Dérive (Drift #1)

In July 2019, I started walking the city of Madrid. 

2019 — which, if we’d only known it, was the dusk of our old before times.  The following March, every single person in Spain became trapped, a fly stuck in the amber of the pandemic, inside four walls. 

All things are relative. We in Spain might’ve had it worse than people in the United States, who only thought they were locked down, but we had it better than China, where people were literally locked inside their houses for months.

We regained our freedoms only gradually.  First, although we were allowed out of our apartments, we could only walk within a one-kilometer radius, and only during a few stingily-rationed hours. Only alone.

In the second stage, the tape and barricades finally came down from the peripheries of the parks; we could park-stroll once more, and walk side-by-side or arm-in-arm. 

It wasn’t until June 2021 that we were allowed outside unmasked. Altogether, for 699 days, masks were required indoors; even today, three years on, they’re still necessary in pharmacies and health facilities.  

In 2019, before Covid, I had always taken Madrid’s subway.  Previously, I’d lived in southern/sunbelt cities that lacked functional public transportation. In comparison with them, Madrid’s metro was a magic carpet. I walked a block from our apartment and descended into the Arguelles station; I climbed the stairs at the other end and entered the unknown. I had no clue how much ground the Metro might cover getting me from here to there.

But then Covid came along, and contaminated subway-riding, the same way it did so many things we took for granted. For the past three years, I’ve walked instead, learning my own two feet can get me just about everywhere I need to be (unless it’s raining).  Sometimes, during that first year of Covid, my daughters and I walked an hour each way to the orthodontist. The only place I couldn’t reach on my own two feet was their school, located in another town.  

Who would’ve thought that strange contraction of life could be a gift?  I now know the streets of Madrid’s “central almond,” so named because it’s vaguely almond-shaped, better than I might know the streets of anywhere else in the world, from the small town where I lived as a child to the city that later forged my adult self.  I’ve walked Madrid so much and so well that I suspect that someday, when I’ve left it far behind, its streets will function the same way New York City’s used to in my dreams: symbol of my Ur-City, a deeply urban space where I’m sometimes lost, sometimes late — but always, always, always walking.

Roughly-calculated, I’ve walked 10,950,000 steps in the last three years —4702.19 miles. If I could walk on water, I’d have crossed the Atlantic. I’ve walked the equivalent of the Appalachian Trail and farther than the Pacific Crest Trail as it runs from Mexico to Canada.  I’ve walked the length of Spain 4 times. I could have walked home, wherever home might be.

It’s no exaggeration to say walking Madrid saved me, nor to venture that if I know how to do anything by this point, I better know how to walk.

Psychogeography: a beginner’s guide. Unfold a street map of London, place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets; the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Cut for sign. Log the data-stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle, and the record ends. Walking makes for content; footage for footage.

—”A Road of One’s Own, Past and Present Artists of the Randomly Motivated Walk,” Robert MacFarlane

In our increasingly digital world, analog things fascinate (Exhibit A might be record players; Exhibit B is sourdough bread). When much is easy, exerting effort to accomplish a thing might add value to it.

Possibly because of that, walking is having its moment. Or maybe walking has been having its moment ever since there started being other, easier ways to get from one place to another. Victorian Paris gave us the concept of the flâneur, the man-about-town, equal parts loafer and urban explorer. By the 1950s, exploring the city on foot had study and practice attached (more French theory!) in what was called psychogeography.

One of psychogeography’s main tools is the dérive, French for “drift,” which might just be a fancy way of saying one is going to arbitrarily wander through an urban space.

Because we lack a car here in Madrid, our walking can be recreational, but usually, it’s also pragmatic. In other words, I usually have an errand to run, no matter much I might deviate from my route. But yesterday, a sunny Sunday in Madrid, spring in full-flower, M and I decided to approach walking as — spiritual? theoretical? — practice and take a dérive.

Taking an arbitrary walk is harder than you might think.

Our first plan was to follow the “put the rim of the glass on the map and follow it” technique, but before we even left the apartment we realized we didn’t own a Madrid map. Our second idea was that at any point when we needed to make a decision about which direction to take, we’d follow something that was the color green.

By the time we’d gone two blocks, we realized this is a terrible way to move through the world, like playing Where’s Waldo: by looking for the color green, we were missing just about everything else. At that point, I announced that I disliked the street we were on, an efficient major thoroughfare; we should just get off it. We ducked down the first street we came to, and after half a block, realized we’d never walked down it before, not once in the past three years.

We walked into a store with an interesting window display, which turned out to exclusively trade only in Instant Ramen and Japanese candy.

Our method became: follow whatever catches the eye.

Whether an old sign…

a striking building…

a tiled balcony…

Someone playing soccer in the plaza…

A red doorway…

Or finally, at journey’s end, a restaurant with its door propped invitingly ajar:

To live just a hair off balance is to keep everything new. When we’re at home, we take it all for granted: the fall of light though a window, the person breathing beside us in the bed. 

“The Painter of Modern Life” Charles Baudelaire


  1. Oh I know this so well — the walking and discovering. I was telling Antonello just yesterday that we don’t do that as much anymore (and I specifically said “remember rediscovering everything during the Covid times?” with just a hint of nostalgia! Ah how things have changed!) Such a lovely post — and as always I love seeing Madrid through your eyes.

  2. Years ago I visited a friend in Mexico City who was at work during the day. I wasn’t sure enough of my Spanish to feel comfortable riding public transportation, so I walked everywhere. It was wonderful and magical!

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