There are certain cliches that stick with you no matter how ridiculous you think bumper sticker wisdom is. For me, it’s always been “not all those who wander are lost.” The quote comes from a poem in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Fellowship of the Ring. Today, it’s largely disassociated from the book and is found on blogs, quote round-ups, and those cheap wooden signs with witticisms painted in white.
In pre-COVID times, the saying was just a little something that popped into my head when I didn’t know where I was (something that happens far too often). But the concept of a person who wanders without a destination long predates Tolkien’s writing. The word for these people is flâneur, which refers to someone who strolls with intention, but without anywhere specific to go.
Essentially, a flâneur listens to and observes the present world around them. The French term was first used in 1884, according to Merriam-Webster, and various definitions range from the more luxurious sounding “idle man-about-town” to the less opulent “idler; dawdler; loafer.” It’s a loose and not altogether flattering definition, but the key to being a proper flâneur is in the observation: A flâneur may not know where they are going, but they’re noting the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of everything around them as they go.
The original flâneur wasn’t perfect. They signified a leisure class unobtainable for many, and the practice was largely restricted to men of means. The original use of the word carried the connotation of someone who could observe capitalism around them while not being negatively impacted by its ceaseless work culture. Few, after all, could afford to detach and be purposefully unproductive with nowhere to go. Time for reflection is a privilege to this day, albeit one that’s more accessible than it was back then.
In Mexico City, a few weeks before the pandemic, my fiancee and I made our way to Mercado de la Merced, Mexico City’s largest market. We walked down streets of vendors selling cleaning supplies and caught snippets of intense bargaining. We squeezed past towering fruit stalls with stacks of avocados far taller than anyone walking past, and we smelled pockets of citrus and spices throughout the more than 947,000-square-foot market. We didn’t know where we were going or where we were most of that time – as to be expected in a place that large – but we did know we wanted to soak in everything we could on that first trip.
I’ve had similar experiences in Montreal, Marseille, and Montgomery. I try to set aside time to walk and simply take in life wherever I travel, whether it’s my first time there or my fiftieth. Yet the global pandemic has made the tight markets I love a little less inviting for the time being. Taking in the daily life of the world’s great cities doesn’t readily adapt to social distancing measures. Still, there’s an argument to be made that there’s never been a better time to embrace the flâneur lifestyle.
Destination restaurants are closed or operating in a limited capacity. Attractions, for the most part, have shuttered until further notice, while many of those that are open, like state and federal parks, are flooded with people. Now, people must find adventure and travel close to home. Going outside is good for you whether you have anywhere to go or not, and outside is much safer than inside a public space.
Without a destination, there’s nothing to do but walk and observe the details – an interesting piece of architecture you’ve passed countless times without noticing, for example, or a street corner where songbirds tend to gather. That’s not to say you should detach completely from the world like those first flâneurs. In fact, do the opposite: Take note of the changes that have happened in response to COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests. And with everything that you notice, take the time to reflect and understand.
The constant connectivity of modern work isn’t as destructive as work was in the 19th century. Finding the proper work-life balance still takes effort, though, as does finding the balance between keeping up with the news and spending time with your own thoughts. We have “cures” like apps that quiet all notifications for blocks of time, and screen usage notifications that keep us up to date on how many hours we’ve stared at our phones. However, the best way to reset is completely manual.
So wander, safely, around. Channel your inner flâneur and reflect on the small things that make up life around your block. Think, for a moment, on the present and study what’s around your home as if it’s a city you’ve never been to. Traveling may be difficult or impossible for the foreseeable future, but the flâneur lifestyle brings the stimulation and education of exploration to you.