The French poet,Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), was the first to popularize the term “flaneur”.
It pertained to the meanderings of gentlemen through the streets of Paris. No destination in mind, or singular purpose, other than the immersion of oneself in the Life of the street. To observe, reflect, pass through. Flaneurs do it unhurried, with a sense of complete commitment to the unstructured romanticism of the pastime.
Relaxed, complacent, attuned to the sounds and sights, and aroma of the city; the smell of leather wafting outside the door of the shoemaker’s tiny shop in the Marais. The fragrance of a simmering stew of beef and wine, emanating from the kitchen in an alley behind the Palais Royale. Girls on bicycles, matrons coming home from market with their produce and tall baguettes. Workers repairing cobblestones, uniformed, their faces covered in street grime.
To some it might appear to be a frivolous pursuit, but in Paris, much is forgiven. After all, wasn’t “laissez-faire” born here? Blame time itself, the pile of history from Romans to the Sun King Louis XIV, and beyond, to the Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte. Blame the centuries for leaving so much intact. Blame kings and emperors for preserving great storehouses of art in their palaces and hunting lodges. They give every flaneur the perfect excuse to do nothing but meander.
One could argue that strolling through the streets of Paris is a mobile history lesson. Take for instance, the Medieval architecture of the Conciergerie, the prison in which Marie Antoinette was confined before her execution, or the fanciful Art Nouveau houses of Hector Guimard. On every boulevard, through every passageway, all along the River Seine and up the hills of Montmartre, the events of the tumultuous past come to life in glimpses of a cathedral or famous cabaret.
One is not walking, one is feasting. Feeding the soul. Inhaling beauty and grace. Exhaling humility. That is the sole occupation of the flaneur.
Erik Satie in Montmartre by Ramon Casas