While we’re busy battling jet lag, missing coffee meetings with friends while we oversleep, and generally bumbling about town with our eyes half-open, here are a few thoughts on traveling—somewhere nearby or far flung—and the art of the embarking on the perfect meander from my friend Tim.
Flâner: Se promener sans but, au hasard, pour le plaisir de regarder.
(To wander aimlessly, randomly, for the pleasure of watching.)
Roughly translated, the French verb flâner is the art of taking a stroll. It means stepping off the path of daily to-dos to walk with no destination in mind, see the world with the eyes of a poet, and notice all the small details.
The flâneurs, as they were known in early 20th-century Paris, were the poets who walked the streets in search of nothing more than the feeling of being alive. Today, a flâneur’s goal is much the same. They’re not window shoppers or mental list makers. They’re not Instagrammers or Tweeters. They are seekers of this current, fleeting moment.
So how does one go about taking a simple saunter? Here are my go-to tips for the embarking on the perfect meander.
Leave the phone at home.
This is the toughest for me. It means no dropping pins for places I want to remember. It means no photos. And perhaps worst of all, it means that I don’t get the credit on my little walking app. As I leave my phone on the counter, I have to tell myself that some time apart will probably do us some good (at least one of us) and that my phone should work for me, not me for it. Being phoneless gives me a nowness that I wouldn’t have with my phone in hand.
Walk your turtle.
Flâneurs in Paris were once fond of leashing a turtle and letting the turtle set the pace. It slowed them down and served as a reminder to step slow. Don’t have a turtle? Not to worry; just remember that this isn’t a race to some enlightened finish line. Take time to savor your stroll.
Look for light.
You don’t have to fly off to Paris to take beautiful walks. Any given place in the world shares the same ever-changing and ever-beautiful resource, and that’s sunlight. Flâneurs are all about the way light shifts, cascades on a wall, or bounces off water. Noon light comes with its heavy shadows, late afternoon light comes with its low beams and softness. Go to some of your favorite spots around your hometown and see how they react with different times of day. (Monet got transfixed by haystacks, for goodness sake, and saw fit to paint them 25 times just to see how they’d look in different light, at different times of year.)
Observe – We’re all still really human.
It’s easy to gripe about our over-connectivity and obsession with emails and inboxes, but when I’m out for a walk, I see small moments and interactions between families that remind me that life is as it always was, and I’m comforted by that. The mother still fastens the buttons on her child’s wool coat. The old man still smokes his pipe. The kids still run for the sake of running. There’s a comfort in knowing that this powerful play goes on and that everyone is contributing verses similar to the ones that have always been written.
My schedule always feels full and finding time to do nothing else other than walk—avoiding the temptation to also pick up the dry cleaning or grab some much needed caffeine—can be difficult. But I find I can still usually carve out an hour in a week for a meander. In fact, to make sure that I do, I’ve started scheduling my weekly walks right into my calendar. Sure, they look a little silly written out on my iCal, but I commit to the exercise by reminding myself that time to simply be is a noble pursuit.
Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I’d like to think that my days aren’t always a race toward productivity, that sometimes, life is a turtle-paced walk toward presence.
To flâner with Tim and his wife Laura in Provence this October, check out Moveable Feast Retreats.
Or follow them and say hello on their blog.