Home > Authors, Culture > A flaneur footloose in Paris

A flaneur footloose in Paris

Paris being one of the great walking cities of the world, it’s not surprising that it’s the metaphorical home of the Flaneur – the idler, the walkabout, the wanderer of the city’s streets. If I had more time, that’s what I’d become during my present visit!

I first became aware of the term from the work of Fred Herzog, the famed photographer of Vancouver street scenes. He entitled his shot of an untroubled gentleman staring at passers-by, The Flaneur. My English-French dictionary defines only the verb: flaner – to stroll.

I would like to think of myself as a flaneur, but I am not. I do, however, have a regular stroll that I enjoy very much. It begins (or ends) at the Edgar Quinet metro station one stop before Gare Montparnesse.  In the morning,  I go up rue Delambre to the corner of Monparnasse and boulevard Raspail (site of Le Dome and Le Rotonde, across the street from each other), and proceed up Raspail to Alliance Francaise. On that route, I see Paris in miniature: there is no shortage of boulangeries with their baguettes and croissants, la poissonnerie with Scottish salmon at E20 per k, small hotels that promise rooms “tout confort,”several sandwich shops, and numerous restaurants and bars. As well as une epicerie, un nettoyage, and the other necessities of everyday life.

According to Stephen Scobie of Edmonton, author of “The Measure of Paris,” there is no satisfactory English translation for flaneur. The character probably emerged in mid 19th century Paris, at a time when the streets had been cleaned up and sewer systems put in. Before that, Scobie observes, one would have hardly wished to walk the streets for pleasure: “narrow, unmapped and filthy, often with open sewers.”

Those who idly contemplated the true character of the flaneur have concluded that he (and only a man can be a true flaneur) must wander without a specific destination, being both present and detached from his surroundings, and without regard for urgent business that might require his presence elsewhere. “Unlike Hemingway hurrying to work,” Scobie says, “the flaneur has nowhere to go.” The reference is to Hemingway’s having written of choosing streets that would lead “back fastest to where you worked.”

Presence among, but detachment from the crowd is apparently the key to flaneur life. In 1863, Baudelaire wrote:

“The crowd is his domain, just as the air is the bird’s, and water that of the fish. His passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd … The observer (flaneur) is a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes.”

The problem is we all have somewhere to go. The masses of workers hurrying from the Metro in the morning suggest to me the work ethic lives on in France, despite what we may hear otherwise.


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