By Elise Kissling

A quick check in Pon's English-German dictionary confirms it. A Spaziergang is a walk and wandern translates to hiking. Put it on a vocabulary card and commit to memory, but don't expect these words to do for you in Germany what they'd do in the States. In English, the word walk is reserved for a walk around the block or a walk to a friend's house. But while the verb spazieren gehen is the official translation of “to walk,“ you'd never see it used in these contexts. Germans “go“ to the store, at least when they're using their feet. If you're going by car, then you're driving (fahren).
This may seem like a lot of sophistry, but there's a point. Ask a group of Germans in the woods what they're doing, and they're likely to tell you they're walking, spazieren. You, on the other hand, are probably out for a hike. Not that you have a backpack, a tent and food for five days strapped to your back, but you're probably planning to take the same path as the group, which ends at a forest cafe that is known for its homemade cakes and pastries. What's more, the Germans, who are merely taking a walk, have probably been at it since early morning and will probably keep going for another few hours after their cake. You, on the other hand, will probably choose the round-trip that takes you back to the parking lot, which is about an hour's walk from the forest cafe.
So you probably expect me to say that in Germany wandern, or hiking, is reserved for a more strenuous brand of activity that includes steep inclines, heavy backpacks and sophisticated map material. But that doesn't seem to get to the heart of the matter either.
To get to the bottom of this linguistic puzzle, I'm going to have to digress a bit further. Wandern never really means hiking, even when it describes a strenuous walk over several days complete with backpack and provisions. Why? Hiking denotes an activity that borders on a sport. Wandern is a mode of being, akin, perhaps, to a American's experience of being “on the road.“ In contrast to a Spaziergang, which is limited by space and time, wandern implies delimitation and an open end. So how can you get a handle on all of this? Meet a few Germans and suggest going for a walk.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 25, 2003