I'd only been back home a week from spending twenty-five years in Europe when I ran into an ex-school classmate who said: "I saw you walking."
The troubled amazement in his eyes made me say: "Yes, I walk."
My low voice hushed with insane turpitude.
"I tell you, I walk," I continued, suddenly speaking loudly. "I'm insane. I do diabolical displacement."
A friend of mine laughed. He was mad, too.
The bizarre European phenomenon of walking had yet to be accepted as an activity undertaken by the sane and the successful in my country. It was only done by eccentric losers who were not "switched on." The "switched on" drove everywhere. Walking could ignite horrifying rumours about your finances - and your sanity.
"Be careful," I continued, "I'm nuts. Gone. Utterly bonkers. A bathroom short of a housing estate. A goal-post short of a football field. A stitch short of a wedding dress. Totally and utterly crazy. I walk."
My friend chuckled as my ex-classmate slunk away.
I hadn't been back home long enough to buy a car so I had been walking and using public transport, like a loser. Enjoying the walking, I was often the only person on streets that were all lined with footpaths in a place where walking was taboo.
To test a theory about the acceptability of exercising, I started walking wearing tracksuits and track shoes. If a car came, which wasn't often, I'd start running.
One night, the ex-classmate said: "I saw you running."
He looked more comfortable. I then realised why footpaths existed - so people could go running.
"Yes, I've been exercising a lot since I came back," I said.
You could exercise, but you couldn't walk.
Someone I met later that night said to me: "I saw you walking past my house."
"Yes, there were no cars coming," I replied.
I was now enjoying other people's nutty concerns. Someone else later that night said the same thing: "I saw you walking past my house."
"Yes," I replied, "there wasn't a Ferrari coming."
My low, hushing voice had quizzical overtones.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I was asked.
"I run when success approaches."
He backed away, disturbed and speechless, my friend chortling under a starry sky.
Later, someone else said: "I saw you walking past my house."
His bewilderment was crying for appeasement.
Are you sure it was me?" I asked.
"Absolutely," he replied.
"Let's get something straight, okay?"
"I exercise. I don't walk. Only losers walk. Are you calling me a loser?"
"No, no; just asking."
"In future, look at my wrists; you'll see green wristbands, a clear indication of exercising."
My comments spread on the winds of gossip to all parts of the compass. This wind confirmed my madness while convincing many that I was "pretentiously European." My reputation for the latter got enhanced when I expressed my happiness at the news that a Van Gogh exhibition was about to open. No one in Europe had ever accused me of being pretentious.
Because I adored other's people astonishing amazement, I continued walking, especially through my city's older suburbs to admire the stained-glass windows and the carved eaves and the timber-posted verandahs where hanging flower pots added colour to the delicacy of the surrounds. Everyone else drove through these streets without looking, looking only permitted from the verandas of hilltop houses, the people known to these hilltop-house owners saying admiringly that "his house has got great views" as if these hilltop-house owners had purchased their properties to spend their lives staring wondrously at the same thing every afternoon. You couldn't walk and look; but you could have a house "with great views", views you weren't going to be spending a lot of time admiring because clearly there were more interesting things to do than stare at the same thing every day. However, owning a house that had "great views", views you weren't going to be spending much time admiring I have to reiterate, demonstrated success while real observation demonstrated you were probably mad.
Quickly, I got bored with the constant conversations about new restaurants. This topic was supposed to indicate how refined you were. They accused me of being pretentious while they displayed false enthusiasm for things they couldn't have cared less about. In most places, drinking wine and eating in restaurants was as natural as breathing, therefore not worthy of comment.
I lasted six months before returning to Europe. I never bought a car and I couldn't have cared less.
Kim Farleigh has worked for aid agencies in three conflicts: Kosovo, Iraq and Palestine. He takes risks to get the experience required for writing. He likes fine wine, art, photography and bullfighting, which probably explains why this Australian lives in Madrid. 114 of his stories have been accepted by 75 different magazines.