Ah, walking. That most basic of basicest pastimes that we all learned super early in our own personal earthly innings. Easy, right? Put one foot in front of the other, and repeat until fade. In theory yes. Though we’re now in the age of the space-age motorcar, bikes with engines, and automatic, electronic stairs so the need to put theory into action is rapidly disappearing.
It always surprises me just how many people in Paris (and probably the world) can’t be bothered to walk up the escalator, or even worse stand still and insist on being carried along at less than 1 mile an hour on those automatic rolling travelator things in Châtelet (and in various airports around the planet). I mean, all that used chewing gum stuck to the walls of a dingy underground metro station is hardly scenic…
I have to be honest though, I may have more than mastered this walking lark, building up speeds so impressive I can actually feel the wind in my hair like an Afghan hound hanging out of a moving car window as I’m powering along, but it seems I’m missing the point entirely. Now, Paris (any major city for that matter) can’t really claim to be a place of serenity and calm – and if you think it is then try getting home on line 9 at 6.30pm on a weekday. But there’s a movement unique to the city that promotes exactly that, using the humble activity of walking as its core value. The art of being a humble flâneur.
The verb flâner literally means ‘to stroll’ (i.e. the exact opposite of my like-that-electronic-rabbit-being-chased-by-a-pack-of-greyhounds version of walking), and it was the great Baudelaire who moulded the verb into a persona; that of the flâneur, ‘the man who strolls’. I say the ‘great Baudelaire’ by the way, but I’m not going to pretend I’m intelligent enough to have read any of his books, though the French sure think he’s swell.
But we’re in France after all, so this concept of the ‘idle stroller’ isn’t just akin to walking down Brighton seafront with an ice-cream in your hand; this is very serious business. It’s all about taking everything in, opening your eyes to your surroundings and absorbing the layers of culture, history and beauty that the city beholds. It’s about the journey, the very experience of walking and what you pass on the way. Think of a photographer without a camera as opposed to a stressed commuter/irate horned animal, head down, doing their best to push through the anonymous crowds trying to get home.
The flâneur was born in Paris, and it’s hands-down one of the best cities in the world to put the discipline into action. The city’s still relatively quiet until next week when the envy-inducing tans of the residents return from their holidays, and the Navigo is no longer dezoned (well, happily still at weekends), so the time for flexing your flâneuring skills is as ripe as a mirabelle plum. But if I catch you doing it from behind the screen of an iphone, then the rabbit becomes the greyhound. Don’t say you haven’t been warned…
Post originally published 20/08/2014