The French Walker

Bologna is a smaller city in Northern Italy and is most known for having the oldest University in the world dating back more than a thousand years. Supposedly, some teachers there now are actually part of the original staff. It’s a charming place, and I was there during a more quiet part of the year. Two tilted towers stood precariously in the town center. They couldn’t see over the city that had grown tall around them by now. Close by there was a plaza where students hang out alongside many of the homeless people of the city. The food was good, and the people were kind but the real treat was meeting a man whose name I’ve since. All I know him as now is The French Walker.

Aside from sounding like rather difficult foreplay, The French Walker was a young man who once had the idea to sell his belongings and walk from Paris to Egypt. In the end, he never stopped walking.

I learned a lot about how life can work in many different ways by meeting him. I learned even more about the roller coaster of depressive French break-up poetry.

He was fit, tan, scruffy with dark curly hair and wore a white tank-top that had often seen the underside of a bridge. Traveling alongside him was the most gorgeous Parisian woman I’d ever seen. She looked much less rugged than him. I might even say she looked proper and pristine and far from the looks of the shaggy Frenchman she was traveling with. They were a curious-looking match. I met them in a dinky little hostel. Well, hostel is a generous term. It was a man’s apartment with a comical amount of bunk beds stuffed inside one room. After exchanging the usual opening remarks and travel questions, we took the conversation somewhere a little more picturesque. We all headed to the plaza and chatted the night away. Genvieve, the woman he was traveling with, didn’t speak much English. My French was lacking at the time so the Walker and I carried on talking alone after a certain point. His soft-spoken personality and good sense of humor made for a great talk but what peaked my attention was when he told me, “I just walk. When I get tired, I stop and sleep. When I am hungry, I find food and eat. And when I am sad, I write poetry.”

It was very poetic. And I’ll be honest, I thought it was the most French thing I had ever heard. So much so that I wondered why I wasn’t seeing him in black and white like a film noir.

His life was poetry in a way. Simple and direct. But with complex machinery underneath. Like a watch who’s job is small but mechanics are vast. So, I had to delve into what made him tick.

“What makes you sad,” I asked. “In other words, what do you write about?”

He replied in his simplistic style with, “Women.’”

We both laughed at that and I soon learned that he was trapped in a vicious cycle. By his description, he gets very depressed after breakups and writes absurd amounts of poetry. Women love something about a dark and brooding traveling poet so eventually, he meets another girl, and she falls in love with him. They walk together, sleeping under the stars or in the occasional hostel. Making life work with nothing more than each other. Truly a romantic vision. But after a few months, he tells me; he gets swept up in the love and the relationship and becomes happy and clingy. This becomes a stark contrast to the dark and brooding man that the women always fall in love with. So, whoever he is with inevitably walks the other direction, if you will. Once he’s alone and sad again, he writes more poetry and the cycle continues.

“That sounds like a literal nightmare,” I told him and he never disagreed with me. I continued to ask more, trying to figure out: 

Why does he do this to himself?

The answer I found? In short, he just does.

It all started when he was in the wake of his biggest breakup of all years ago. He was living in a depressed break-up apartment working at his depressing office. They had dated for almost ten years and every single bit of life reminded him or her. For a while, he wondered what to do and he even said suicide had crossed his mind more than once. Trapped in a world that felt like a cage with bars made from memories, the remedy seemed obvious to him. He had to leave.

He knew that he enjoyed writing poetry and knew that nature inspired him. This was the start of the idea and that was all he needed. Simply put, he had the idea that walking to Africa would be cool. Leaping on the idea, he sold most of his things, left some at his house and started walking. It was like talking with French Forest Gump.

“It was a little funny walking the first day and not even making it out of the City. You end up sleeping a few hours ride away from where I started.” he joked with me. In the beginning, he felt a lot of it had to do with showing other people he was serious. That he could do something incredible like that. After all, walking to Egypt from France is no easy ordeal. No one believed that he would make it. The trip took him about 4 months and resulted in countless pages of poetry and many nights figuring out how life on the souls of his shoes would work. It was hard, but he made it.

That was 3 years ago, and he had been walking ever since. Though we made a lot of jokes about how horrible his vicious love cycle sounded, he really did love it. In his life before, he was stuck. Now he is free. Even though there were more depressive valleys, he had more beautiful moments now. For him, life without motion had taken all the beauty and energy out of his soul. Sure, he wasn’t heartbroken as much before but he was numb and that’s worse, he felt. When he started walking, he made the choice to live and embrace all the emotions of life. Good and Bad as long as he wasn’t numb like before. And in that regard, he was truly free.

Simple though it all was, it gave me an insight into one of the fundamental truths we all live with:

Life is difficult to navigate and every direction we choose is really a guess.

 We all go through peaks and valleys and no one has a playbook on how to deal with them. The fear of failure can be paralyzing. We all find ourselves feeling locked in our own little prison at one point or another. Maybe walking isn’t how you bring life back into motion. But meeting this man made me understand that you can live life any way you want. As long as you’re choosing to truly live, experiencing all the ups and downs life has. So, if you think something might have a chance, even the tiniest of chance, of making you happy; don’t worry about the logistics or the what-ifs or the second thoughts.

Just remember. You are free to do whatever you want and you can make the choice to live free. Whatever that means to you.


Dayton O’Donnell

Dayton O'Donnell