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Notes from the Field #3

UW Daily, 11 August 1999, by John Roderick
No longer available online. If you feel this article shouldn't be archived here, please contact the librarian's desk.

    John Roderick is a UW comparative history of ideas major who is walking from London to Istanbul. His journey began May 4, as he set out walking immediately upon his arrival in London.

    He said the idea came to him overnight and he bought a ticket to London the next day, fearing the plan "would become corrupted or would become buried under an avalanche of other ideas" if he were to delay.

    John is walking across the continent. He is carrying a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, a rain jacket and a compact history atlas of Europe.

    He has been corresponding via e-mail with Jim Clowes, associate director of comparative history of ideas, and has agreed to share his notes from the field with The Daily.

    He said, "Communication is very important to me and one of the first things I look to do when I arrive in a city.

    "Most of the time," John said, "I am in the countryside and unable to contact anyone."

    Friday, July 29, 1999 - Tuesday, August 30, 1999

    Howdy. I'm typing on a machine that has been converted to the Hungarian alphabet, so if my letters are mixed up it's because the keyboard has been altered.

    Do you know how far a man can travel on horseback in a day? I would be interested to know. The distance a man can travel on foot has obviously been an organizing principle in the landscape architecture of Europe. I wonder if there is a corresponding organization at greater distances for those traveling on horseback.

    I can walk between 20 and 30 miles in a day. The villages in Europe are spaced in such a way that I can go from one medium-sized town to another, passing through several villages too small to have a stable or restaurant, maybe only with a pub, generally within the space of 20 miles.

    Forests, swamps and mountains interrupt this pattern but it is usually obvious from the spacing of the villages which way the travelers traversed the obstacle.

    Since a car can travel in one hour what it takes me three days to walk, there is another support network of service stations and restaurants that I am only barely aware of. I can travel for a week and not see a gas station.

    Looking at a map it would seem that the car network dominates the landscape, but it doesn't. It keeps to itself, to the fastest way between the big towns, and the rest of the countryside is still designed mostly for the horse and the walker. Only there are none of us left. Just tractors and loud mini-bikes.

    I'm still in Budapest, mostly just resting up. This trip is a marathon of sorts but also a tourist expedition and the two sides have different expectations of a city like Budapest.

    I've been away long enough now that home is sort of fading a little, and am starting to feel very at home in central Europe. I've taken so long to get here, in one continuous movement almost, that the disconnectedness you usually feel when arriving in a foreign city is gone.

    Instead, Budapest feels like the logical extension of Bratislava, and it of Vienna. The countryside that links it all together foreshadows the differences between the cities, so I'm totally prepared for each new city I enter.

    Now I feel like a central European, kind of, in that I feel the city here is unlocked for me, that I can find anything I need here. When I started in England, I remember being reluctant to speak to people in shops or on the street because I didn't want to be exposed as a tourist, I didn't want my accent to give me away and I was shy, I guess, about being foreign.

    Now it seems so ridiculous that I would have felt this way anywhere in the world. I feel so unforeign now, like I am a citizen of everywhere, and English is this remarkable tool for becoming a citizen of everywhere.

    If I was a Swede, or a Ukrainian, and I wanted to be an Internationalist, I would learn English for the purpose, so I am no longer embarrassed to speak English. It is a gift that I can speak my own language.

    So I'm loafing around Budapest, just trying to enjoy the espresso, and it occurs to me that I would like to stay here, that I could just live here and be an anonymous citizen of the world. At the same time I feel a pull to Romania, toward the eclipse and away from the comforts of home.

    I'm throwing out about half of the stuff I've been carrying, which isn't much stuff I grant you, in order that the second half of my trip be as streamlined as possible. I imagine now that I could travel the rest of the way with nothing at all, no change of clothes or jacket or sleeping bag, surviving just on my wits and on the network of humanity, the authentic World Wide Web. I may indeed.

    My feelings are very different now. Loneliness is gone, replaced by a growing sense of being by myself. The challenge of the upcoming months is tangible to me because I have an idea of it, but who I will be at the end I have no idea.

    We say, "Don't count your chickens before they hatch," the Germans say, "Don't praise the day before the twilight" and the Hungarians say, "Let's not drink before we skin the bear."

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