The Art of 'Flânnerie'

photo: daguerre resto

'Shoppers can stop for a bite on the street, but 'flâneurs' keep going, going.

Aimlessness As a Paris Sport

Paris:- Saturday, 16. March 2002:- In our newly minted and barely begun third millennium, in our very own 21st century, it is not all that easy to imagine being a 'flânneur' or 'flânneuse,' committed to the art of 'flânnerie' - to 'flâner,' in other words, if you like verbs.

These 'other words' are in English, and more or less mean to walk around without reason, without an aim, goal or destination - but permit pauses to look at whatever seems worth a glance or a keen observation.

To be perfectly accurate, it is not possible to 'flâner' in an airport waiting room or on a train platform, but it is nearly impossible to not 'flâner' around Paris unless you happen to be doing it between TGVs at the Gare du Nord and the Gare de Lyon.

I have just gotten a book titled 'The Flâneur' by Edmund White. Its subtitle, which is faint and possible tophoto: wine resto l'echanson overlook, is 'A Stroll though the Paradoxes of Paris.' I know this is possible to overlook, because I did and after page 61 started wondering where the 'flânnerie' had gone, before it resumed again after the paradoxes, around page 187.

All of the photos in this issue are the result of a bit of 'flânnerie' in the Rue Daguerre today.

Actual 'flânnerie' doesn't begin on page one either, but I was willing to overlook this and patiently read a catalogue of paragraphs beginning, 'In Paris you can...' until page 16 where the definition appears at the beginning of a paragraph that ends with the insight that once one leaves Chelsea in New York City it is necessary to take a cab, 'up to Amsterdam and Columbus on the Upper West Side.'

Skipping the 'desert' in between is not within the proper definition of the practice of 'flânnerie.' Unless you aimlessly stroll around its whole 36-block distance, including the six avenues from the Hudson river to Fifth, true 'flânnerie' gets shortchanged in Manhattan.

There is a clue to this in the book on the inside covers, where - inexplicably except for La Défense - a sketch map shows a Paris reduced to its 1860 borders, with blanks for all the arrondissements added afterwards except for Montmartre, but including the 7th arrondissement as total blank too. Not even I sell it this short.

It is decidedly strange, because elsewhere where there is little or no 'flânnerie' going on there is the whole of chapter six devoted to the royalists and the current - I guess - 'pretender' to the throne of France - the 'very young and handsome Louis XX' - or - also known in Spain as the Duc d'Anjou, where there are still some lively Bourbons, I assume.

For the most part Edmund White's 'flânnerie' consists of literary anecdotes - some including mentionsphoto: les cousins d'alice jouets of four great 'flânneurs' - Mercier, Balzac, Baudelaire and Atget. Far longer are lengthy excursions into the notions of Black, North African, African, Jewish and Gay Paris - none of which mentions much walking.

The relatively few Parisians from the Indian sub-continent are also mentioned in a couple of lines about the Passage Brady, but the more populous Chinatowns in Belleville and in the equally blanked-out 13th arrondissement are completely omitted.

The explanation for the lack of true and devoted 'flânnerie' by Edmund White might be explained by his only being in residence here for 16 years, and writing the book about it after his return to New York four years ago.

I confess I lived in the Paris region for a good 15 years without getting engaged in any serious 'flânneries.' When it was the year to do it, I put in one experimental toe. I liked it so much that I put in two whole feet the following year, and tomorrow, 17. March, marks the date in 1995 when I began to keep my feet moving on the streets of Paris full-time.

So far, this is a mere moment of time compared to Mercier and Atget - the Olympians of 'flânnerie!' - who each put in more than two decades. Somehow, I don't think I am going to get close to them.

But it doesn't matter, because the purpose of 'flânnerie' is supposed to be aimless. You are not supposed to start out for some destination and take the shortest route to get there. 'Flânnerie' is not commuting on foot. The more idle you can be, all the better.

In today's La Parisien, there is a short item about an often overlooked event of major importance, and some coverage of this should be in this magazine. The problem that I wrestle with, is that it is way off in the 17th - actually off the 'map!' in the blankness.

Will I 'spend' a couple of métro tickets on it or not? Will it be sunny enough tomorrow to catch it - and - the loggingphoto: blue window demonstration going in the trees lining the Champs-Elysées? Le Parisien's weather maps look confusing and dubious.

Right now, the sun is fitfully shining, right here. Which? When? Both? Neither? In true 'flâneur' fashion, I dither.

But as a professional 'flâneur' I cannot afford to dither too long inside, because there is more than enough to do here. There always is. This place is an anti-flâneur trap.

Let's see, if I go up behind the Mairie and past the library - one in which you can browse the stacks, a forbidden pastime according to White - I can take a short bit of Avenue du Maine to Daguerre, and make its measly 630 metres today's target.

To be authentic, I have no intention of it as a destination, nor of walking its whole distance. I am prepared to be deviated, sidetracked, deflected, hung up.

Which happens before I even get to it on the Avenue du Maine, at the bicycle repair shop. I have passed this dozens or hundreds of times. But for some reason, today is the day when I have to suddenly know how much it will cost to get mine overhauled.

The monsieur assures me he is not leisurely. The repair area of his shop is the sidewalk, so when he closes the shop for the night, customers need to have reclaimed their bikes because they won't fit inside.

While I'm here, I should observe that the Avenue du Maine is getting its bus-lane treatment. This means its traffic area is reduced from a nominal four lanes into three and these are further sub-divided so they total four lanes.

The result of this is stalled traffic as if Paris-Expo was at Montparnasse and the Etoile was at the Alésia end. This is what hapless suburbanites get when Parisians vote for 'no cars.'

The opening of the Rue Daguerre by the national unemployment office for managers seems like a country road in comparison. You can slide down it like on the handle of a spoon, with the soup part being at the far end where the food is.

But food starts right at the entry with a boulangerie on the corner with a Indo-Paki restaurant beside it. The exotic place would be tempting to photograph if it hadn't come outphoto: bouquet, boulard, boulangerie of a crate. The next place, L'Echanson, is perfectly Paris-like, with its new owners keeping its reputation intact.

A tiny Paris-type grocery is right next to the wine restaurant. If you add up all the eating places on Daguerre, they would probably come to 315 metres-worth of frontage.

Somehow in the remaining space there is room for several hotels, some laundries, more than one real estate office, framers, re-upholsters, architects, banks, three or four more boulangeries, various apartment entries, entries to courtyards, a toy shop, a hat shop, coin-laundries, a post office, shoe repairs, a chapel for Christians, an Italian food specialty shop, a long store selling accordions, two newspaper shops, a jewelry shop, one or two clothing shops, a medical clinic, a late-night bar, four cafés, two wine dealers, more grocery stores, six or eight different food-type restaurants, the side door of the photo club, and so on.

This is all on that downhill spoon-handle slide. A block before Boulard Daguerre levels out and after Boulard the food business gets really serious - in the part I call the 'soup' area of the spoon

It's so serious that it's semi-closed to wheeled traffic. Except for the morning and evening big Monoprix trucks, the fruit and veg trucks, and sneaky civilian drivers who have overlooked the 'no-entry' sign or who are trying a shortcut because they've got burned out back on Maine with its bus reductions.

As a 'flâneur' you might not get anywhere near Boulard. You might not get beyond the Bistro 48, or no further than the Pingouins across the way, or only to the Naguère or the Village Daguerre. But if you get to Boulard and take a rest in the Bouquet - well, 'flâneurs' can do this too.

The 'soup' part from Boulard to Avenue Leclerc is about 180 metres long and doesn't include anything already mentioned.

Starting from the boulangerie facing the hair salon, there are three legitimate restaurants with two sidelining as cafés, two wine shops, two Chinese-type fastfoods, one Greek, onephoto: daguerre hats or two more boulangeries, one roast-chicken place, a crêpes restaurant a bit behind, a regional specialty place, a horse butcher, two or three regular butchers, a pharmacy with remedies for stomach disorders, one standard cheese outlet, one fancy, a bio-food place being transformed, two places selling flowers, one selling CDs and video movies, a book shop, two big fruit and veg places, and a huge sea-breeze cool seafood store with mountains of pink crevettes and truck hubcaps full of paella.

If you can get past, just this final block, you can treat yourself to a browse through the Monoprix - which actually has a variety of prices - or hit the Café Daguerre for a sit-down pick-me-up, with a view of the city-info panel that may say cake-dancing begins in front of the Hôtel de Ville at 14:30.

If it is a normal day, this corner is also where the pollsters hang out, so you can express a formal opinion about something or other. On Sundays you can also buy the papers and listen to the organ-grinder lady, who sings, or buy some flowers, get a Communist tract, or sign a petition against the demolition of the Belière, or one against the playing of loud jazz there.

But if you are finished with Daguerre, there are still some options. Straight ahead across the avenue - but wait for the green-man signal - there's a tabac where you can play Loto or buy a greeting card with a kitten on it, and next door there's a McDonald's - which is currently featuring a 'sandwich of the day' - ones that look remarkably like their very own hamburgers or McNuggets.

Go to the right a bit for another bank, some new reading glasses, get a portable phone, try the key place with photocopies and video rentals - or go to the left to the SNCF ticket office, and then go around the corner and start your Eurostar trip to London with the RER. Take it in the other direction to Orly, for flights to nights in Tunisia.

But as a 'flâneur' you are allowed to be undecided. If you have picked Sunday afternoon or Monday for your slide down Daguerre, some of the attractions will be closed.

This is good because then you can go to the café Rendez-Vous on the Denfert corner, look at the lion, and think about it all. For example, you passed where Emile Zola lived in 1867 while the evictions were going on. Leon Trotsky worked on a social-democratic newspaper with offices near here on the avenue. Lenin lived in the neighborhood and you might be standing in his place or Trotsky's.

As birds fly you won't be all that far from Proust's neighborhood near the Parc Monceau, but as far as Monsieurphoto: cover, the flaneur White is concerned, you will have been doing a bit of 'flânnerie' in a part of Paris that his map shows as blank paper.

But 'The Flâneur' has a valuable section called 'Further Reading.' This begins on page 195 and continues through page 211. From this you can easily imagine that if the author had really gone to town - done the town? - on the subject, the book would have come to several volumes, and not be the handy size it is.

If you are unable to get into this 'flânnerie' stuff yourself, I suggest that some 'further reading' might be a substitute, as well as being easy on shoe soles.

'The Flâneur' by Edmund White. Published by Bloombury in 2001. Distributed by St. Martin's Press. ISBN 1-58234-135-4.

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