Having just returned to Durham after spending the year living and working in Paris, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what makes the city, and its culture, so magical. Is it the beauty of the architecture, the way your eye is drawn in a million different directions once you step out onto the street? Is it the scent of the exquisite boulangeries, expertly churning out coffee and patisseries day after day? Or is it the classy air of Parisians, they way their jeans fit perfectly, and they always look picture-perfect?
Answer: it’s a combination of all the above. Not purely the elements on their own, but rather the entire process of what the French refer to as ‘flâner.’ Whilst we don’t quite have an exact equivalent in English, this verb largely translates to ‘to walk whilst being immersed in one’s surroundings.’ And I can’t think of a better verb to aptly summarise my time in Paris.
Moving to the city of love amidst a global pandemic, I only naturally began to panic about the impending lockdown alone. I worried whether I would be able to see Paris at all, whether I had wasted a trip. I was glad to find that I was wrong.
Whilst at times lonely, I can’t express how much I gained from the solitude of my wonderings across Paris. Spending quality time alone is not something I’ve ever had, or wanted, to do. But apparently it was everything I needed. The amount of lunch breaks, early evenings and weekends I spent exploring the streets of Paris adds up to a hefty sum.
So what is it about these mindless, immersive wonderings that makes them so good for the soul?
I think there’s three elements to it: the romanticism of the city, the meditative aspect, and the space for thoughts. Often referred to as ‘main character energy,’ walking around any magical place, like Paris, triggers a feeling of being the protagonist in a novel or film. Throw in an existential playlist, filled with Lana Del Rey and all the Taylor Swift you can imagine, and you might just feel as though you are walking alone to the soundtrack of the movie based on your life.
Walking, either in time to music, or whilst listening to the sounds around you, certainly also has a meditative aspect. Even though I’ve never been one to swear by meditation, perhaps I had just never tried it the French way. Often selecting to walk home, rather than taking a 20 minute metro. Those hours of quiet bliss really do put you in a trance. I found I had time to really connect to my surroundings. I got to know the city on foot, and eventually felt as though I was walking on pure muscle memory alone. The more I walked, the more zen I felt, despite the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
And finally, we have the pure alone time of the flâneur. Have you ever felt like you don’t have the time to truly sit with your feelings, work out how you feel, process emotions? I sometimes struggle to just sit and process. The act of leaving the house, walking and thinking at once, takes you out of your usual thought patterns and into a new headspace. Rather than replaying the same scenes in my head, I found myself unpacking, letting go and thinking in new ways. I communicate better as a result, understand myself better, and have more patience for myself.
So, the art of being a flâneur. I think you should try it.
By Erin Waks