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Word! The Language Column
On Walking and Talking

Illustration: two mouths, each with a speech bubble
Conversations enliven the walks | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Hernán D. Caro isn’t really into strolling around the park or along tree-lined avenues. But he has taken a shine to walking these days as a remedy against lockdown torpor, as a way to rediscover his adopted city – and because he has the most inspiring peripatetic conversations.

By Hernán D. Caro

Of all the places of culture and learning, of assembly, celebration and consumption, of life in general that have had to remain shuttered during these strange days of lockdown, the two I miss most are swimming pools and cinemas. Both – and of course what goes on there – have long played a central role in my life: they’re the places I go for peace of mind when I want or need to think something over, when I have something to sort out with myself.

Urban explorations

I must admit that I don’t have a particularly intimate relationship to so-called nature, on the other hand, i.e. the parks and forests plenty of my German friends seek out when they want to talk to themselves or to their friends. Much as I appreciate nature, I’m not really a "nature lover". And there are some simple reasons why: I was born in the megacity of Bogotá, so buildings were probably more familiar to me than trees during my childhood. What’s more, as a Latin American, when I think of "nature", what comes to mind isn’t exactly soothing tree-lined avenues and idyllic clearings, but real nature, the wilderness: a realm still by and large free from “civilizing” interventions, inhabited by fascinating but potentially deadly creatures. Who could possibly go for a dreamy, laid-back stroll in the jungle?
 
And yet, among this year’s many vagaries, it was precisely that – dreamy, laid-back strolls – that turned out to be surprising and welcome events. Out of a mix of restlessness, curiosity and a feeling that we shouldn’t give ourselves up entirely to daily torpor, I began taking long walks every morning during the first lockdown in spring, in the charming, intelligent and inspiring company of my cohabitant (i.e. my partner). We’d go to the park in front of our home in Berlin, down our neighbourhood streets and, on adventurous days, to other parts of the city. I soon took to ambling with others, too, generally à deux and without any definite destination: first with my best friend – my first choice for the now proverbial "other household" for lockdown “bubbling” purposes – and later with other acquaintances. During these rambles we usually explore streets and whole districts I’ve never consciously set foot in before, marvelling at the balconies of flats I’d love to live in and, I confess, sometimes admiring the gradual budding of trees – this may well be the first time I’ve ever observed them with the slightest interest – and time enough to take a closer look!

Stimulating conversation

But what really enlivens these walks is the conversation. Conversing about these strange days we’re going through, about our worries and problems, successes and lockdown adventures, our secrets and what we’re reading – about anything and everything, about “everybody and their dog”, as they say. I have these challenging times to thank, not for my discovery of nature, which still leaves me rather cold – I like to goad my nature-loving German walking companions about that – but for my rediscovery of an old passion: conversation, talks with friends that are sometimes gleeful, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes sad, and often as aimless as our walks themselves – but always liberating and revitalizing.
 
Which, in turn, rekindled my enthusiasm for literary interviews and conversations. So, lately, when I spend time not outside walking, but inside reading, I’ve been privy to some great dialogues, including Susan Sontag's Rolling Stone interviews, Werner Herzog and Paul Cronin's riveting conversations (in A Guide for the Perplexed) and the last interviews given by Hannah Arendt and James Baldwin.
 
This year of the pandemic, which most of us aren’t likely to forget anytime soon, is now drawing to a close, and a new year is coming with its share of uncertainties and difficulties – but also unexpected and auspicious experiences. On these cold grey monotonous days of lockdown, the apprehension and bleakness many people are feeling aren’t wholly alien to me. But I also feel a certain gratitude, now that I’ve rediscovered the pleasure and inspiration to be found in conversation and interviews.
 

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every four weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.

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