Living in cities can be extremely recharging. Streets bustling with life, the constant generation of ideas occurring, all forms of diversity unfolding before your very eyes.
On the flip side however, after the occasional day of hard blows and perpetual weariness cities can feel like a torture chamber, with thousands of beady eyes watching on as the cruel nature of overwhelm clutches your soul.
Take any form of public transport and you’ll know, it is worthwhile selectively channelling our energy and attention after busy day of constant interaction. In these moments we come to understand why a likely 99% of passengers resort to complete disengagement either by reading, looking down at their shoes, or putting headphones in. ‘You stay there in your bubble, I’ll stay here in mine,’ seems to be the motto. Nevertheless, there are times to engage and give a little more of ourselves to the world around us, and there are most definitely times when retreating is more beneficial.
This is where the flaneur comes in.
A fine middle ground solution for the modern city dweller wanting to remain a part of society whilst introducing more consideration and peace to the experience it offers.
“The figure of the flâneur—the stroller, the passionate wanderer emblematic of nineteenth-century French literary culture—has always been essentially timeless; he removes himself from the world while he stands astride its heart.”
The term (originally given by Charles Baudelaire in the early 18th century) was derived from the Old Norse verb flana, meaning “to wander aimlessly.” It is characterised by the act of walking for walking sake, with no hurry or agenda and no set route or destination, only a keen willingness to wander in wonder and soak in the surroundings of an urban cityscape.
To save seeing the world as a terrifying and intrusive place, being overwhelmed by things completely irrelevant to us, or growing cynical in our position towards the many ‘ideas’ wanting our attention in cities, the art of the flaneur can enrich our capacity to receive all that’s good about our surroundings. It lies in an openness to observation – realigning our intentions and changing our position in the big story of city life. Rather than rushing thorough the crowd, the flaneur makes a day of it. He / She finds the art in it, and thus begins to understand that society is the most touching canvas, story book, poem we will ever paint, see, or hear.
“It’s a paradox of cities that though they bring together huge numbers of people in small spaces, they also separate them from each other. So it’s the goal of flâneurs to recover a sense of community, as Baudelaire put it, “to be away from home and yet to feel everywhere at home.”
– Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”
Surrender to the chaos. but don’t be ruled by it.
In doing so, perhaps we can start to feel energised in our view of cities being the greatest places to become aware of the fact that our movements and actions can influence and spur others forth into a more happy and hopeful space. Here you can hone in on your people skills, or you can do the opposite.. It’s whatever you make it. You can shrink into oblivion and be anonymous, or embrace the chance to interact with possibly hundreds of strangers in one single day. It serves as an opportunity to really put into practice being a truly alive human being – looking people in the eye, smiling as you walk past strangers, saying hello and thanks to your bus driver. Because it feels so good to actually just be there with them, or simply watch them from afar.
Here’s to flaneur-ing!
No google maps needed.
Top image: Julie Pointer Adams