An implicit assumption of modern life is that the more money you spend on something, the more value you place on it. The more money spent on an experience, the more worthwhile it was.
Public space is a realm of life where the transactions are less central, going against the grain of monetary understandings of value. Anyone can sit in a park in town. Anyone can visit a national park. Money might have been spent to arrive, or do something in a public space. But access is not restricted to those with a certain level of a capital, in a way access might be barred to a particular club if unable to meet a sweltering fee. On a recent trip to France, I was able to experience public space in the town and countryside at little expense.
In Toulouse, I had a meandering evening walk in the early summer sunshine, through the city centre and encompassing the city’s river, the Garonne. By the river, I walked past a small park, Park la Daurade, near Toulouse’s New Bridge which, despite the name, is in fact the oldest bridge in Toulouse. Students and adults were enjoying themselves on west facing grass that was bathed in golden sun. People were eating, drinking, cooking. It was a weekday, but Toulouse is a student city. On tarmac next to the grass, a man was juggling casually. Music from speakers lulled in the air. Smoke from barbecues and cigarettes moved playfully, lit up by the sun. This was a fine use of public space; totally uncompromised by commercial interest. The authenticity of what made Toulouse Toulouse was upheld.
I walked onto a square next to the river and another bridge, which was still the recipient of light despite the hour. In amongst the little independent places merely called ‘bar’ or ‘café’, I cringed while having a beer. A Subway was plonked on the corner debasing the authentic Toulousian spirit I had just encountered in the park.
While trying to read Marcus Aurelius’s cryptic ancient philosophy book, Meditations, I was disturbed by an altercation on the road in front of me. An electric scooter driver and a couple he almost ran over were shouting. The hurried French was beyond me, but the gesticulating told me all I needed to know about how each party felt towards each other. I rather smugly reflected the group could benefit from reading about the stoic ideas in Meditations, which emphasise the need to control emotion.
A quicker solution might have been a dose of public space in the nearby park. The park’s serenity didn’t seem like it could ever be host to such hot-headedness.
The Pyrenees was my ultimate destination for some hiking. I started out from the pilgrimage city of Lourdes, one of Catholicism’s most holy sites. But my pilgrimage was to the depth of the mountain, rather than the Virgin Mary’s lair. When looking at maps, I’ve long been drawn to the mountainous terrain that constitutes the natural French-Spanish border.
I set out after carbohydrate-filled steak haché and chips. It was to be my last expenditure for over 24 hours. My destination was a mountain hut, one that I was not even sure I could reach or access. I could not book it, but my map assured me it was there.
I hiked much of the day gradually going higher, away from the pilgrims of Lourdes, through sparse villages that had an obligatory square with a fountain. The meandering countryside and subtle heat meant it took longer than I’d expected to reach higher ground.
Upon the entrance to a narrow path at the base of an incline, I came across two seasoned female climbers. One middle aged, one closer to 70. Cumbersomely opening the map, I asked if they had been on the “montagne” and the viability of my trek to a mountain hut. It was gone 5, we were at 700m.
The elder of the pair took the lead in responding. The 1400m high hut was not viable. Too far. Too high. There was a nearer hut though, half the distance.
I trekked upwards, with renewed vigour and a little humility after the encounter with the pair far older than me. They hadn’t appeared to break a sweat despite being on the mountain all day.
Markers guided to me the hut, Aleri du Prat d’Aureilg, 1250m high, perched on a small slope. I could not yet say it was my hut. I approached the concrete hut with trepidation. The prospect of having to put up my tent had been in the back of my mind all day. One room was locked. A loo perhaps? The main cabin opened up as I opened the bolt. A sense of gratitude filled me as light flooded into the windowless room. There was a fire place on the left side and a wooden bed on the right. A sign in French requested the place be looked after.
The early evening was for me to savour. Behind me was a forested valley going all the way back to Lourdes. Snow started at around 1400 metre on the 2–3 peaks in front. I knew I would have to face them tomorrow. But these concerns could not ruin the mood. The west-setting sun warmed up the stone bench attached to the hut which I sat on as I cooked.
I retreated into the valley cabin for the evening to read by candlelight before bed. The wind whirled around but I felt most grateful to be in a setting of calm and human generosity: two candles, left over cutlery, wood for the fire place provided the comfort I needed. The name etched into the wall generated an affinity with long gone visitors. I was not the first of 2018; someone had scrawled ‘Apriez 2018’.
There was a sense of community spirit even though no other human was around for miles. I felt responsibility to others; I blew out the candle earlier than I might have so others could enjoy it. Total dark ensued. When I crept out to relieve myself, the starlight and moon lit up the sliver of snow laid out on the mountain side.
A bright orange sun rose in the valley to the east as I got up, moving 180 degrees from where it was setting in the West 11 hour previously.
I packed away my things. To reciprocate the kindness bestowed upon me, I left a couple of coffee sachets amongst the goodies and went on my way.
I felt sprightly despite the cold morning air. I soon hit the snow line and gradient. The going was slow trudging, through a sloping wood compromised of a grey phalanx of trees. There was a path, but not one that could be seen beneath the snow. It was a chore to pick out the pink and white signs smattered on the trunks that outlined where the path was. Where no sign could be seen, I was dependent on the remains of those foolhardy enough to come this way in snow; the footprints of a stranger I’d never encounter kept me on the hidden path. This space was providing without requiring anything immediately in exchange.
I was awarded with an amazing vista at 1450m, a top Col D’Andorra, gazing into a green valley and snow topped peaks. I sat on a patch of grass to take it all in, grateful for the aid of others.
These transactions can’t be readily quantified; their value is subtler. When in public space, there is an expanding of the mind from the individual to the whole. Even in solitude, there is a heightened sense of responsibility and kinship with both humanity and nature. But in a world where things constantly need to be monetised, the sanctity of space is being challenged. Public space is being captured by private interests: advertising that insists on buying something; the barring of access unless payment is made. Even a brief stint in a public space can remind that it is worth visiting and worth protecting.