I’ve just been reading one of Bill Bryson’s hilarious books and laughing merrily to myself all the way through it. The man both delights and saddens me: the former because he writes like I can only dream of doing, making the most mundane things seem utterly hilarious; the latter because, well, he writes like I can only dream of doing.
I was particularly amused by his observation that in some places it’s virtually impossible to to be a pedestrian in this age of getting into the car and driving 200 yards to the shop for a loaf of bread. While I must confess to having been guilty of this on many occasions, I now have a slightly different perspective, being well and truly Without Car, and Bryson’s observation has proved to be accurate for me on several occasions over the past few months. The reason I laughed so much at his earnest tale of trying to walk to his destination (to the horrified disbelief of the man he’d asked for directions, who tried to urge him to take a taxi because it was at least a mile away) is that I’ve experienced the same sort of issues – but, being me, I thought it was just because I was slightly dim-witted and was choosing to walk in the wrong places. It never occurred to me that actually there’s nothing crazy about walking a short distance through a city centre, and that it’s just a reflection of our general laziness as a species that there are large areas that are virtually impossible to traverse with only your own two feet to carry you.
Bryson was enjoying his saunter through the town, extolling the virtues of a walk on a nice sunny day. You saunter. You amble. Then you come to a mad junction at Burger King and discover that the new six-lane road to K-Mart is long, straight, very busy and entirely without facilities for pedestrians… I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found myself in a situation exactly like this. I’ve had some frightening moments when trying to do something as simple as get to the other side of a road. In several places, I was forced to conclude that you simply are not meant to do so, if you don’t have a car. The other side of the road is not for you. It is forbidden. In other places, I persevered and either made the suicidal dash across what Bryson calls six lanes of hostile traffic, or found an alternative route, usually adding at least half a mile to my journey, cutting through muddy/rocky/private grounds, and/or getting completely lost.
By far the craziest set-up I discovered was Budapest. The day that I explored the city on foot will remain forever etched in my mind. Vividly. With sound effects. My enduring memory is of the road along the Danube, between the river and the parliament building. I’d been walking all day and was exhausted, but I’d just crossed over the Chain Bridge from Buda into Pest and figured it would be a shame to not do the river walk while I was there. This was not as simple as it sounds. I could see the road, but I had absolutely no way of getting to it. Traffic was flowing quite madly in all directions, and I did my usual dance of crossing about 15 roads just to get to the other side of the one I’d started on. Once on the correct road, I had to figure out which side I should be walking on. The side nearest the river had an ankle-high barrier separating a narrow, pebbly pathway from the zooming traffic; the side that I was on had a separate lane that could plausibly have been used by pedestrians, but was instead occupied by hundreds of parked cars stretching as far as the eye could see. I opted to stay where I was, on account of the zooming traffic and the slightly dangerous appearance of the river “path”, and began to walk along the side of the road, getting odd looks from drivers and trying to weave in and out of the parked cars without setting off any alarms or actually getting wedged in (which almost happened on two occasions). Several times I had to wait for a brief gap in the traffic and step out on to the road to get around a badly-parked car, which was great for getting the adrenaline going.
When I reached the end of the row of parked cars (after about 15 minutes), I discovered that the lane, too, had ended and that there was not, in fact, any way to proceed on foot. Gritting my teeth and looking all around me in bewilderment and annoyance, I realised there was only one thing for it.
I turned and walked all the way back. I couldn’t cross the road at that point; it would have been complete madness, and I would not be here now telling you the story. No, I had to walk all the way back to where I’d started, and go in search of a safer, quieter spot to cross. I still ended up having a horn blared at me, but at least I was on the “path” now, with the relative safety of potholes, protruding objects, boat ropes and a sheer drop – mere inches from my feet – into the River Danube should any of these things cause me to stumble. All this, together with the slippery surfaces caused by the constant rain, made it a walk that I will never be able to forget.
The roads in general in Budapest were genuinely confusing, and I had several Brysonesque moments just trying to proceed along a single road before I realised that the reason for the complete absence of footpaths and crossing points was that there were ramps leading to a series of tunnels underground – you crossed the roads by going under them, not over them. Ingenius concept, except that for a foreigner with (a) no knowledge of the city and (b) absolutely no sense of direction anyway, it was near on impossible to figure out which exit you wanted to take when you went down there. I tried at least three at every one I came to, repeating the embarrassing process of emerging into the street, looking around to figure out where I’d been before I went underground, realising that I’d actually crossed to the wrong road, going back down and trying a different exit.
Still. It was much better than running out into the middle of six lanes of traffic, dodging three of them, and causing the fourth one (coming unexpectedly from the opposite direction) to screech to a halt and start blaring their horns as I stood frozen to the spot and panicking about whether to keep going to the other side or turn and run back. Not that that ever happened to me at any point, of course.