Dan Bodan spent November 8 to December 8 in residence at the Goethe Institute in Tehran. Flash Art invited him to write a travelogue during his time there. This is the fourth installment.
I started taking long walks about a year ago. By long I mean four to five hours, maybe fifteen to twenty kilometers. Initially it was a way to lose weight. For the first time in my life I’d found steady, lucrative employment with a start-up in Berlin and was able to pay off the massive health insurance debt I’d accrued after three years of trying to provide for myself as a touring musician. The job consisted of sitting in bed and filing through a never-ending stream of user-uploaded vacation photos and rating them on a four-point scale to assess their sales potential as stock photography. I would do this three to five hours — or roughly four to six thousand images — a day, completely stationary except for my fingers as they frantically selected digits, the BBC World Service or Aljazeera running perpetually in the background.
I managed to pay off the debt in two months but decided to build a small financial nest egg for myself. I knew the company was designing an AI that would ultimately replace me, and who knew when I’d find work again. So I continued to maintain the heavy workload while enjoying my newfound middle-classness by feeding back into the start-up economy and ordering Foodora or Deliveroo everyday, only getting out of bed to open the door for the delivery man or to relieve myself.
I’m a slender human being: small skeleton, narrow shoulders, 158 centimeters short, a skull shaved smooth to mask premature balding, but a young face despite my age. Fat doesn’t redistribute around my body evenly — I only gain mass around my stomach and face. Coming out of the shower — after nine months on the job and probably two thousand euros’ worth of Korean delivery in my system — I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and wondered why one of the Roswell aliens was staring back at me. I’m not particularly vain (who, me?), but I’m single and men are horrible, so I knew something would need to change if I ever hoped to one day split the rent.
I despise the gym. Maybe it’s because my father was a volleyball coach. Maybe I can’t stand that it represents a false spiritual center for gay men (Smash the idols I say! Burn the heretics!). Or maybe I just inherited some lazy genes from a distant ancestor who managed to pass on his DNA despite Darwinism’s best efforts. Whatever the reason, it’s always been difficult to for me to find a physical outlet that I consider both ethically sound and spiritually invigorating. And practical. I used to swim as a kid, but public pools in Berlin are too expensive. I bought kettle bells and a pull-up bar, but my apartment is too small do any kind of real workout. I used to dance every night, but I’ve spent too many evenings getting fucked up in dark clubs and now my body and soul groan every time I venture out to those dimly lit concrete playgrounds.
I went on my first ever self-financed vacation to Tokyo last year. I thought I’d do it up proper, so I saved enough to have three thousand euros at my disposal. I wouldn’t have to worry about asking prices or feeling depressed when something felt outside my budget. Turns out three thousand is a lot, but not actually. Like a king fresh from his coronation, I waltzed into the Comme des Garçons flagship and confidently picked out an entire ensemble that looked smart and natural, like a second velvety skin, and asked them to ring it up. I’m not really a shopper so I don’t know what I expected the total to be, but when it came to eight thousand euros I started to cry. Tears of frustration for the nasty capitalist machine I have yet to harness, tears of self-pity because I cared so much, and tears of embarrassment because I was crying at the Comme des Garçons shop in Tokyo.
The luxury industry is mostly for looking, I suppose.
And so I left the store empty-handed and teetering on the edge of a total nervous breakdown in a city that won’t shut up. And I just started to walk.
And then I tripped.
Then I swore.
Then I walked some more until, after maybe an hour, I was pulled out of my own private hell by the breeze of a motorcycle rushing past me at close proximity. I’d somehow wandered onto one of the city’s elevated highways, where I’m pretty sure pedestrians are not supposed to be. But that didn’t matter because all of a sudden I was walking along the tops of Tokyo’s skyscrapers and I could see the city unfolding before me for the very first time. I was beholden to this elevation because it gave me the perspective to both literally and transcendently rise above everything. All of a sudden, a walk of class shame had transformed into a manifestation of my wanderlust; I forgot all about those silly pieces of fabric so brilliantly haberdashed (A lie! I’ll never forget how handsome they made me.) But this was a luxury I could afford, and I couldn’t find anything objectionable about it.
After I walked back to my sublet in Meguro, I checked my iPhone fitness app. It said I’d burned roughly eight hundred calories. Eight hundred calories from a pleasant walk! After a bath I meditated over my belly, pregnant with neglect, finger-lifted my puffy face in the mirror for a half hour, and Googled questionable health resources about the benefits of walking. It all checked out, and so from that day on I decided my “health thing” would be walking. Because in 2018 it’s apparently important that we identify with a unique fitness routine as much as we identify with an iffy political ideology. You’re a rock-climbing alt-right cis-het crypto-thug? I’m a post-Marxist romance-queer asexual urban walker. Always should be someone you really love. Pop goes the weasel.
I’ve been living in Athens for about a year now, and the walks have become the closest thing I have to a daily ritual. Deadlines and weather permitting, I usually leave my house around 1500h and walk until I reach some elevated plateau, one of the many hills or the surrounding mountains if I feel adventurous, and watch the sunset while getting overwhelmed and weepy. Then I make my way home. It never gets old and I’ve dropped over ten kilograms.
Here in Tehran it’s a necessity; my flat in Niavaran is four and a half kilometers from the nearest metro station. I’m living about three hundred meters from the Tochal Mountains, and I have been walking them every morning to burn off some of the extra energy my newfound sobriety has bestowed upon me. You can see the cityscape coming and going behind clouds and smog if you look south, and to the north nothing but endless mountain range and streams of melted snow trickling down natural and man-made drainage channels. I have to carry rocks with me, for protection. The rocks on the Tochal are deep green. I don’t know why. Yesterday I came across a pack of wild dogs resting under a small barren tree, the puppies feeding from their mother’s emaciated tits. We are all caught off guard and have a quiet standoff twenty yards from each other. I clutch one of the larger green stones and hope I won’t have to use it while worrying about its effectiveness if I do. After what seems like an eternity the mother leads her pups away from me and beyond the horizon of the mountain’s edge as a couple of the pups turn and eye me inquisitively (or maybe hungrily). When I’m confident they are far enough away I make my retreat down the path toward my condo, telling myself the same thing I do every morning when I wake up: “You’ve skipped death once more.”
I’m convinced in some way that recording these minutiae and disseminating them is my best chance at immortality outside of biological means. Melodies are preferable, but I haven’t been able to write a song in almost a year and I don’t know why. Failure can be murder, and poverty constipation for the mind. Stagnancy is a kind of death. Walking is great for the cardiovascular system, and forward motion can mimic the sense of being productive and maybe defibrillate my soul back into action. Like you, I want to live forever, but I’ll need to define my own vocabulary for it.