Since well before I was born, my maternal grandparents, whom I call Bubby and Poppy, had mastered the art of “shpatziring.” It’s an activity that I often did with them, but I didn’t even realize we were doing it because, well, that’s kind of the point: there is no point. Not really.
By definition, the Yiddish word “shpatzir” (pronounced “shpah-TZEER”) means “to walk or stroll aimlessly.” It’s quite the opposite of “schlep,” which is to “go a great distance that’s a bit out of your way,” and it’s not the same as “patshke,” which means to “waste time.” Nah. To shpatzir is to enjoy the journey — no destination is necessary. You go just to go and see where the day takes you. My grandparents were experts at this and, thanks to their tutelage, now I am, too.
Poppy passed away this January at 75 years young. And, what might be a good solution to my grandmother’s enormous grief — simply just getting out of the house — has been a punch in the gut in these pandemic times. Not only is it a reminder of just the thing the two of them liked to do together — shpatziring — it’s also an activity that’s not easy to come by during Covid-19, which killed him.
“When Poppy was finished with work, he’d come home early and he’d say, ‘Come on. Let’s get in the car and go somewhere,’’ Bubby told me a few weeks ago, when I called her to check in. “If the weather was nice, we’d go to the beach. Or, sometimes we’d just take a drive into Brooklyn and go walking on the boardwalk. I miss shpatziring with him.”
When I was growing up on Long Island, on weekend mornings — though it would often be afternoon by the time they’d actually show up — my Bubby (and, sometimes, Poppy) would pick me up from my Long Island home and we’d often head to Smithhaven Mall in Lake Grove. Sometimes we’d go to Roosevelt Field mall if we were feeling fancy, or to Tanger Outlets if we wanted to catch some bargains. We’d stop for a bagel along the way, and we’d linger at the tables long after I finished scarfing down my everything bagel with cream cheese and lox. We’d spend the day just walking around; usually window shopping but sometimes trying on or even buying clothes. When night began to fall, we’d make plans to meet up with the rest of the family for dinner, not really caring when we’d show up (much to the frustration of other family members).
We wouldn’t always shpatzir so close to home, however. Sometimes we’d just get in the car and go. Poppy was always up for driving anywhere at any time. Sometimes, we’d go to Coney Island in Brooklyn, where we’d walk on the boardwalk and grab a hot dog from Nathan’s. Other times, we’d travel further east, and marvel at the homes in the Hamptons.
These aimless excursions didn’t end when I grew up. Even as an adult, I’d always jump at the opportunity to shpatzir with Bubby and Poppy. Last summer, Poppy took us all to Brooklyn a few times during the pandemic, to get out of the house and have a safe, socially-distanced activity to do together. We’d grab an ice cream and take a drive around the neighborhoods where they grew up (Bensonhurst and Kings Highway). We’d and end the day at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Gravesend, where they hung out together as teenagers. I loved listening to them tell stories as we sat down for their famous Grandma slice, my grandfather sharing intimate stories from when they were young. You see, shpatziring is also for storytelling, laughing, and making memories. In fact, it happened that it was a good ole shpatzir to Brooklyn was the last time I’d ever see my grandfather alive.
Fortunately, my grandparents instilled such a love of shpatziring in me that I like to think I’ve perfected it as well. Having lived abroad in Mexico, South Korea, and random AirBnBs around the world for the last seven years — returning to the States during the pandemic, sadly just months before my grandfather passed away — shpatziring is one of the things I miss most about my life in other countries. It was my means of exploring whatever city my husband and I were living in and those we traveled to.
Whenever my husband and I travel — pre-pandemic, of course — we embrace the art of shpatziring. Whereas most tourists plan tight itineraries filled with museums, sights, and must-try restaurants, we enjoy being far less ambitious. Typically, we find one or two places we might want to check out in a given city, and simply take our time to get there, stopping wherever our heart takes us along the way. Not only has my Spanish-speaking husband wholeheartedly embraced shpatziring, he’s adopted the use of the Yiddish word as well.
Of course, you don’t have to travel anywhere in order to shpatzir — you can shpatzir in your own hometown, no matter the size or location. There is no right or wrong way to shpatzir, as long as you’re shpatziring. However, there are some basic rules:
- You can go to a place to shpatzir, but you can’t go to a specific place.
- You can have it in mind how long you want to shpatzir for, but you can’t have a set time to start or to finish.
- You can shpatzir somewhere familiar or somewhere new.
- You shouldn’t pay to shpatzir. It should be free. That doesn’t mean you can’t buy anything while you are shpatziring — that is absolutely fair game! — but you cannot pay an entrance fee in order to shpatzir.
- You must enjoy shpatziring. If it’s not enjoyable, then you’re not shpatziring.
- Your mode of shpatziring can be walking, driving, scootering, cycling, skateboarding, etc. It doesn’t matter. But, if you have to catch a train, catch a bus, catch a plane — anything with a timetable, ugh — then it’s not shpatziring.
- Shpatziring is not traveling, but you can shpatzir while you travel, or as a style of travel.
Ultimately, shpatziring is all about the journey. If you have the luxury of time, shpatziring can make any day an adventure. It forces you to stop and smell the flowers, admire the architecture, say “hello” to a stranger that might become your new best friend, grab an ice cream cone, try a new food, or time travel to a place where you or your companions have memories. At a time in which most of us are consumed by our devices, or are in a rush to get somewhere, a nice shpatzir makes a day feel longer in the best way possible.
As we slowly and safely emerge from the pandemic, shpatziring is the perfect activity for getting used to seeing other people again. What’s more, for travelers like me, shpatziring will allow for new adventures in my home country, a place I haven’t explored much after being away for so long. More than anything, I look forward to shpatziring soon with my Bubby; doing so, I know, will help keep the memory of Poppy alive.
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