dreamt it...

Despite everything that is said and written about America, the crime, the poverty, the corruption, the appalling ineptitude of its leaders, all good points, despite itself it's a magical country.



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