Gijón, with its population of 280,000, is the largest city in Asturias, beating out the capital of Oviedo and the port city of Avilés. And yet, at a brisk walk I can cross half the city in 20 minutes, going from the edge at the end of the beach to the main shopping street in the center; at a trot I can reach the far side in another 20, arriving at fields where cows graze. Everything is accessible on foot, so when I have errands in the city, I park at the stadium on the city’s edge to do my errands, saving myself hassle and time, because although walking is easy, parking in the city is not.
I’m not the only one on foot. The streets are full of cars, so people do drive, but pedestrians are everywhere, too, many doing their shopping with a trolley in tow, and many enjoying a stroll, all seasons of the year. You see the strollers especially on the wide walkway along the ocean that turns into a stone-paved coastal path continuing beyond the city for some 10 kilometers, leading from beach to beach. Many of the walkers are retirees, promenading to fill the time, to keep up their health, or simply to enjoy the sun and fresh air. Some are out just for a look around, to see who else is out.
But if you are of a certain cast of mind, you might wonder what exactly these people past the reproductive age contribute. Why, from an evolutionary standpoint, do they go on living? This was the question posed in an article I read, and the proposed answer was that they live on as repositories of cultural memory. They can pass on to the rest of us the secrets of living, and in particular of keeping on. I knew one such woman, a widow, sprightly in her late 80s with no children, living alone. In her living room was an armchair facing the TV, a sofa for visitors, and a large table arranged with framed photos of happier times, most picturing her husband. She had various nieces and nephews and three surviving siblings, yet she chose to spend the Christmas holidays alone: the gaiety and laughter reminded her too much of her much-missed husband. It was a difficult time to get through.
She was not, however, a moper. She did her own shopping, went for a walk each day, made regular visits to the hairdresser, and went to bingo once a week. She fed the pigeons that fluttered to her window, and she lamented the food she inevitably threw out because no matter how small the portion she bought and cooked, it was too much for her to eat. In a mock-tragic tone, she once told me that she remembered very clearly the years of the Spanish Civil War, called simply la guerra here, and the years of hardship following it, when food was scarce and she went to bed hungry each night. She dreamed then of having enough food to fill her belly, and now, she said, when she could buy any food that appealed to her, she had no appetite. She looked at the plate of cookies she’d put out. Eat while you still can, she said, pushing the plate toward me.
She died two years ago this week, between Christmas and New Year’s, a hard time for her to get through.
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