'Imagination will take you everywhere'
Flâneuse: feminine form of flâneur, an idler, a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.
(an imaginary definition by Lauren Elkin, based on the French word flâneur)
I have just finished reading Elkin’s ‘Flâneuse’, a book about women exploring cities and the creative possibilities and empowerment that come out of it. It has been my travel companion over the last couple of months as I navigate Europe (well part of Europe), strolling through Paris, Berlin, London and finally back home in the English countryside.
It has not only accompanied me on my journeys but also made me more of a watchful observer as opposed to just passively accepting my surroundings. In our fast-paced world where everyone seems to be rushing from A to B, sometimes it’s nice to amble around and look – really look – at a place.
The book depicts how independent, strong-spirited women like George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Agnès Varda and Martha Gellhorn used their love of street-walking to encapsulate a place through their writing or film-making. I felt as if I was following in their footsteps. Using my feet to get to know a place was my way of feeling part of it – somehow pounding the cobblestones gave me confidence, like I wasn’t going to let the foreignness scare me but instead embrace it. Looking and watching, wandering and meandering, getting lost and finding my way.
“I think people are made of the places not only where they’ve been raised, but that they’ve loved; I think environments inhabit us…by understanding people you understand places better, by understanding places you understand people better.” Agnès Varda
Part memoir, part cultural history, Elkin begins by explaining how it was predominantly thought of as a 19th century male occupation – flânerie, the preserve of middle to upper-class men who could afford to have time to saunter around aimlessly. Women are watched, they don’t do the watching. Elkin turns this idea on its head and highlights how women have always interacted with and explored cities. She redefines the concept of flânerie by analysing how prominent female figures in history are flâneuses, and have taken paths through cities, such as New York, London, Tokyo, Venice and Paris. Each city has its own chapter and its own character from history that is woven into Elkin’s own life story.
We follow the artist Sophie Calle as she stalks a complete stranger (she calls him Henri B) around the crumbling maze of Venice, which eventually became a book, Suite Vénitienne, published in 1979. For Calle it was the mystery of this unknown man which drove her to document his every move with the precision of a private investigator, and later she created a fictional world around him. Without him she felt lost. Agnès Varda’s film Cléo From 5 to 7 sees a beautiful young singer, Cléo, traverse Paris from the 1st to the 13th arrondissement as she awaits her medical test results (she suspects she has cancer). It puts a spin on the traditional male gaze of cinema, as we see the City of Light through the eyes of this (albeit self-obsessed) woman. At the beginning the looks she receives from men make her feel desired and alive, but by the end she has found a new sense of self through her city – Elkin argues that it is these moments when the camera stops watching Cléo and begins to represent her point of view that are most potent. She also reminds us that not only is there a flâneuse in front of the camera but there is also one behind the camera in the form of Varda.
My favourite flâneuse that Elkin writes about is the war correspondent, Martha Gellhorn. She is the ultimate vagabond; driven by an innate need to give a voice to the people caught up in conflicts. Her portraits of daily life in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War are raw and capture the atmosphere of a city under siege. One line by Gellhorn that Elkin highlights is particularly brilliant: “Disaster had swung like a compass needle, aimlessly, all over the city.” (From The Face of War, pg 38). She uses words like an impressionist artist uses a paintbrush; sweeping over the page to build a scene that the reader can enter into. Yes facts are important in war reporting, but Gellhorn believed that seeing was paramount.
“At the end of the day the wind swooped down from the mountains into Madrid and blew the broken glass from the windows of the shelled houses. You could hear the glass tinkling, and the wind going narrow and strong through the dark streets. It rained all the time, and the streets were mustard-colored with mud. It rained and everyone waited for the offensive to begin.” (intro from City at War by Gellhorn in Collier’s Weekly, April 2 1938.)
But what about the author’s own relationship with flâneuserie? After spending most of her study year in Paris walking around the arrondissements, Elkin (a New Yorker) soon decided she wanted to live in the city – mostly because of its walkability: “It had something to do with the utter, total freedom unleashed from the act of putting one foot in front of the other.” She fell in love with the city and its streets and now lives there permanently. This Paris love affair is a bit of a cliché – who hasn’t fallen in love with the city? (Moi included). But I enjoyed the sections about Elkin’s life – it was a modern anchor in a book bursting with cultural and historical references – I think I learnt more about the numerous revolutions that have occurred in Paris than in my French history class. And I empathised with Elkin being torn between her ‘roots’ in New York and her new life in Paris.
“I met people from all over the world – Russia, Iran, India, Germany, Brazil – feeling an independence I’d never imagined possible. There was a whole world out there and I didn’t have to live in America simply because I was born there. I could live anywhere I liked. And I liked living in France.” Elkin, Pg 276
Soon the book inspired me to do my own bit of flâneuse-ing. It kept me company as I sat on the banks of the Canal de l’Ourcq during a Paris heatwave – watching as people jumped from bridges into the water below, stemmed my boredom as I waited in German bus stations and let me escape during my lunch break on grey London days. It forced me to go out and meander through the streets when I was tired after a long day of work.
On one particularly exhausting day in Paris I came back to my AirBnB and slumped down on the sofa in a sweaty heap, but out of the corner of my eye I saw the book, and soon I was out the door and walking around. That day happened to be the 21st of June – Fête de la Musique – when musicians play in the streets of Paris. I stumbled across a particularly good jazz band surrounded by revellers drinking beer from plastic cups. Everyone looked as if they were having the time of their lives. I stood and listened to a few songs, swaying to the music. On my way back I passed a group of cellists playing together at the very edge of a canal, the music and applause floated along the water and remained with me as I strolled back. It was magical – and I almost didn’t see it. It was the act of putting one (reluctant) foot in front of the other that enabled me to truly discover the area I was inhabiting.
I finished the book while sat on an old stone wall under an apple tree in the Cotswolds, as butterflies fluttered and bees buzzed, drunk on pollen. I swotted flies away from my feet and basked in the afternoon sun with a background soundtrack of sheep and cows from the neighbouring field. I mused on how different this was to the busy cities I had read the rest of the book in – when people and cars and scooters whizzed passed, and the city was both overwhelming and exciting; full of possibility. As lovely as it is to be back in the comfort of my home, there is the unmistakable yearning for the thrill of discovering a new place. Maybe it’s my inner flâneuse waiting to burst out once again.