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Life as Performance Art

      For the past few summers, a small group of fellow journalists, all writers for the British magazine The Chap,  have banded together, along with some other friends, wives and sweet-hearts for their Annual Grand Flaneur. Last year there were some sixty “Chaps” (sometimes known as “Toffs) and Chapettes, the latter wearing wide-brimmed hats and parasols to protect them from the brutal English sun.  The chaps were dressed in retro-clothing from their straw boaters to their ties, three piece double-breasted suits, and down to their spats, they spent a recent Sunday on a flaneur in London.  At the same time, some sixty like-minded German flaneurs rambled through Dusseldorf.
     Flaneur is a French word that means to taking an aimless wander around.  There is no set destination, no careful recording the number of miles and no real time limit.  This behavior seems suspiciously un-American.  We make plans, we organize, we pack provisions of water and food in our backpacks, plot our route on our GPS, and for the most part we dress for comfort, not to make an appearance.  It seems like a great waste of time to wander rather than a competitive hike from point to point.  On these route marches, conversations often include ‘making our daily steps,’ with 10,000 being the minimum.  Ten thousand, according to some medico or social media influencer, is the number we supposedly must achieve daily to maintain a solid cardio-vascular system and ward of dementia.
     Flaneurs go walking for the fun of it.
     Hemingway thought that one reason Paris had an abundance of philosophers, writers, and painters was because the city provided a wonderful opportunity to wander the streets while emptying the mind.  Invariably, an artist would see or hear something, have an idea, walk further to think it over, and then hurry back to their studio to work.
    In London, people often spotted another type of flaneur, admittedly something of a rare bird, wandering through the streets in the middle of the day.  He was a big bulky man, with an untidy moustache and wearing odd clothing.  They would see him stop suddenly, dig through his pockets for a piece of paper and a pencil, and with a letterbox or phone booth for something solid on which to write, and jot down some notes.  Those ‘in the know’ understood that they would soon have the chance to read another Father Brown mystery by G K Chesterton.
     When Pat and I married, we realized that we already had enough stuff, and did not need any more inventory.  Nor did we want the expensive toys such as a boat, snowmobile, or things to store in our garage, much less a rented storage unit.  Rather, we decided to save our money and then invest it in travel experiences.  Like some of our acquaintances, we often chose group tours to places we truly wanted to see.
      The benefit of a group tour is that we had guides who got us from one place to another, and often into places such as popular museums and art galleries, without having to stand at the back of a very long line.  They arranged for lodging and meals.  All we had to do was turn up in plenty of time and participate.
    The frustrating part is that we were often pushed along from one place to the next because the tour group wanted us to have as many experiences or, as they called them, “discoveries” as possible.  We were on a schedule that did not allow time for anything other than the itinerary.  One guide to make sure we saw everything on a very tight schedule, kept hurrying us along with shouts of “Chop!  Chop!”  It was all too much like the 1969 movie, If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium, where a group of Americans went on a whirlwind 9 country tour in 18 days.
    On our own, only once were we our own worst enemy, almost imitating the film.  The first time we went to Paris, we had a long list of places to see and things to do in just one week.  For the most part, we checked them off, but we exhaustedly collapsed into our plane seat for the flight home.
   Prior to Covid-19, we returned to Paris again, henceforth without a shopping list of things we believed we had to see.  We intentionally decided to imitate the flaneur method and go wandering on our own. It worked out quite well.  One day we took the subway to the end of the line, some six miles away, so we could flaneur our way back to the hotel.  That was the time we spotted a perfume factory on the other side of the street.  We went in, went on the company’s tour their facility, and learned the methods for making scent for men and women.
   While we were there, I ended up talking with some college students on a tour.  I asked them if they were enjoying Paris.  “Oh, definitely,” one of the fellows said.  “This morning we went to the top of the Eiffel Tour, and from there to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, and now we’re here.  We’re cramming in everything we can.  Tomorrow we go to (yes, you guessed it) Belgium for the day.”  I smiled, but thought, “He’s young; he’ll learn otherwise.”
    Long after they were on the bus the next morning;  we had coffee and cheese at the hotel, and flaneured our way around town.  Pat wanted to go to some of the department stores, so I went out on my own.  We would agree to meet back at the hotel in time for dinner and later we compare experiences.  She explained that we call “window shopping” which the French call “Window licking.”  She licked and browsed for a few hours.  Meanwhile, I ran into a 1920s era jazz band, and was invited to join in on the baritone sax.  We jammed for several hours, being moved along by gendarmes who obviously had no ear for music.
     We never did see Mona Lisa or a few other things.  There would always be another time.
    You don’t get that sort of fun on a guided tour.  However, do you need neither to join the Chaps in England or Dusseldorf, or fly to Paris.  Anyone, anywhere, can enjoy this wonderful tradition of being flaneur, even in his or her hometown or countryside. 
   This is the perfect time for it.  All it takes is a determined effort to do it.  I don’t know about you, but for decades people have told me to go take a hike.  Now I do, sort of.  No agenda, no plans, just go and be like the bear from the old children’s song.  You remember it:   the bear who went over the mountain to see what he could see.
     Go flaneur and see what you can see.

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