There is perhaps no role I identify with more, than the flâneur.
Only the French could come up with such a word-it means “the stroller” or “the saunterer,” or quite simply, “the walker”-someone who wanders down the boulevard with an amiable sense of leisure.
It is also a perfectly underappreciated role. Especially now that we are so hardcore about things-determined as we have become to identify as a “skier” or a “mountain biker.” (Both roles in which I could merely be considered a “dabbler.”)
Indeed, the American counterpart to the flâneur is perhaps best culminated in “the outdoorsperson.” A role that is only available to us after work hours and on the weekends. Something we buy gear for and drive our cars to and track the metrics for on our watches.
And yet, in our quest for recreation we have lost the love of the stroll. To walk at a leisurely pace about town. To stop whenever we fancy a croissant or a cup of tea. To find a new book in a book store. To take in a museum or catch a violinist performing on the street. To drop in unannounced on an undiscovered church. To find the perfect apricot jam at a farmers market and have it on toast the next morning for breakfast.
You know, the sort of things we only do when we are on vacation in Paris but are perfectly capable of doing nearly anywhere else in the world as well.
Perhaps influenced by the modern culture, my husband and I call our flâneury “urban hiking” and we took up the habit when my husband broke his collar bone last April and could no longer identify as a “mountain biker”-a striking piece of identity he greatly suffered to lose, however temporarily.
Though I’ve always been a walker, during the last year we developed a habit together that has run away with itself, causing us to come up with all kinds of far away places we can walk to in our city. Should we walk to get oysters four miles away? A trip to the museum three miles away? A trip to the post office to mail a letter one mile away? These are the tenets around which we plan our days.
But it was only this week, I’m embarrassed to say, that I realized I could walk to work. I was reading about walking, as one does, when I discovered the poet Wallace Stevens, who, according to the book Daily Rituals, worked as an insurance lawyer all his life and yet “between work and home he walked, a distance of three or four miles each way. Most days, he took an additional hour-long walk on his lunch break. It was on these walks that he composed his poetry, stopping now and then to scribble lines on one of the half-dozen or so envelopes he always had stuffed in his pocket.”
Suddenly inspired, I realized that my office, just like Wallace’s, is only four miles away from my home. I too could dream up book ideas on my commute, I thought with happiness, wandering about my city for inspiration! The morning was rather chilly so I took the bus-to further embarrass myself, this was also the first time I realized there is a bus that goes directly from my house to my office-then at the end of the day, I walked home.
This is not exemplary, I realize-it’s something people do everyday. And yet, I had the most lovely day. I was naturally getting exercise, meditating, and daydreaming as a natural consequence of going about my day. Plus, I got to enjoy the experience of reading a book while riding the bus, which, as it turns out, is much more pleasant than the sheer terror of trying not to hit people with my car while driving.
Later in the week, I walked to a work event (4 miles roundtrip), walked to yoga (2 miles roundtrip), and my husband and I walked to get cookies for dessert in the middle of a storm (3 miles roundtrip). (This is also the walk where my wallet flew away from me in the wind never to be seen again-I will miss you driver’s license, but I hope you are having the most grand adventure!)
And, unlike mountain biking or skiing or even running, these daliances do not require any kind of special clothing or shoes. As someone who cannot stand “sports specific apparel” and instead demands that my tiny wardrobe be applicable to every possible activity, I can wander to my hearts content in a linen dress and some leather sandals whether I’m walking on the street or hiking in the desert. All I add is a big giant hat to protect my pale skin.
It also doesn’t require any equipment. As a result of my walking, I actually developed a vehemence toward my Apple Watch. It went something like this: “I don’t need you to tell me that I walk a lot. I know that I do! And please stop reminding me to do yoga-I am perfectly capable of intuiting what my body needs on my very own, thank you very much. Also, you are ugly and I’m positively tired of you ruining my wandering outfits!”
The long walk
Here I must pull out my Daily Rituals book once more and aggrandize the following walkers:
Victor Hugo, for one, was known to take a two hour walk every day. Likewise, “promptly at 2:00,” Charles Dickens “left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk through the countryside or the streets of London, continuing to think of his story and, as he described it, ‘searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon.’”
The composer Erik Satie, though he lived just outside Paris, walked six miles into the city every day “stopping stopping at his favorite cafés along the way.” After a day of work and conversation with friends, he would take the train back home, or if he missed it-which he often did-he would walk all the way back home again.
“What a bliss to know that no one will come to interfere with my work, my reading, my walks.” Tchaikovsky once said when he moved to the countryside. Those pastoral promenades proved essential to his composing, often causing him to stop and jot down the next idea for his music.
“His brother writes, ‘Somewhere at sometime he had discovered that a man needs a two-hour walk for his health, and his observance of this rule was pedantic and superstitious, as though if he returned five minutes early he would fall ill, and unbelievable misfortunes of some sort would ensue.’”
Henry David Thoreau once delivered a lecture on walking, positing that, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least-and it is commonly more than that-sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard went so far as to say his life was dominated by two pursuits: writing and walking. “Typically, he wrote in the morning, set off on a long walk through Copenhagen at noon, and then returned to his writing for the rest of the day and into the evening. The walks were where he had his best ideas, and sometimes he would be in such a hurry to get them down that, returning home, he would write standing up before his desk, still wearing his hat and gripping his walking stick or umbrella.”
And lest we think the walk serves only as creative sprite, let’s not forget its role as therapist. The author Samuel Beckett once, at the end of a walk, “found himself standing on the end of a pier in the midst of a winter storm. Amid the howling wind and churning water, he suddenly realized that the ‘dark he had struggled to keep under’ in his life-and in his writing, which had until then failed to find an audience or meet his own aspirations-should, in fact, be the source of his creative inspiration. ‘I shall always be depressed,’ Beckett concluded, ‘but what comforts me is the realization that I can now accept this dark side as the commanding side of my personality. In accepting it, I will make it work for me.’”
I bring this all to your attention not to say that walks are how all creative people do creative things. Certainly there are artists who find their muse at the bottom of a whiskey barrel or the inside of a prison-and they seem to produce good work too. I’m only saying that my preferred way to go about things is to take a walk. It just happens to be the most peaceful and enjoyable and creatively fulfilling activity I have found. (Acupuncture being the least peaceful and enjoyable and creatively fulfilling, of course.)
The very long walk
If the long walk has been a source of inspiration, then the very long walk is even better. And here I’m thinking of Don Quixote, The Hobbit, The Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Baron Britpop Blastfurnace. Those epic tales in which our protagonist discovers adventure and romance and self-actualization as a result of a very, very long walk.
This, I believe is a mandatory facet of living and creating. For don’t we find the same? Life, like wandering, can take us in any possible direction and lead to any possible adventure-but we’ll miss the whole lot of it if we skip straight to our destination and drive. Besides, what if the walk there turns out to be the best part?