I’ve been living life on foot in the city for 3 1/2 years now.
As I type this I’ve driven for a total of 3 outings in the past year. Some of you city pros are out there smiling – what’s the big deal?! And my hat is truly off to you!
But I was born a country girl, driving from 15 1/2 years old. Somehow over time we’ve gone from being a 2-car couple to giving up our cars, adding 2 kids, and moving to the big city. I’m no good at math, but that counts for something, right? Especially for an American. I mean, giving up a car probably rates right below severing a limb for us. Oh how we love our inexpensive gasoline, unnecessarily massive cars, and the freedom to crank the stereo with the windows down!
My life on foot has included shopping trips with 2 kids under 2 and bags of groceries… in the rain… up flights of stairs. I’ve hauled myself across the city for failed errands by train, underground, and minibus. I’ve learned to shop by weight – we don’t eat watermelon in our house anymore, it’s too heavy! I’ve had kids meltdown on minibuses and in the back of taxis. Felt the judgement as my parenting is perpetually on display. Once after a particularly grueling outing I commented to a friend, “I feel like I’m Superwoman sometimes, only no one knows it but me!” (You can just sense the humility, can’t you, friends!)
The most surprising thing I’ve learned in the process is that not only is it possible to live a car-less life with kids, but that it’s possible to do so with a good attitude.
It isn’t easy, but there’s good news: there’s grace and joy for a life on foot! Here are 3 practical ideas that have helped me hang on to my joy along the way.
Ok, this first one is incredibly practical. Like many of our local friends, we shop almost every day. Inevitably we return home from our excursions with more items than I anticipated. Maybe it’s a few extra groceries we picked up along the way. Maybe it’s a stick or special rock found at the park. Maybe it’s a prized art project from school. Whatever the case, it’s helpful to have a way to carry these things around.
At some point I realized that packing an extra empty bag inside my bag was a good idea. I use a light-weight yet heavy-duty cotton bag that has long handles so I can sling it over my shoulder. Hands-free is always a good idea! This saves on plastic bags, not to mention the frustration when your pineapple slices said plastic bag to shreds, dumping groceries across a busy intersection. (Guess how I know about that one.) Joy – still intact!
2. The Wondrous Stroller Time-out
The thing about living on-foot isn’t just the physical aspect of getting around, it’s also about the fact that you’re living more of your life in the open. This really is an excellent way to get to know the culture better, speak more in the local language, and make neighborhood friends. Living on foot is one of the main ways our family dives deep into our local culture. It’s also an excellent way for the entire neighborhood to witness your 3-year-old’s full-fledged meltdown.
Enter the stroller (buggy, pram, pushchair) time-out. If one of my kids is misbehaving I give them a warning – one more time, and it’s a stroller time-out. If they choose to ignore the warning, they get buckled into the stroller. I tell them why they are there, and that they have to sit there for ___ minutes (generally 1 minute per age of kid), looking at my phone so they know I’m really paying attention to the time. When the time is up we chat again, and if they ask for forgiveness we make up, they get unbuckled, and we carry on.
In our culture kids are mostly allowed to do whatever they like. If I were to discipline my kids another way or speak harshly to them in public it would be really upsetting for the people around me, and they’ll often intervene. But I’ve only had one or two times where someone has been upset by the stroller time-out, especially if I maintain my cool. If someone comes up to dissuade me I listen, then say, “I understand auntie, but I do this for their safety” and point to whichever busy road is nearby. Works like a charm.
3. Make it an Event
The best way I’ve found to keep my joy (and my cool) intact while out and about is to view it as an event, not just an errand.
Things don’t happen quickly on foot. Generally speaking, errands just aren’t fast with a toddler in the mix either. I used to get so annoyed that going out to get milk and bread with my kids was an hour-long process. When I got home I’d be angry that my one chance to get out of the house for the day had been taken up with buying 2 food items. I ended up spending a lot of my days grumpy and frustrated. Gradually a few things dawned on me.
The first thing I realized was that daily shopping is part of the normal routine here. Daily shopping takes time I wasn’t used to working into my American life, but it’s part of how this country – with its fresh produce and still-warm bread and generally preservative-free food – works. Living my life in a new daily routine means I’m letting the city change me and I’m fitting in with how people around me live.
The second light-bulb moment was that if I need to shop daily anyway, and my kids are generally only up for 1 outing a day, I better make that trip count… for family life, and for opportunities to share Jesus. I relaxed my expectations of a “quick trip out” and started planning to enjoy it.
That means if the weather is nice, we might pick up something extra at the store and stop at the park on the way home for an impromptu “snack picnic.” It means we have time for friends we pass on the street. I have time to sit for a moment with a street vendor friend and chat about the day (if my kids are content, of course), or hold my kids’ hands as they teeter along walls lining the sidewalk. We’ve gotten to stop and watch construction workers pour cement in a new high-rise (made my 2-year-old boy’s day!). I’ve been able to pray with a neighbor after chatting on the street for a while. In fact, I now plan an extra 10-15 minutes for any errand because I almost always end up in conversation with someone I know.
Why do I live in this big city, speaking another language, far from family and the formerly-familiar anyway?
It’s not to rush through life’s necessities as quickly as possible and tuck back inside my home so I have time for an extra TV program. It’s to be aware of the people around me (including my kids), ready to bless and share joy. These years have been difficult, but I hope they’re sowing lessons and blessing in my life that will last well beyond our next car purchase.
I like to think that in all this I’m learning to live as Jesus would live here… Looking at the faces around him, not just looking to complete errands. Ready for an interruption, even in the bustle of big-city life.
Whether you’re walking to language lessons in the baking sun or powering your 4×4 through snow banks to get the week’s groceries, don’t forget you’re about your Father’s business, too. Happy commute!
Know someone else needing encouragement in their daily routine? Why don’t you share this article with them using the handy icons below? And if you have ideas of how you’ve made your commute count, share them with us in the comments below!
Grace is relieved that her childhood dreams didn’t come true – happy to be on God’s far better adventure with her family in the MidEast. She’s been told her writing makes people cry, and hopes that’s a good thing. Connect with her on Twitter: @ToWinSome