I recently learned this word flâneur. Do you know it?
Translated it could mean: stroller, lounger, saunterer, loafer. Flânerie refers to strolling and people in France used to be flâneurs, meaning they strolled. And while they strolled, they observed and while they observed, some of them took notes. Or afterwards, they jotted down impressions, simply capturing the things they saw on an average, everyday walk down their block or business district or park.
Here is the first in a seven-part series by David Jennings in Nowhere magazine called The Flaneur, for some strolling and reading pleasure.
The book On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz is structured around eleven walks she takes, each chapter written based on a different perspective. A walk with a child, a walk with a dog, a geologist, a physician, etc. What do the different people pay attention to? What do they notice? Not notice? How can we learn to truly see our surroundings?
This is what flâneurs did, they strolled, looked, and saw. The flâneur-cum-writer strolled, looked, saw, and wrote.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is an older and fascinating example, though imaginary, which adds an intriguing dimension to what is described. And then there is, of course, Teju Cole’s novel Open City.
Sometimes writers try so hard, strain to come up with the interesting and creative. But what if we simply stepped outside and took a walk around the block and recorded what we saw?
Here is an excerpt from Calvino, let’s just forget for the moment that he is making this city up. He could be describing a real, physical place.
“Despina can be reached in two ways: by ship or by camel. The city displays one face to the traveler arriving overland and a different one to him who arrives by sea.
When the camel driver sees, at the horizon of the tableland, the pinnacles of the skyscrapers come into view, the radar antennae, the white and red wind-socks flapping, the chimneys belching smoke, he thinks of a ship; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a vessel that will take him away from the desert, a windjammer about to cast off, with the breeze already swelling the sails, not yet unfurled, or a steamboat with its boiler vibrating in the iron keel; and he thinks of all the ports, the foreign merchandise the cranes unload on the docks, the taverns where crews of different flags break bottles over one another’s heads, the lighted, ground-floor windows, each with a woman combing her hair.
In the coastline’s haze, the sailor discerns the form of a camel’s withers, an embroidered saddle with glittering fringe between two spotted humps, advancing and swaying; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a camel from whose pack hang wine-skins and bags of candied fruit, date wine, tobacco leaves, and already he sees himself at the head of a long caravan taking him away from the desert of the sea, toward oases of fresh water in the palm trees’ jagged shade, toward palaces of thick, whitewashed walls, tiled courts where girls are dancing barefoot, moving their arms, half-hidden by their veils, and half-revealed.
Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes; and so the camel driver and the sailor see Despina, a border city between two deserts.”
I can’t let go of that last line. Ever since reading it, I’m thinking about my city, Djibouti, trying to see how it receives its form from the desert it opposes.
What would you see if you looked at your city?
I would love to see your cities, your blocks, through your eyes.
And so, I’m launching another guest post series. Nothing fancy, I’m open to anything. I’m even thinking about asking my kids to join, I would love to hear what each of the five Joneses see when we walk around our block.
Please join in. To contribute, simply leave a comment or send me an email that you are interested and we’ll work out the details together.
Let’s go flâneuring.
*image via Wikimedia
I live in New Delhi, India and I would love to give you a “snapshot” of my city 🙂
Great, would love to ‘see’ New Delhi as you see it. I’ll send you an email with info.
I’m keen to give it a go. I live in Dublin, Ireland and am trying to pay a bit more attention these days… And I would love to read what your kids see! I have an 11yo budding writer who might like it, too. 🙂
Will send you an email, thanks Karen. Excited to see Dublin as you see it. I definitely plan on having my kids try this with me, would be really interesting to see what they notice and what I notice…
Love this idea Rachel! And love the word. Had never heard it before. A friend and I have this rule that when we learn a new word we have to use it 3 times before it can become our own. So my goal is to use Flaneur 3 times today.
I’m going to give this a go.
What a great idea to keep a new word in the head. Love it. Make sure to put that good Frenchy ‘r’ on the end to make it sound as cool as possible. And would love to host an essay on your neighborhood, too. You’ve got my email. :O)
My sister and her high school friend were using new words 3 times–word of the day: sinewy. The friend approached the principal and said, “Oh Mr. Brown, you are so snooey!”
Ha! Too funny, Helen.
I live in Dubai, my city has MANY faces…would love to share.
Would love to share your words Cindy, writing you an email now with info. I’ve visited Dubai as a tourist and would love to ‘see’ it through the eyes of one who actually lives there.
Hi Rachel- I love this. I live near Antigua Guatemala and would love to share what I see in my community!
Email on the way, Michelle.
Hello! What a fun idea! I live in Portland, Oregon and would love to participate!
Ditto about the email…
I love Jennings’ writing in Nowhere and I’d love to be part of these series too. Send me an email!
Yay for fellow Nowhere readers! Email coming your way.
What a fantastic word! I’m looking forward to this series and would gladly contribute to it my view of Seoul.
I would be happy to be a flaneur through my neighborhood of Port-au-Prince and share it with your readers.
This sounds like fun! I live in a smallish town in Northern California, a wonderful home to us. I have lived and traveled in very exotic places, but I think I’d rather write about home.
I live in Cochabamba, Bolivia and this would be a good challenge for me. For Christmas this year we are planning on writing a very short children’s book just for our church, by my 5 and 7 year olds, about our neighborhood. So this would be a good challenge for me, to record some of my impressions and thoughts on this place we now call home.
I live just north of Chicago on Lake Michigan. We may be moving in the coming year, and I would love to use this as a way to reflect on a place I’ve learned to love. Thanks!
I am a fellow MN living in Managua, Nicaragua and working with the Mennonite Central Committee. If you are interested in seeing life here, I would be happy to share.
Hi Rachel, I would love to join this project. I live in Cape Town, South Africa. I can’t wait to read about the other perspectives. This sounds so fun! And French!
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I’d love to do one on our neighborhood in Windy City Afghanistan
I’m not from Minnesota, but I am from Michigan, now living in Ghana, West Africa. I’d love to share a walk down the roads where I live!
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Ah, I’m not sure if you’re still looking for people to submit here but I live in Arusha Tanzania and would love to contribute.
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Just seeing this original post – but if you’d like a look into Moshi, Tanzania (the Kilimanjaro region) I’d love to join in! 🙂
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