Are You a Flâneur? Give It a Try on Your Next Visit to a New City

Are You a Flâneur? Give It a Try on Your Next Visit to a New City

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Nancy Mitchell
Aug 7, 2015
(Image credit: Ditty_about_summer/Shutterstock)

I love learning new words, and not just English ones. Words from other languages can introduce concepts that English words can't quite capture, and help us see the world in a entirely new way. (Schadenfreude, anyone?) I recently discovered a French word that may make you re-think your vacations — or just give you a new perspective on the city where you already live.

The word I have in mind is flâner, a French word that means 'to wander aimlessly but enjoyably'. (I picked it up from this book, so I can now credit my weakness for chick lit with broadening my experience of the world.) A flâneur is a person who engages in such wandering, and, as it turns out, the word has a rich history.

Various French writers have written about the concept of the flâneur, characterizing him (or her) as a sort of enlightened spectator, someone who wandered around cities (it was always a city) and took in scenes and people, in much the same way that a gourmet would savor exotic foods. Charles Baudelaire, in his book "The Painter of Modern Life, " characterized the flâneur thusly:

"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."

American writer Cornelia Otis Skinner pointed out that there was no real English equivalent for the term, "just as there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city".

Last year I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of spending six weeks in Paris, and some of my favorite memories from that time are of just walking around, discovering new places and exploring the beautiful landscapes of the city. I remember, too, that on my first visit to New York some of my favorite experiences came from the in-between times when I had a little time to wander, and discover, and see what the city could give me.

When visiting a new city it's tempting to schedule every single moment, to get as much out your precious vacation time as possible. But the next time you're in a new city (or even in your own city), consider leaving a little time from some flânerie. You'll be a part of a long and proud tradition — and you might discover a side of the city that you never would have seen otherwise.

Read more: Flâneur on Wikipedia

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