Walking along the yellow line | Sofia, Bulgaria

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/39941224 w=500&h=400]

Today, I walked along Sofia’s Vitosha Boulevard – theoretically, the city’s chicest street, although you wouldn’t know that from looking at condition of the pavement. Especially on weekends and when the weather is nice, this pedestrian main drag is where people go to walk up and down, gawk at shop windows and at each other or sit at the outside tables of the sidewalk cafés.

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Baldosa de Bilbao | Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain

In case you haven’t been paying attention, I’ll say it again: Bilbao proved a little piece of heaven when it came to supplying a multitude of exciting grounds on which to wait, stand, walk, linger, skip and trot.

Among them all, nothing came closer to fulfilling my obsession with quest for surfaces that are not only visually exciting but are tightly connected to the place than the ubiquitous Baldosa de Bilbao tiles*.

When I say ubiquitous, I really mean it: they could be seen literally everywhere. If you are walking around Bilbao and at any given moment you decide to look downwards, chances are that the ground beneath your feet will be paved with those particular baldosas. Virtually all the sidewalks were paved with some version of the recognizable rosette motif – its carved channels mostly serving a utilitarian purpose, which I will explain in a bit, though sometimes the flower design was simply stamped onto them with nothing but a decorative function.

The design is linked so strongly to Bilbao’s identity that museum and souvenir shops were stocked with ceramic mugs, posters, soaps, t-shirts, shoes, ties, towels, key chains, pastries and all other kinds of imaginable tourist tchotchkes, all featuring the rosette tile design. They even have a facebook page dedicated to them!!!

Initially, considering its iconic status, I thought the tile design was adopted from something else. But in fact, it is just, and always was, simply that: a tile design. The manufacture of the tiles started sometime during the first half of the twentieth century (some reports date their first production to the 1920s and 1930s, while others say they came about in the 1940s and 1950s). Their design was aimed at making pedestrians a little safer in Bilbao’s rainy climate (which I experienced first hand and which is captured in almost all the photos), by allowing the water to drain into the carved channels and away from the surface of the tile, thus making it less slippery. Initially, the baldosas were made using concrete and coarse sand, with a covering of iron shavings in a 15 x 15 cm format, though this kind of material didn’t adhere well to the ground and left many pedestrians who stepped on loose tiles soaked up to the waste in rain water (not unlike Sofia’s current residents). Nowadays, almost all of the old tiles have been removed and replaced with new ones that are manufactured with cement at a standard size of 30 x 30 cm, although other, both smaller and larger, formats can be seen occasionally.

Initially endemic to Bilbao, the tile design was eventually exported to many cities throughout Spain and some South American countries. In Barcelona, one of the more popular tile designs, although clearly outnumbered by the simpler square and circle tiles, looks quite similar. Upon closer inspection, however, it seems to be lacking the channels that drain the water away from the tile. But then again, Barcelona isn’t nearly as rainy as Bilbao (as testified by the dryness in the below photo).

*Note: The term baldosa, it turns out, doesn’t refer to this specific kind of Bilbao tile, but rather is the word for any kind of tile in Spanish, making the term ‘Baldosa de Bilbao tile’ somewhat superfluous.

Oh so pedestrian | Sofia, Bulgaria

As I walked along Sofia’s main drag – Vitosha Street, which has been closed off to cars for the last few years and now, after trams have been stopped too, it is only accessible by foot, I was reminded of the strange double meaning of the word ‘pedestrian’.

Most commonly, the word is used in reference to a person who goes by foot or to something related to, or designed for, walking, as in a pedestrian street (such as Vitosha), a pedestrian bridge or a pedestrian crossing.

I’m no etymology expert, but this makes sense, because of the Latin root of the word – ped- (foot): same one that gave birth to pedal, pedicure, bipeds, centipedes and even impede and expedition (but not to be confused with words rooted in the Greek ped-, meaning ‘child’ or ‘boy’, and serving as the root of pedagogy, pediatrician and, uhm, pedophilia.)

What I find endlessly curious though, is the second meaning of the word pedestrian, namely – as a synonym for dull, uninspired, banal, ordinary and prosaic. The first time I heard it used in this sense, it struck me as the strangest of parallels, this equating of the act walking to the idea for dullness.

I tried to think of similar usages of the word in other languages. Though my command of German, French and Spanish is pitiful when it comes to nuances and double entendres, a quick check (thank you, Google translate!) shows that the words Fußgänger, piéton and peatón are used only to mean ‘a person who goes by foot’, while the other meaning of the word is rendered through translations of its synonyms: prosaisch, prosaïque and prosaico. [Update: I stand corrected. As a reader pointed out in the comment below, the word pedestre in Spanish carries the word’s dual meaning – both someone who goes on foot and something which is plain, vulgar, uneducated and/or lowly. In French, I am now finding another interesting translation of the adjective pédestre – to mean ‘rambling’ or ‘incoherent’. Any ideas about the German, anyone?]

In Bulgarian, of which I have a semi-decent hold and in which I am sometimes able to play with double meanings, the case is the same: пешеходец – although not containing the Latin root of ‘pedestrian’, means a person going on foot and only that, and прозаичен (‘prosaic’), on the other hand, has nothing to do with feet or walking. (Now, I couldn’t stop myself and I’ve gone and looked up the etymology of ‘prosaic’ too: as suspected, it comes from prose and “having the character of prose” (in contrast to the feeling of poetry), which then got extended to the sense of ‘ordinary’.)

But, as I was trying to translate the two unrelated meanings of the word and thinking of walking, streets and pedestrian crossings, I kept having the nagging feeling that there is another word linked to these concepts that is also used to describe something completely unrelated (and this will be my last sidetrack, I promise). As lexical fate would have it, the word ‘boulevard’ in Bulgarian – in addition to its common meaning (a broad city street) across different languages, is also used as an adjective to describe something, especially literature, which is of low quality, vulgar and trivial. Not much removed, it turns out, from the second meaning of ‘pedestrian’ (one of the translations for ‘pedestrian’ in Spanish and one of the meanings of the Spanish pedestre is vulgar.)

So, back to pedestrianism and dullness. If put in that context, it seems that there is indeed an everyday quality to walking; going by foot is in fact the least exciting mode of getting from one point to another; it doesn’t compare to the dynamics of riding in a car, bus, tram, on a motorcycle or even bicycle, let alone the thrill of flying in a plane. Or, in other words, experiencing the street through your feet is quite boring and mundane when compared with the sense of adventure and excitement provided by, and maybe even inherent in, other modes of transportation.

Turns out I was off on the specifics, but not the concept in general, and only because my thinking doesn’t seem to stretch far enough back to times when there were no cars, buses, trams, motorcycles or planes around. One explanation of the second, and strange, meaning of ‘pedestrian’ that I found is that it was first used in contrast to ‘equestrian’, or going on horseback.

So, ta-da, there you have it!

And that is that. All a bit much, maybe? But don’t you feel smarter after reading it? I know I do, after writing it. Now, excuse me while I go engage in more pedestrian endeavors. But first, I’m going for a walk.