In debating urban vs rural walking, I tend to side with Virginia Woolf’s character Mrs. Dalloway, announcing as she bustles through the streets of London on the day she is hosting a dinner party that she much prefers walking in the city to the country.
We actually chose Mrs. Dalloway as the first selection to kick off our EverWalk Book Club just this May. And, in another nod to city walking, we have made our choice for August Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London.
The term “Flâneur” (the female version in French being Flâneuse) stems back to the 19th century and it’s a term that describes not only someone who happens to be shopping or getting some exercise or waving hello to a neighbor. The Flâneuse is alert as she actively discovers the city. Literary critic Walter Benjamin called the Flâneur “the essential figure of the modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city”.
On a walkabout around Havana, Bonnie and I heard music from above and looked up to find the entire façade of the building missing on the fourth floor. In one apartment, several people were eating at a table, a few others off to the side playing musical instruments. Without meaning to invade their privacy, we were inadvertently spectators, voyeurs, into the interior of their residence. That incident got us to investigating. How much of the crumbling Colonial architecture, those gorgeous pastel buildings all over Havana, had left people living with walls damaged or in some cases completely swept away, had left those people exposed to both the elements and the public walking by down on the streets? We discovered the dilemma to be widespread. Bonnie and I were, during these particular walks, Flâneuses.
On the other hand, I lived for a stretch on West 64th Street in Manhattan. I walked home from a variety of different streets, corners, turns. But one day I walked north and didn’t cross over onto my street until I was in front of the wide plaza of Lincoln Center. For the first time, I saw over across Broadway a bronze replica of the Statue of Liberty on top of an apartment building. I couldn’t believe I had never seen in before. It was large, perhaps thirty feet tall. As I got closer, I was both shocked and embarrassed to discover this statue was atop MY building. I had been living under the Statue of Liberty for a couple of years and had been in too much of a rush to get home to ever gaze up, to ever wonder what might be on top of these buildings in my neighborhood. I was decidedly not a curious investigator Flâneuse as I walked around NYC in those days….although were many stretches during my decades in Manhattan that I did take on the Flâneuse role.
When I was a kid, I developed a crush on the 19th Century writer George Sand. Sand was her pen name; her real name was Lucile Aurore Dupin, known to her friends as Aurore. Yes, she was respected widely in literary and cultural circles, her works read by Hugo, Balzac and even Dostoevsky. And her opinions on happenings in Paris were sought by the city’s leaders. And she had affairs with many of the famous men of her time, her relationship with Chopin well known to the public. But, for me, it was her habit of dressing in a top hat (the key wardrobe moment for the French Flâneur of the day), wearing men’s clothes, and heading out to dive into the crowds and the energy of Paris….as a man. I was intrigued by this George Sand, perhaps the ultimate Flâneuse…..or, as George, was she out late night on the streets of Paris more a Flâneur?
Have you had the experience of being out on an urban walk and suddenly finding yourself a participant in the kickball game in the local park? You are in that moment a Flâneuse.
The poet Charles Baudelaire defined the Flâneur this way: “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…to be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home, to see the world, to be the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world….”
Of course, by all means, bien sûr, I thrill to walk down a bucolic country road. Our EPIC events have taken us through the farmland of Washington State, out into the rural greenery of Maryland, along the quaint coastline of Maine, and I loved every step of those areas. But, day by day, if I had to choose, I respond to the exploration of a big city. I’ve had the good fortune to travel around much of the world and I recall the excitement of lacing up a comfortable pair of sneakers, getting the water and snacks packed in the backpack, looking over the city map, and heading out to investigate every nook and cranny of Hong Kong or Nice or Sydney.
So, to you Flâneurs and Flâneuses out there, I envy your urban detective walking!
About Diana Nyad:
A prominent sports journalist, filing for National Public Radio, ABC’s Wide World of Sports, The New York Times and others, Diana has carved her place as one of our compelling storytellers and sought-after public speakers. .