Jardin des Tuileries / Paris, France / June 2016
On the joys of walking in Paris, the distinctly Parisian flâneur, and urban planning.
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 … the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.
— Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”
When we arrived in Paris, our tiny studio flat on Île Saint-Louis was still in the process of being reset, so we were sent away to return a few hours later. Back on the street, we found ourselves conveniently next to a counter window selling fresh crêpes. Armed with food and no clear destination, we crossed the bridge off the island. That week, the Seine was temporarily flooded and it was hard not to gawk at the levels of the muddy brown waters which had submerged the riverside roads and nearly touched the bottoms of the bridges. Without meaning to (as happens in Paris) we suddenly found ourselves directly behind Notre Dame cathedral. A small public park lay before us, with inviting benches and greenery and a perfect view of soaring flying buttresses. What better way to pass the time?
We owe this serendipity to the fact that Paris is an eminently walkable city. Not “walkable” as in easy to walk around, like the simple alphanumeric grids of New York, or Washington DC; but “walkable” as in supremely enjoyable to walk around. Ten years ago, I lived in Paris for a semester during the pre-smart phone era. To get around I was given a then-indispensable pocket book of Paris by arrondissement, which had maps of each area and an index of street names. I never used it to get anywhere specific, though; the city invited unplanned wandering which I did unhurriedly until I absolutely had to be somewhere. At that point I would finally open the map to figure out where the nearest métro station was.1
The French have a word for this walking thing, of course: flâner, which means “to stroll.” The word, though, connotes much more a lifestyle than the basic physical act of bringing oneself from point A to point B. The “flâneur” was a seminal figure in 19th century French literature, a wanderer in the form of a “modern artist-poet, a figure keenly aware of the bustle of modern life, an amateur detective and investigator of the city.” To be a flâneur, as Walter Benjamin (philosopher and cultural critic), put it, was to “botaniz[e] the asphalt.” Urban life, then, becomes a particular microcosm to be experienced by wandering with no set purpose other than to observe everything.
The rise of the flâneur in Paris went hand in hand with the rise of the modern Parisian city, pioneered by Baron Haussmann in the mid-19th century. The most iconic features of Paris date back to this era: the wide, tree-lined boulevards radiating like stars from central points; open squares and circles now crowned by formidable landmarks; and large, green parks and gardens built for relaxation and recreation. While Haussmann is a controversial figure (after all, he tore down much of the former city to have a clean slate for his extensive urban planning project), the resulting open, planned city is a distinct pleasure to experience. Perhaps this is where the storied romance of Paris comes from – the whole city feels like an enormous park stocked with the world’s most recognizable works of public art.
And so, for our week in Paris, we adopted the role of flâneurs. We walked along the Seine and watched the floodwaters slowly recede and the detritus left behind. We noted the uniform apartment buildings, all neutral stone with slate blue mansard roofs sloping upwards. We marveled at how the ostentatious Renaissance and Enlightenment-era buildings add grandeur to the city, while the spiky gothic ones add mystery. We remembered that the Eiffel Tower is surreal no matter how many times you see it, and that catching it twinkling on the hour, even in the distance across town, is pure magic. We spied landmarks all over the city; a glimpse of Notre Dame’s spire through an alley, the iron pinnacle of the Eiffel Tower visible over a rooftop. We meandered across countless bridges straddling the Seine, finding matter-of-fact graffiti in an alcove on Pont Neuf which read “a watermelon was murdered here,”2and a provocative, mystical sculpture exhibition on Pont des Arts which seemed to have materialized wholesale from a dream. When we got tired of walking, we found the nearest park, always meticulously landscaped with pruned hedges and crunchy gravel underfoot. In Jardin des Tuileries we found ourselves a pair of green, metal chairs amidst with what seemed like the city’s entire population, all out enjoying the beautiful weather. For several minutes we watched the sun go down, reflected in the placid pond before us. When it was fully dark we got up and walked back, blissfully free of maps or agenda.
And . . .