In the 19th century, the practice arose of aimlessly wandering through the city as a way of experiencing the urban landscape as both a participant as well as a detached observer. The act was the called flânerie and the practitioner was a flâneur.
Born out of the mentality of the Enlightenment, the notion took on broad horizons with Louis-Sébatien Mercier. During the years between 1782 and 1788, Mercier published a series of twelve volumes known as Tableau de Paris in which he explores the living, breathing life of the city. He reports on the mundane as well as the sublime.
The age of tourism in the 19th century reinforced the idea that the flâneur need not be Parisian. In one sense, Haussman himself appeared to be remaking the city with the flâneur in mind as he insisted on symmetry, order, and gorgeous landmarks at the focal point of every boulevard. A pedestrian may come around any corner to experience the breathtaking beauty of human reason and design.
The art of the flâneur is long from dead. In 2001, Edmund White wrote The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris to present his experience in being a flâneur in Paris for 16 years.
It is no accident that Thad Carhart discovered his secret piano atelier by wandering a back street on the Left Bank. He would never have found it on the boulevards. He would never have rediscovered his love of music in a museum gift shop.
Woody Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris is nothing if not an expression of the magical things that can come from losing yourself on a walk in Paris. It is both a way of experiencing history, beholding the virtues of the contemporary city, as well as understanding the landscape of one’s own heart.
Paris has a rich history, one of the richest of any city in the world. But the flâneur seeks to find the living city. The true flâneur doesn’t just walk the streets of Paris or seek out its pleasures in a hedonistic pique. He seeks to understand it and drink in its uniqueness. He is one part ethnographer and one part adventurer. The best thing that can happen to him is to find himself lost where he will experience exactly what he would not have expected.