Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842.
The term flâneur comes from the French noun flâneur—which has the basic meanings of “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, “loafer”—which itself comes from the French verb flâner, which means “to stroll”. Flânerie refers to the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations.
The flâneur was, first of all, a literary type from 19th century France, essential to any picture of the streets of Paris. It carried a set of rich associations: the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. (Source: Wikipedia)
I love the whole concept of the flâneur. I first learnt this word from my friend Simon Tay, author of City of Small Blessings, which won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2010.
With Nicholas Fang & Simon Tay, 2011.
Simon (right) and Nick Fang (left, a mutual friend) took me out for Teochew porridge prior to me leaving for my word travels in 2011. In our kopitiam conversations, he shared about his life-changing trip to South America, and he also challenged me to learn to be a flâneur in a foreign city.
In those nine months I was away, my BFF Ning (aka ‘Magic Babe’ Ning) and I were probably more swept up by the whirlwind adventure of each day than actually being flâneurs. Plus, we loved the outdoors much more than we did the cities.
But on our road trip through Normandy, Brittany and the Loire Valley, there were days where we’d stroll through the quaint streets of old French towns – stepping into tiny shops or peeking through window displays – and those were always the most memorable moments.
Alleys of Mont St Michel, 2011
Recently, when I attended Rolf Potts‘ travel writing workshop at the Australian Festival of Travel Writing, the word flâneur came up again in class. My breath caught. I had not paid attention to that word in two years.
Rolf sent us on an exercise: to be a flâneur for an afternoon.
He said, “A flâneur is an observer and experiencer of things. Just go out walking, get lost, go with no agenda or expectation except to be open to experiences.”
It was all very exciting for me because for the first time in my life, I was commissioned and sent out to practise this old French art of flâneuring – something I’d known about for a while but never consciously tried out.
Our workshop was held at the beautiful University of Melbourne campus. That warm Wednesday afternoon, I set out with my notebook and pen with a light heart and a skip. I resolved not to wander too far but to explore the vast grounds of the university – just to observe, experience and to immerse myself in campus life.
Practising being a flâneur.
South Lawn, University of Melbourne
I eavesdropped on private conversations, observed people from afar, watched clouds roll by, and even kicked off my flip flops (or as the Australians call it, “thongs”!) and sprawled on the grassy lawn. It was carefree and liberating.
I realised that day that it was much easier to be a flâneur when you’re on your own. There are no conversations to distract you, no differences of opinions as to where to go or what to do, no need to watch out for another person… You travel light and free, and you go where you wish. Your heart is your only compass.
I understood then why Rolf Potts advocates solo travel, especially for travel writers.
My flâneuring led me to this little roundabout somewhere on campus. And as a Singaporean, the first thing that struck me about it was the chalk markings on the ground. They were colourful and large and scrawled boldly across the road.
Messages scrawled in chalk
You’d never find that in Singapore – messages scrawled in chalk in public spaces – they would be considered “vandalism”.
It piqued my interest and so I settled myself right here at this spot – at the side of a flight of stairs – and just observed students walking back and forth across these words.
At one point, two girls sauntered by. From my right peripheral vision, they breezed down the flight of steps, past me, stepping over the chalk on the road, and disappearing from my line of vision somewhere to the left. Their arms were linked casually, and they were chatting and laughing as best friends would.
At a certain angle, I noticed something unusual that brought a curious smile to my lips. The girl on the right – who had been hidden from view – appeared in full view. She was holding a long white stick and tapping it lightly on the road as she walked. She was blind.
But from the ease at which she was walking, the speed, the confidence, you could never tell she was visually impaired. Her companion wasn’t holding on to her elbow or guiding her slowly and cautiously as most sighted people would a blind person. She simply hooked her arm around the crook of her friend’s arm and strolled with her in the most casual of manners.
I did not expect to see this, but I’m glad I did. In that brief moment, I understood what deep trust between friends could mean to a person. The vision spoke to me about friendship, acceptance, and the inclusiveness of the education system.
Maybe that’s just the tip of the iceberg about being a flâneur? To be pleasantly surprised by the unexpected; to learn a little about life (the good and the bad) through plain observation and attention to detail.
But eye-opening as this experience was for me, I did face many difficulties being a flâneur.
It’s tough to walk with absolutely no agenda and no expectation. As a traveler, you’re always hoping and wishing you’ll come across something unusual, even spectacular, around the bend. But sometimes, what speaks to you isn’t necessarily spectacular or loud, but in the softest of whispers.
I found it hard not to whip out my phone or camera to snap photos. Why, beauty has to be captured for memory’s sake! But says who? My photos have never managed to do justice to a breathtaking sunset or sunrise, a mountain range, or waterfall…
Maybe it’s time I learnt to just throw my heart wide open and soak in the experience; allow it fill up my senses (like that John Denver song!) and just let it be. Let it be. I often wonder if I lose the fullness of a moment if I’m too busy framing photos or scribbling notes? Or worse still, uploading them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook!
Rolf Potts mentioned an article in his workshop that made me laugh: How Twitter Killed Travel.
Oh how true! How much more meaningful to be fully present in the Present, interacting with locals and engaging in activities, than to think about that next photo that will garner 100 ‘Likes’ on Instagram!
When it comes to being a flâneur, I admit I am a complete greenhorn. It’s harder than I thought. But it’s an art I intend to master. And like all journeys towards mastery, it begins with a first step.
That day was my first baby step.