“Yea I went with nothing
Nothing but the thought of you
I went wandering …”
The Wanderer – U2 with Johnny Cash
As wandering the world goes, I’m up there. Work has stretched me into over 80 countries and in any year I touch down in 50+ cities. And between (or during!) appointments, I vanish into them.
There’s nothing like exploring a new city. The thrill of adventure, the excitement of discovery, your blood pumps and you feel alive. Around every corner, a world awaits. No doubt a flâneur feels some of this. A what? A flâneur!
Emerging from 19th century Paris, the flâneur is a strolling urban explorer with an eye for insight. The French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) saw a flâneur as a person who walks the city to experience it. I think of Bob Dylan, wandering off and getting picked up by the cops.
Flâneurs are cultivated, super-sensory, and empathetic. They are switched on because they are switched off, with time to kill. These characters have been strolling down through time, popping up and down in different guises. Voyeur, drifter, writer, artist, phantom, photographer, psycho-geographer, photo-blogger.
Flânerie is a bit like culture, difficult to pin down, as both subject and object are dynamic. The object – the city – is undergoing accelerated change. Over half of the world’s people are city dwellers and this is rising, even as some older cities crumble like Babylon. At least 20 cities are now mega, with 10 million + people.
As cities get bigger and shinier, some have said the Flâneur will disappear. Personally I can’t see it, despite the best efforts of American culture and rational urban planners. Thanks to financial cycles, cities are innately regenerative. Good times squeeze the essential creative resources out of the centre of cities. Bad times open the cultural space, inviting flânerie into the back alleys of human endeavor.
I love meandering through cities, absorbing the mystery, sensuality and intimacy of each city. I explore physically and virtually. It’s the local that interests me most, from local artists right through to the local football team. There are diamonds in this rough, priceless revelation in a mainstream that re-packages information and labels it as insight. I’d argue the flâneur is now more valuable than any research project.
It’s true across art, music, food, design, psychology, architecture, sport – all of it. When our whole life is on a schedule, we miss the hidden doors to better futures. So let heart and mind wander, and dare to dream.
So, long may the journey of the flâneur continue and far may he travel. Today he is bridging ideas as diverse as creativity, mythology, meditation, urban planning, technology, surrealism and sustainability.