This fall, I took an American Studies class called “The City in American Culture.” The course focused around the role of the city in recent and not-so-recent American fiction. I got to read wonderful and challenging new works like “Chronic City” by Jonathan Lethem and “As The Great World Spins” by Colum McCann, but the reading that struck me the most was a piece of French urban theory, which sounds impossibly boring. It was. Dense, verbose, and highly conceptual, Michel de Certeau’s “Walking the City” was a hell of a first day of class assignment. In fact, I’m sure that I only appreciate it now because I had an entire semester to figure out what exactly Certeau was going on about.
The gist of the article is that cities are special because people walk through them. If we could look at a city from high above, a “panoptic perspective” (bear with me), we would be able to visualize the paths that people make as they go about their daily business in a city, like lines on a map.
Certeau says that by walking around in a city, we come in contact with other people who are walking around too. Those moments of contact are what interests him – whether we know it or not, every slight interaction with another human being changes us. As we encounter people along the paths we take, we interact with them and continue walking on as slightly different people because of the chance meeting. So, Certeau uses this micro argument of the person-to-person contact to argue that cities are cool because they are always changing because their residents are always changing while they interact with each other.
Still with me? Just a little bit more. Certeau also talks about how people take ownership of cities by walking through them. When we walk, we make our own paths on the map and we blaze our own trails. Walking in a city, according to Certeau, is an act of possession, an attempt to mark and change.
I spent some time in Chicago and New York City this fall, and I found myself thinking about Certeau’s walkers a lot. Now that I have been exposed to this theory, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to experience an urban space the same way again.
Today, I went for a walk. I wanted to go to the grocery store, and I ran into George, a boy in the Notre Dame Rome program, just outside of the building. I asked him to come along, and he agreed under the condition that we could stop for lunch along the way. We crossed the Tevere and headed towards Largo Argentina, home of George’s favorite pizza place. When we arrived, we found that the shop had closed for Sunday afternoon. As we tried to figure out where to head next, we crossed the street and leaned on a wall above a square full of ancient ruins.
We decided to keep walking to try to find another place to get a snack. We strolled along past Scholar’s, an Irish pub that is a popular Notre Dame hangout, and made our way down to the Vittorio Emanuele monument. We peeked in a few small shops, but none of them had the kind of pizza we were looking for, so we continued on. I saw a small brown sign with an arrow pointing towards the Trevi Fountain. “Let’s go! I haven’t been there yet!”
As we wandered through the side streets, we found a spot to grab slices of pizza and sodas. The Trevi Fountain was less than a block away from the store, so we stood and munched in the piazza while we people-watched. We continued our walk, chatting about dinner plans and family and classes, and ambled into a large, empty piazza with a massive obelisk. In the far corner, we could see a slice of a round brick building – the Pantheon.
George and I came up to the Pantheon from behind, and a street performer with a violin was playing. Rome has a soundtrack. So far I’ve seen a three-piece band playing in Piazza Navona and an accordion player in Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. This time, I recognized the song over the noisy Pantheon crowd. I sang along happily, “I want to wake up! In a city! That never sleeps!”
After a quick refreshment stop for blackberry and panna cotta gelato, we decided that it would probably be a good idea to go to the grocery store and back to the apartments, so we walked towards the Tevere to get our bearings. We found the river and decided to walk north to try to line up with Campo di Fiori, a large market area just across the river from Trastevere. We walked really far north.
Somehow, we turned onto interior streets away from the river. Neither of us knew where we were, but neither of us had anywhere to be or anything to do, so we just continued walking. “Oooh a Prada store! And Dolce! And Missoni!” All of a sudden, the quaint bars and sidewalk spaghetterias had disappeared, replaced by high-end fashion houses. The deserted street we were walking on became a crowded pedestrian thoroughfare.
The road ended and dumped us out at the foot of the Spanish Steps. Mildly surprised, we looked around a little bit and decided to keep walking. The next big piazza we hit was the Piazza del Popolo. I had had tour guide-y things to say about the Vittorio Emanuele, the Trevi, and the Pantheon, but I didn’t know anything about the Spanish Steps or Piazza del Popolo. I had heard of them, but I didn’t have anything intelligent to say about them. After a bit of vaguely interested photo taking, we continued on.
Finally, we came to the river. We were at the Ponte della Margherita, which we crossed to walk south. Two bridges later, St. Peter’s Basilica and Castel Sant’Angelo stood imposingly on our right. By this point, we had been walking for nearly three hours. I haven’t been inside St. Peter’s yet since I arrived, but I want to give it a full day, so we kept walking towards Trastevere.
Six bridges later, we turned on to the street near the apartments. Exhausted, we decided to reconvene for evening Mass at 6:30 p.m. As I trudged up the stairs to my room, I could feel my feet throb with every step.
I spent an afternoon as Certeau’s city walker. And I never made it to the grocery store.