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