Flâneuse it or Lose it

Angelique finds a kindred spirit in Laura Elkins, whose book Flâneuse explores the stories of brave women who navigate cities on foot.

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The boots in question

I was recently listening to Book of the Week on BBC Radio Four, and Flâneuse by Lauren Elkins was being featured. She writes of her experiences as a young American woman traversing the cities of Europe alone, comparing them to those of famous women in history who have done the same. She calls these women “flâneuse”, the feminisation of a term I am familiar with, “flâneur”: a man who saunters around observing society. I think I even have this definition written in garish calligraphy on the inside cover of one of my travel diaries. Though, of course, I changed “man” to the genderless “one”. Elkins doesn’t see this concept as genderless, however, and delves into what it specifically means to be a woman navigating a foreign urban jungle, then, in a world of Victorian oppression, and now, in a climate of cat calls and kidnappings. She sees how despite this, walking is empowering, soothing and educational.

“To walk alone in London is the greatest rest,” wrote Virginia Woolf. I know what she means, though this wasn’t always the case. When I first moved to the capitol, my dream city, to study abroad I was a (tremendously) naive 18. My visions of London were built up from stories of my grandmother (who had last lived there in the 1940s) and books and films I’d immersed myself in as a child and teen. The second day after arriving, I took the first few hours not eaten up by class orientations to set off on my own. It was only the second time I’d walked alone in a city, the first being the summer before in Portland, Oregon. I was at Marble Arch when I parted ways with my new coursemates. Home was Notting Hill, which I knew I could get to through the park. I had no phone, no friend, just a big grin, a pink dress, my floral Dr. Marten’s, and a few lines from Chapter 20 of Douglas Adams’ 1984 book So Long and Thanks for All the Fish in my head:

“Let’s not mince words. Hyde Park is stunning. Everything about it is stunning except for the rubbish on Monday mornings. Even the ducks are stunning. Anyone who can go through Hyde Park on a summer’s evening and not be moved is probably going through in an ambulance with a sheet pulled up over his face. It is a park in which people do more extraordinary things than they do elsewhere.” 

It was a summer’s evening and I was tromping down Bayswater road in happy pursuit of the stunning ducks. One of Elkins’ women, George Sant, wrote, “I was a perfect first year student, I cant express the pleasure my boots gave me. With those on I was solid on the pavement.” I felt just the same. But before I could turn left into the park, a man approached me from the opposite side of the pavement. “Hey, you’re kinda pretty y’know?” he barked when he was a few feet away. I ignored it and kept going. He shuffled to block my path. Why don’t you come with me.” It wasn’t a question. I screamed for him to get away and stepped into the street, wildly waving my arms around for a taxi or attention. He slinked away and I took quick refuge in the park. Suddenly though, in my shaken state, it didn’t seem so idyllic. It was labyrinthine and every walker there looked threatening, wouldn’t answer my pleas for directions. My big boots slowed me. I eventually made it home safely, with the aide of a kind woman, but it was a couple of weeks before I went out alone again. I wouldn’t go anywhere without a buddy, and it kept me from doing a lot. Finally my friends had enough. One sent me this poem on how to be alone (something I still watch when I struggle to do things by myself) and another took me back to the same park, sat me under a tree with a book to read and told me she’d be back for me in an hour. That broke the ice, and I started to walk and explore London on my own. Elkins writes of Sant, “being able to walk on her own, true to her own spirit was the basic declaration of her independence.” It was and still is for me. Of course, Sant did her strolling under the guise of men’s clothing and a pen name.

Now, after living here in London off and on for two years, I do find it more restful than stressful. Sometimes I get off a stop early on my way home just because I itch for it, or I purposefully go to an out-of-the-way grocery store. I crave being in control of my own path and my own time. Elkins understands, writing, “coming from suburban America where people drive everywhere, walking was an eccentric thing to do. It’s that sense of total freedom unleashed from putting one foot in front of the other.” It was the anonymity of city walking that Woolf found relaxing. This found comfort may seem strange in an expat or traveller, someone who is already missing the people they know so much, missing being recognised within a community. Indeed, like Elkins I frequently think to myself, “Where I come from, people don’t move abroad. Why pry myself loose from the place I was born, from my family, my friends, my city, my language?” It’s a difficult and often lonely choice. So why plunge ourselves further into loneliness by being flâneuses? Two reasons: One, by mapping out a location by foot you are establishing yourself as part of the landscape. You are pounding your soles into the ground, learning each nook and cranny and road until you feel like you belong. When I recently lived in a small town in Portugal, these walks were very important. The village was nearly empty, so I couldn’t make myself fit in by finding like minds (let alone speak to most people, thanks to a terrible sense of language acquisition), but I could traverse the streets, find the best places to pick wildflowers and rosemary, sit on abandoned stoops and make friends with stray cats, impressing myself into a new and strange background. Two, you never know who you will come across whilst exploring solo. Not all chance street meetings are dangerous men trying to nab you – some are important friends who can change your life in big ways by introducing you to a broader, deeper community. Being alone and free of aim or obligation as a flâneuse allows for making the most of such opportunities.

I was petrified to go out alone in the city, but eager too. I often purposefully put myself in positions that make me uncomfortable. Sometimes this gets me into real trouble. But others, it gets me into real life, and past being a mere tourist in a new place, stuck to someone else’s agenda or time frame. Elkins questions, “Why am I so anxious to be bound by someone else’s rules?” I wish I had the answer to that myself. Perhaps the antidote is to hit the streets.

2 thoughts on “Flâneuse it or Lose it

  1. This is such a nice post. I love travelling on foot in a city but, as in your experience, sometimes it has felt a bit dangerous. And it’s absolutely a gender thing. What I find kind of interesting is the role of walking in different cultures, as in, whether it’s weird to walk (or impossible because everything is highways) or whether it’s a normal way of getting around (like in Paris); and the differences in the way people interact with you when you’re walking in different places – if they leave you alone, have a friendly chat with you, have an uncomfortable chat with you, try to pressure you into buying stuff, etc. But regardless, I’ve also found that walking is the best way to get to know a place, and delight in how it changes over time. I’ve never really thought of it as a way to resist pressures and to be free, but now that I’ve read this post I think I’ll start to and it’ll feel even better 🙂

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    • Thanks so much Erin! Yes, you’re certainly right that it’s a cultural thing, it seems like in America everyone drives everywhere, despite the distance. There’s something so satisfying about self propulsion though.

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