How I Discovered The Secret Paris Hiding In Plain Sight
Ever since the 19th century, Paris has been the ultimate city for the aimless stroller, or flâneur. Even today, walking with no destination in mind is the only way to stumble upon the secrets the city hides in plain sight.
“A flâneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the streets he walks - and is in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic.” – Edmund White
The idea of the flâneur is peculiarly French – though it may appear scattered throughout several other cultures as well. Deriving from the French verb, flâner, meaning “to stroll” or “to saunter”, a flâneur is, simply put, “a person who walks the city in order to experience it” – according to 19th Century French poet Charles Baudelaire, who helped popularize the term.
The concept of the flâneur arose in the 1840s, driven by the conditions following the 1848 Revolution in France. It was disseminated in the 1850s and 1860s, and subsequently embraced by surrealists, photographers, even architects. Still later, it gave way to the concept of dérive (“drifting”) coined by French social revolutionary group Situationist International, meaning “an unplanned journey through an urban landscape.”
I became a flâneur quite by accident. At the age of 18, on a solo trip to Paris, I discovered the fine art of flânerie in a city ideally suited to the purpose. At the time, I did not know the term flâneur; my discovery of flânerie was shaped by the geography of the city itself, and arose from the unique circumstances of my trip.
When I arrived in Paris for a four-day visit in 2002, I was brimming with excitement from four years of studying high school French, and fancied myself already worldly, familiar with every aspect of the French culture, and possessing an accent that was excéllent (at least in my humble opinion).
I had practiced my verb drills, listened to French tapes in the car, and seen almost all the films of François Truffaut – which depicted a Paris full of cinematic vividness and romantic possibility. I felt like I was ready for anything.
"I decided to ditch the map and the itinerary … because the longer I stayed in the city, the more its geography enticed me into walking."
I wasn’t disappointed. My hotel, Delhy’s, in the Quartier Latin, seemed preserved from several centuries ago – and I later found out it had once been the 16th-Century Hotel de la Salamandre (“Hotel of the Salamander.”) My room was on the top floor, with a bathroom down the hall, and a ceiling that slanted down to the floor. It was both spartan and charmingly Parisian – the kind of place Antoine Doinel, teenage anti-hero of my favorite French film, The 400 Blows, might run away to.
There was excitement, as well as terror, in knowing that I was stuck in Paris for four days. As I made my way through the Rue de la Huchette, I passed sidewalk cafés, eclectic book stalls by the Seine, odd fragments of street art, and restaurants that occupied mere slivers of cobblestone road. The sights piqued my imagination, and I felt the almost electric charge of my surroundings: a delirious mix of apprehension and exhilaration. I soon found that there was a different pulse to Paris; indeed each city has its own – but coming from Los Angeles, the contrast was especially stark. There were cars here – but they were smaller, and their drivers less obsessed with the macho aspects of driving.
My first night in Paris I was exhausted, but enchanted by the smells, the lights, and the sounds of the Latin Quarter. I went to bed early, dreaming of the mysteries waiting to be discovered. The next morning I awoke – ready with a typically American objective of seeing the city. I had things planned: the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower; I had annotated maps; even lists of suggested sites recommended by my mom. But, as I was to find, sometimes the greatest pleasure in traveling in a foreign city lies in the unplanned journey, the dérive. When I got to the Eiffel Tower, the line to get in was two hours; the Louvre had a similar wait time – compounded by a post-9/11 draconian security checkpoint. Feeling discouraged, and not wanting to waste precious time, I instead began walking.
"But what I’ll remember more are those streets and alleyways down which I strolled with no definite destination."
I should interject by saying that Americans are not, on the whole, a walking culture, though personally I’ve always loved walking. We’re not a “journey is the destination” type of culture – for us, what matters is getting somewhere as fast as possible. Growing up in Pasadena, California, a mid-sized town in Los Angeles County, the lure of the California car culture was impossible to resist once I got my driver’s license. Still, whenever I would find myself walking in L.A., I enjoyed it – like the handful of times I took the bus from my high school to the heart of downtown Los Angeles and marveled at the art deco buildings, the ornate Central Library, and the bazaar of chintzy jewelry shops. Being on foot puts you in a different relationship with the world around you. Details begin to pop out that would go unnoticed in a car. The physical act of walking gets the blood flowing and begins new creative trains of thought.
My journey on foot in Paris took me first to Montmartre, and the tremendous Basilica of Sacré-Coeur – providing one of the most spectacular views of Paris. Over the next few days, I decided, for the most part, to ditch the map and the itinerary – partly because of the mobs of tourists, and partly because the longer I stayed in the city, the more its geography enticed me into walking. This led me to such varied sites as the Rodin Sculpture Garden (a wonderful sanctuary in the middle of the city), Père Lachaise Cemetery – resting place of Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, and Richard Wright; and Action Cinémas, a hole-in-the-wall movie theater in a 17th Century building devoted to classic films.
But what I’ll remember more are those streets and alleyways down which I strolled with no definite destination, such as the Rue Du Chat Qui Pêche (“Street of the Fishing Cat”) – said to be the city’s narrowest street, and still others whose names I’ve forgotten. Being a flâneur may be the perfect activity for a short-term visitor because it maximizes use of time. A flâneur is more interested in the backwater districts, the neglected buildings – obsessed with the minute details most passersby would overlook. For this reason, the French-Hungarian photographer Brassaï may be the quintessential 20th Century flâneur, for on his wanderings in Paris, he not only captured the seedier nightlife of the city, but also three decades’ worth of enigmatic street graffiti, which he called “the language of the wall.”
My own lonely wanderings started to open up new possibilities of what travel could be. I took pictures, I wrote in my journal, I felt drawn to every cobblestone alleyway and out-of-the-way district in the city, and wanted to investigate them all. I wanted to talk to everyone I met, and yet I was also overcome with a strange reticence brought about by the sheer magnitude of my surroundings. I was awed into silence.
"I left Paris feeling accomplished, even though I hadn’t checked off many sights on the requisite tourist list."
What little conversation I did have was mostly conducted with shopkeepers, agents de gare (“station agents”), and two strikingly beautiful French women who catcalled me from across the Boulevard Voltaire. We proceeded to engage in a back-and-forth flirtation across the din of traffic, during which I awkwardly blurted out, “je suis Américain!” (probably not a selling point, in retrospect). This went on for several minutes until they giggled and disappeared down a sidestreet.
As I criss-crossed bridges, got lost in crowds, and watched the sun set over the Seine, I was fed by what Baudelaire calls “the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.” It was in Paris that I truly developed my love of walking around cities, something I later repeated in Washington DC, New Orleans, Dublin, Belfast, Baltimore, and elsewhere. I walked so much – 10-12 miles a day by my conservative estimate – that by the end of my trip, my legs felt like I had run a marathon. There was something satisfying about this, as if I could feel the city in my body.
I left Paris feeling accomplished, even though I hadn’t checked off many sights on the requisite tourist list. (I’d still like to go up the Eiffel Tower someday.) But then being a flâneur is about taste and discernment; recognizing that the smaller, overlooked sights are often the best – it’s about knowing you can’t see it all, and not wanting to.