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A Wandering Pursuit: On The Beauty of Walking Without a Destination

How I came to appreciate the extraordinarily ordinary act of putting one foot in front of the other.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

I always start on 1st Avenue, slowly making my way downtown as the sleepy tranquility of Gramercy dissipates, only to be replaced by the thumping heartbeat of the East Village. I pass by racks of faded jeans lining the windows of second-hand vintage shops and hip vegan cafés sharing a wall with grass-fed beef burger joints. Impossibly tiny tattoo shops line up next to artisanal ice cream parlors and hole-in-the-wall spice markets potent enough for me to catch a whiff from a block away. When I hit the corner of 1st and 1st, I promptly turn right, weaving through post-football crowds huddling outside bars — rivalled only by the post-brunch idlers ruminating on how to pass the rest of the afternoon.

As the East Village disappears behind me, so too do the graffiti-lined storefronts — replaced instead by Soho’s cream, cast-iron facades. I make my way down the cobblestone streets, marveling at the buzz of foreign languages being spoken around me — Spanish, French, possibly German, definitely Italian. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch the sun reflecting at the perfect angle off the elaborate fire escapes, cascading down the supporting columns to the sidewalk.

On some days, I veer North and wander under the guise of academia through Washington Square Park — always stopping to cut through the alleyway that houses NYU’s Maison Francaise, snapping a photo even though I know something as elusive as charm can’t be captured. On other days, I continue walking west, out of Soho and into the Village, craning my head in an attempt to nonchalantly peek into a ground-floor brownstone window.

I continue strolling through the quiet, tree-lined streets, eventually criss-crossing my way back up and across — sometimes hitting Union Square, other times bypassing it for Madison Square Park — and eventually back to the calm haven of Stuyvesant Town.

I do some version of this walk every weekend, finding solace in the art of aimless wandering. In antiquated French terms, I suppose I’m engaging in flânerie, becoming what Charles Baudelaire coined a “passionate spectator” — with the city itself as the spectacle.

It seems fitting, then, that I picked up this habit while studying in Paris, a city renowned as much for its culture as for its palpable joie de vivre — of which casual strolling is indelibly a part. I would set off every weekend to wander down the wide boulevards and through the arrondissements, popping in and out of shops and cafés along the way. I would intently observe the people around me — their mannerisms, how they walked, laughed, and moved in the world — the mundanity of which began to mean something more because I was paying closer attention.

I began to acquire a taste for solitude, for granting myself the luxury to disassociate from the esteemed virtue of busyness. I trained myself to think of walking less as a means to an end destination, and more as a way to feel radically present and closer to the city — to feel its energy reverberating down the Seine, deep underground into the Metro stations, and up the Eiffel Tower.

So I’m doing the same in New York. I’m wandering, observing, being. And although I’m not walking towards anything per se, I’m definitely going somewhere. 

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