The art of being a flâneur

EXPLORING ON FOOT  The art of being a flâneur
Sometimes the best way to explore a city on foot is to simply wander, with no goal in mind other than to follow the sound of church bells, or drift across a leafy square. (NYTimes)
Your “first care must be to ignore the very dream of haste, walking everywhere very slowly and very much at random,” Henry James advised visitors to Perugia, the capital of the Umbria region in Italy.اضافة اعلان

A self-described flâneur, or idle stroller, James applied this philosophy to other cities, too, wandering aimlessly through the streets of Rome the day he arrived, letting “accident” be his guide. “It served me to perfection,” he wrote in “Italian Hours,” published in 1909, “and introduced me to the best things.”

The flâneur is an archetype born, not in Rome, but in 19th-century Paris as it was transforming into a modern city. Charles Baudelaire described this metropolitan character as a “passionate spectator” who “enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy.” Philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin called the flâneur a pedestrian with “a detective’s nose.” Like a number of artists and writers, painter Edouard Manet was himself a flâneur — a “fashionable boulevardier” as a 1982 exhibition catalog for “Manet and Modern Paris” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., put it — who used the city’s streets, gardens and cafes as his muses.

Imagine having time on your hands in Paris, feasting on its sensuous pleasures, strolling alone, and unafraid. Little wonder the flâneur has captured imaginations, including mine, across cities, and centuries.

Vacation in walkable cities
I like to vacation in walkable cities and, in the spirit of James, my first hours in them are spent wandering. Where and when I turn is a game of chance. I might follow the sound of church bells, or drift toward a leafy square, or catch the scent of hot bread in the air and wind up at a bakery.

A city walk led by your senses
To walk a city led by your senses rather than a destination is to awaken to the city and, possibly, to yourself.

It is an opportunity to expand your capacity for wonder, to discover and delight in things you might have missed had you been aiming to get somewhere. “To correctly play the flâneur,” as Franz Hessel explained in “Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital,” “you can’t have anything too particular in mind.”

One October afternoon I was trying to find a mausoleum in the Porte Sante cemetery in Florence, Italy, said to contain the remains of C. Collodi (born Carlo Lorenzini), the author of “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” Pinpointing the mausoleum became a chore and — to take a page from Pinocchio — truthfully, the mausoleum wasn’t as intriguing as my walk afterward. No longer hunting for a destination, I could finally see.

I wandered the cemetery, weaving among angels and busts of men, past bird’s eye views of the Duomo from the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte, down the steep hill to the Ponte Santa Trinita. Crossing the bridge, I paused to look up at the crack around the neck of Primavera, the statue representing spring, a result of her losing her head when retreating Germans blew up the bridge toward the end of World War II (the head was found, on a sandbank in the Arno River, in 1961).

I followed the river toward the Uffizi Gallery where I stopped, enchanted by the scene below. A handful of people, some barefoot, others in striped socks, were sunning themselves, eating, and drinking red wine at cafe tables, and reading newspapers in Adirondack chairs on a grassy bank of the Arno. What looked like a Slim Aarons photograph was the Società Canottieri Firenze, the Florence rowing club, a respite tucked under the Uffizi where, at any moment, a member might slip into a boat and glide away.

This sort of aimless strolling is conducive to savoring, to finding joy in the moment, a practice that some social scientists have found can be cultivated and may help lead to a more fulfilling life. In “Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience,” scholars Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff describe savoring not as mere pleasure, but as an active process that requires presence and mindfulness. It’s “a search for the delectable, delicious, almost gustatory delights of the moment,” as they put it.

By walking a city in this engaged yet relaxed fashion, we may also become more open to the unexpected, to the little surprises that sometimes turn out to be the best part of a day, or an entire vacation.

The early flâneurs were typically students of modernity, interested in their own time and place.

Yet strolling is an undeniably engaging way to plumb a city’s past. Clues are everywhere. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of going slowly enough to notice signs and historical markers.

Other times, an object or architectural detail that piques your interest — a gate, a gargoyle — provides a portal to another time. Stories of vanished ages can be triggered by a single stone, then explored back home through books and websites.

Traveling through Istanbul
When I was traveling in Istanbul everything in the streets — the carts selling simit, sesame-seed-covered bread rings; the tables of books at the Sahaflar Carsisi, the used-book bazaar; the crumbling, vertiginous steps between the Bosporus, and the cafes of Cihangir; the wooden waterside homes called yalis; the minarets and calls to prayer — all told stories of a teeming city as it is and was.

Being in a big city among so many strangers can be at turns exhilarating and disturbing. In 19th-century Paris, the anonymity of the crowd and questions of identity fueled dark imaginings and gave rise to stories like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” as Benjamin writes in “The Flâneur,” a chapter in “Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism.”

But being incognito isn’t just a boon for criminals.

Rather, it’s an underrated benefit of flânerie, especially in an age of social media.

Alone in a crowd, you can take a break from who friends and family expect you to be. You can be yourself, or “offstage,” to borrow sociologist Erving Goffman’s term. You have room to go at your own pace, to let your eye and mind wander, to stumble upon new ideas, even self-realizations.

Of course, as much as one may want to go strolling, there are all sorts of barriers to doing so, including things like time, safety, customs and personal beliefs. Virginia Woolf writes in her essay, “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” published in the Yale Review in 1927, that “the greatest pleasure of town life in winter” is “rambling the streets of London.” But she laments that “one must, one always must, do something or other; it is not allowed one simply to enjoy oneself.” And so, one winter evening she decides she must go and buy a pencil — which she readily admits is a pretext. Her real reason for going out? To wander.

These days, most flâneurs are not bons vivants in top hats. Gone is the detached observer looking on as Paris transforms before her eyes.

We are of our time. All kinds of people today, including those for whom walking isn’t easy or possible, may consider themselves flâneurs and flâneuses. What remains of the original privileged character is a certain romance, an air of freedom and a desire to pursue a slower, looser way of experiencing a city — if only for an afternoon.

Eventually, you return to your hotel. You’ve strolled unfamiliar streets and tried new things. If you’re lucky, you’ve seen something beautiful or tasted something superb. Maybe you’re feeling grateful, or you’ve rekindled some joie de vivre. You did not go out with a destination. But perhaps you arrived somewhere after all.

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