For one glorious week, I walked the streets of Paris.
I wandered, I ambled, I strolled.
I took in the sights and sounds.
I smelled, I tasted.
Just the way I always dreamed I would.
When my cousin S extended a very generous invitation – to accompany him on a cultural expedition of the City of Lights, I actually hesitated before saying “Yes.” (You can read all about that here.) But say “Yes” I did, and a couple of weeks ago I actually did it. I got on a plane, left my husband and kids behind, and went to Paris. All in.
Our travel party grew to three when S’s friend D joined us in the Atlanta airport. From there, we flew through the night, each anticipating our arrival from different sections of the plane. Sleep was elusive, and the on-board French wine did little to calm my excitement. I was on my way to Paris!
Upon arrival, our mission became clear. To immerse ourselves as much as possible. Not to ‘see’ Paris through the lens of a camera or the pages of a guide book an iPhone app. Not to ask for the English menu, and find something we might like. Not to seek out the pop-culture images we’d learned from our side of the pond. (Well, maybe a few.) But to BE in Paris. To EXPERIENCE Paris. To LIVE in Paris for one week.
The first day, I found something to marvel at with every step. A peek down an angled street, the pattern in the cobblestones, the wrought-iron balcony rails – all took my breath away. I resisted the urge to take photos of everything, instead wanting to just be part of it. There was plenty of time.
Over the following days, the lessons came. Lessons about art and history and architecture. But mostly about life. About my life. And maybe yours, too.
And I want to share some of them with you.
Lessons from Paris. Part One: Le Flâneur
Neither Dictionary.com nor Merriam-Webster.com has a definition for this word. Perhaps it doesn’t translate well into English because it’s not a concept we can really grasp here. WordReference.com does a decent job at attempting to translate it here.
Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842.
But the essence of this word can’t be captured in a two-dimensional way. One must do it to understand. One must become a flâneur.
Variations of the verb flâner date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when it referred to walking about with the intent of wasting time. It was in the 19th century when the word developed the rich meaning and connotation it holds today – that of an intellectual urban explorer, a connoisseur of the street, one whose purpose for strolling outdoors was to take in the culture surrounding him.
Tourist vs. flâneur.
A tourist is a person engaged in travel for recreation or leisure, often learning about their destination through the filter of a guide or book.
A flâneur wanders a place for the sake of experiencing that place, developing a relationship with his or her surroundings in the process. There is no specific destination. This concept of the flâneur was presented in the 1860s by the French essayist Charles Beaudelaire.
“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family…”1
Paris taught me to be a flâneur. Not a tourist when I am away from home, not a participant in my own life when I am at home. But a connoisseur of life always.
“Be always drunken.
Nothing else matters:
that is the only question.
If you would not feel
the horrible burden of Time
weighing on your shoulders
and crushing you to the earth,
be drunken continually.
Drunken with what?
With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will.
But be drunken.
And if sometimes,
on the stairs of a palace,
or on the green side of a ditch,
or in the dreary solitude of your own room,
you should awaken
and the drunkenness be half or wholly slipped away from you,
ask of the wind,
or of the wave,
or of the star,
or of the bird,
or of the clock,
of whatever flies,
ask what hour it is;
and the wind,
clock will answer you:
“It is the hour to be drunken!”
― Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen, 1869
1 Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964). Orig. published in Le Figaro, in 1863.