I’ve just moved back to Dublin. I’m inspired by the flâneurs of 19th century Paris to combine my love of running with my love of travelling to get out and run around my old new home with no goal other than to see what’s really out there.
“In the pedestrian, the wanderer, the rambler, the flâneur, can be found the soul of the idler. The pedestrian is the highest and most mighty of beings; he walks for pleasure, he observes but does not interfere, he is not in a hurry, he is happy in the company of his own mind, he wanders detached, wise and merry, godlike. He is free.”
- Tom Hodgkinson, How to be Idle
Flâneur (ou flâneuse)– “a man (or woman) who saunters around observing society.”
Flâneur is an old French word meaning something like to stroll, to saunter, to amble or to generally arse about town with no greater purpose than to watch the world go by. The flâneur sees their slow journey through the city as its own reward, a riposte to those who see busyness for its own sake as a virtue.
The original flâneur was the writer Charles Baudelaire, whose poetry and passion for wandering about 19th century Paris helped re-brand the term from connoting someone to be a time-waster or general layabout to something grander: a person of leisure, an idler, an urban explorer — a connoisseur of the street.
The flâneur is the hero of the idle-at-heart — someone who saunters through life with no deadlines or goals or seemingly purpose. They walk for its own sake, they observe but don’t interfere. They are meditators and bon-vivants; they have no masters and achieve a form of transcendence simply by walking and basking in the world in all its glory.
No commuter nor errand-runner, and certainly not a career or hobby shopper, the flâneur seeks to enjoy life at his own pace, and to experience the full richness of life in the city. Main streets provide a wealth of life and sensory indulgence, for sure, but the flâneuse also appreciates and seeks out the side streets, the back alleys, the cul de sacs, for they are full of people and life and hopes and dreams and stories too.
The flâneur wishes to observe life as it is — not to interfere with it.
But being a flâneur or an idler is not about being lazy or trying to get by doing as little as possible.
Rather, it’s about being true to yourself and not going through life on others’ — or god forbid, the whole of society’s — terms.
I’ve written before about how I first took up running for fitness, and after finding my feet running up the streets and down the roads and through the parks of Dublin and Hanoi I came to love the pure feeling of just running around the place.
Child-like freedom in an adult’s body.
Exploring new or familiar places on foot with a heavy-beating heart is a great way to really get to know them. And whereas wandering slowly on foot allows you to visit places with a gently meandering mind, I find running gives you a different experience. Heightened senses, greater focus — narrower, in a sense, as you’re often best to watch where you’re going, especially in a crowded city, but more in tune with what is in front of you.
Things may pass you by a bit quicker but the things you do notice, you really do take them in.
I get frustrated sometimes when I come back to my laptop and try to retrace my steps street by street, recalling all I’ve seen. Or even just remembering the addresses of cafes and hardware shops and printers for future reference, to come back and enjoy or find a new mop-head for the gaff.
But it’s not about the memory test.
It’s proper learning.
Learning about the world around you.
Recognising what people are thinking and how they’re feeling. Processing intangible cues and information in the way they walk, the little glances you get through the barber shop window, the friendly wave of a kid cheering you on with a giggle.
The kids always get it.
You remember these things a lot more when you’re running.
Not like when you’re strolling through town and suddenly realise that the window you’re staring through has someone on the other side wondering what the fuck you’re looking at, pal, with your mouth hanging open like that an a squint in your eye trying to figure out what the special offer is.
Some call it a runner’s high but really it’s just a return to our natural state of awareness.
Interactions are different when you’re running, even with ‘ordinary folks’ — the commuters, the hangers-out, the sitters, the shoppers, the walkers — it seems the heightened state of consciousness brings the friendliness and the well-wishes out of everyone.
I love giving other runners ‘the nod’ of acknowledgement and a bit of a “Howiya”, or maybe a “Well”. They don’t always respond or reply. Not yet anyway. I’m working on them. Maybe it’s a country thing, like doing the one-finger salute when you inch past someone driving down a side-road.
It’s nice to say hello to people.
When people do reply, the bit of shared appreciation of what you’re doing is lovely.
It’s more than lovely.
I really do think that being in the running state — whatever it does to your heart, your bloodflow, your body or maybe even your soul — creates some sort of positive waves of consciousness that others can feel.
Maybe that’s what a runner’s high is.
Make eye contact with people the next time you’re out running. Say hello to them. Give them a wave or a nod or the one-finger salute.
Pay attention to how they react to you.
It might be curiosity, resentment if they’re truly miserable.
Usually it’s a smile.
Now think of how the world itself can smile back at you — how it can appear — when you’re experiencing a runner’s high.
A lot of the time it’s the idlers who are most in tune with the runner. If you acknowledge their presence, that is.
Whether they’re down-and-out or just sitting down.
Walking is the ultimate way to unlock the mind, to de-stress and to really become yourself.
The flâneurs know this.
It is physically and mentally healthy. It allows the mind to relax and work at its own pace, and many will tell you that their best ideas come when they’re out for a stroll. It can be done socially and it can be done anywhere.
It unlocks creative juices and great ideas and most importantly — it just puts you back in touch with your surroundings, whether your own neighbourhood or when you’re taking a weekend break in a new city.
Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not important work.
It’s the best kind of productive.
Walking or running.
Walking is dreaming.
Running is different — running builds the mind. It energises and empowers it. The elevated heart-rate awakens the senses, the blood flow makes you more aware of your surroundings.
Running makes you smarter.
Walking is a writer’s friend, so why not running?
What better way to explore the world and report back on what you see than by running at it, through it, towards it.
The flâneurs might be disgusted with the busyness of recreational sport, of purposeful punishment for its own sake when one could be lounging, taking it easy and enjoying life.
But I’ve decided to take a break from ‘training’ as such and just go running around Dublin for its own sake.
No earphones pumping out motivational tunes (they broke a while ago anyway).
I’m just going to get out and run.
And see what I see.
Follow me as I report back on what I see.
Stay idle, be free.