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photoAt the AWP conference in Seattle this past February, I attended a panel discussion entitled Wayward: An Examination of the Modern Flaneur. The fact that they’d left the circumflex off of the “a” in flâneur and that no one knew how to pronounce it should have provided warning of what I could expect.

David Shields, the most familiar to me of the four presenting panelists, was quick to tell the audience that he not only disliked the word flâneur, he also thought the idea itself was beyond antiquated. In a world where one can “google images of Kuala Lumpur at will” Shields questioned the need for authors who write about faraway places. In essence he was sounding the death knell for travel writers. The first problem is that he misinterpreted the word flâneur which does not translate as one who travels to and observes exotic places as much as it is an observer who interprets that which is considerably closer: his or her own city and environment.

Though the word is associated with the French poet Charles Baudelaire who described the flâneur as “a gentleman stroller and detached observer of city streets,” I would argue that Virginia Woolf was one of the world’s greatest flâneurs. Her essay “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” is one of the best examples of flânerie ever written. Woolf’s obsession with colloquial scenes and the quotidian life in London are exactly what Laurent Turcot describes in his book Le promeneur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, Gallimard, 2008):

“The flâneur played a double role in city life and in theory, that is, while remaining a detached observer. This stance, simultaneously part of and apart from, combines sociological, anthropological, literary and historical notions of the relationship between the individual and the greater populace.

I could easily name a dozen modern authors whose essays fit Turcot’s criteria. Certain essays of Joan Didion, Pico Iyer, Jonathan Rabin, Adam Gopnick, John McPhee, Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Susan Orleans, Ian Frazier, E.B. White and Simon Winchester would fit adequately into Turcot’s definition of flânerie.

I want to assure Mr. Shields that travel writers, along with flâneurs, are still necessary. Being able to now see photos of the Eiffel Tower or the hills of Tuscany on the internet is a far cry from exploring the streets of Dijon and Paris with M.F.K. Fisher or luxuriating in an ancient Italian villa with Frances Mayes. Googling images of Mount Fiji, the Nagong Hills or the Trans-Siberian Railway is not equivalent to the experience of reading The Lady and The Monk, Out of Africa or The Great Railway Bizarre. Though iPhone and Instagram photos of the world’s more intriguing places are ubiquitous on the internet, seeing an image of a place is not the same as being “on tour” with an adroit author who is not only “showing” the reader those places most worth visiting, but also interpreting his or her experience and adding relevant historical, social and cultural details.

In support of this argument, I’ve decided to try an experiment in flânerie myself. I am calling it Street Haunting in Seattle and San Miguel. Once a week I’ll be posting my photographs (a recently reborn passion) with short narratives about Seattle or San Miguel on my website. Since I remain a veteran insider/outsider in both places, it should be an interesting and fun exercise.

I hope you’ll stay tuned.

 

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