You may not know, dear readers, that back home in Oshkosh, I am part of my local N.B.A. franchise. My career in the Noontime Basketball Association goes back to my grad school days at Brandeis University. In Oshkosh, the N.B.A. is my main form of exercise. I have not yet found an equivalent in Pécs, but I nevertheless feel quite in shape. The reason for this is that I walk almost everywhere I go. I know, dear reader, that I am not the first to remark on this difference between Europeans and Americans, nor am I likely to be the last. Still, let me say this: Pécs is built for pedestrians, and that is good for my health.
Unlike most of my Fulbright colleagues, I actually have a car here in Hungary: my mother-in-law’s. This makes it quite easy to make trips to Budapest, or to visit other cities in the region. Typically, we use this car once a week, either to go out of town or to go someplace within Pécs that is a bit far for the children to walk. It’s just once a week, though. Otherwise, my wife and children and I walk everywhere: to work, to school, to the supermarket, to church, to the sweets shop, to the playground, to the bookstores, to the bakery, to the green grocer, and just to go window-shopping or sight-seeing. None of these are particularly arduous walks. The longest routine walk is my walk to work, perhaps fifteen, uphill on the way home. Our other usual walks are all shorter than that. I think the fact that all of these places are close encourages us to go out frequently. There is no fuss with car seats, and it is not a big deal to head out to pick up a fresh loaf of bread, or milk, or to indulge in a coffee (and a cake).
I must admit that we frequently head out to consume sugar (at least every other afternoon) in the form of cakes or ice cream. I would argue, though, that these sweet shops actually improve our health, by giving us a fun place to walk to. (I have not gained that pesky ten pounds that lots of bread and little exercise get me back home, despite eating lots of bread here). For both my wife and I, we are far more likely to walk if there is some place to which we are excited to walk. Oshkosh is a beautiful town, in many respects. I enjoy looking at the Victorian houses near mine, and the turn-of-the-twentieth-century downtown, and browsing in the library. Too, there is a quite impressive lake and park near our house. Neither of us are as excited about looking at natural beauty on our walks as our friends are, though, and thus we walk more in Pécs, where there is more in the way of old buildings and window-shopping that we can walk to. Downtown Pécs also gives us lots of places to stop, rest, and chat.
|Available now at my local Pécs mini-mart|
Pécs encourages walking in many ways besides being interesting to look at. The main downtown shopping and eating street is pedestrianized. Almost no cars are allowed. I have also found that cars almost always make a point of stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks all over the city. This, of course, is the law in most of the U.S. as well, but very few drivers actually obey this law and it seems never to be enforced. Moreover, not to point too fine a point on it, but consumers in Pécs, young and very old, have places they can physically walk to and get their shopping done. My apartment is close to downtown, an advantage I grant you, but there are bakeries and green grocers and supermarkets all over town, and mini-marts on almost every block. In my case, there is a mini-mart actually attached to my apartment building, and another, larger, one just around the corner. Now, dear reader, you may protest that there are mini-marts in the U.S. too. This is true. There are two gas station/mini-marts within a few minutes walk of my house in Oshkosh. I sometimes buy milk or ice cream there. (Ice cream is popular in my household, you may have noticed, chiefly with myself). But can I buy fresh bread there? Or fresh deli meats? Or pasta? No! For higher-quality food, I must go to a super-market, and to walk to a super-market from my house in Oshkosh would be more than an errand or a diversion on my way home from work: it would be a thirty-seven-minute walk each way to the nearest one.
I don’t mean to be down on Oshkosh. I really like the town, and I must say that downtown Oshkosh is working heroically to get more people to do business on beautiful Main Street and other old shopping districts. The fact is, though, that most stores and restaurants are built for cars, mostly in strip malls right next to the highway. In Pécs, the balance of stores are downtown. They don’t seem to have to struggle, because the foot traffic has never left. Everything from groceries to electronics to clothes to variety store knick knacks is accessible to pedestrians, young and old. I’ll be happy to return to Oshkosh and my local N.B.A. franchise, but I will miss all of the hoofing I do here. It is a joy to walk, and a joy to have stores and sweet shops to walk to.