Saturday, July 11, 2009

The art of the flâneur

Originally published in the Post Register March 18, 2008

Traveling should involve more than going to a place, shouldn’t it?

Authentic travel doesn’t necessarily require cohabitating with indigenous peoples or making clothing from yak hair. It’s probably just a matter of being aware of one’s surroundings, which is possible whether those surroundings are a Hard Rock Café or Stonehenge.

As tourism season approaches, let’s make a pact – we’ll travel after the manner of a flâneur; a fancy French term not precisely translatable into English that approximately means a person who strolls, who wanders about a place to understand its psychogeography.

Writer Joseph Hart, in an article headlined “A New Way of Walking,” defines psychogeography as “just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the … landscape.”

What occurs when a traveler takes even a moment or two to wander just a bit is almost always surprising – usually pleasantly so (assuming the wanderer is judicious about meandering about in bad neighborhoods).

Writers like Will Self and Bill Bryson prefer urban settings for practicing the art of the flâneur, but there are no rules.

Two cases in point, right here in our own day-trip back yard:

Grand Prismatic Spring is one of Yellowstone’s most spectacular features, but it’s nearly impossible to fully appreciate from ground level. Try experiencing it psychogeographically.

Find the trailhead to Fairy Falls and go for a walk. When you come to Grand Prismatic Spring near the beginning of the trail, meander up the nearby hillside until you’ve climbed 80 feet or so. Turn around and experience Grand Prismatic Spring in a whole new way.

There’s a view of the Tetons that every photographer knows but few others bother with. Have a psychogeographic moment and find it. Take the Schwabacher Landing turnoff from U.S. 89 and follow the dirt road to a parking area. Follow the trail roughly north until you see slackwater, and look to the west. You’ll want to stick around for awhile.

In Zihuatanejo, Mexico, I wandered down to the beach, past the fish stalls. Small fishing boats lined the beach, just in from the morning catch. Two fishermen repaired their nets. I didn’t talk to anyone, but it was a different experience than dining to Mariachis just 200 yards away.

Later on the same trip I wandered a back street in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and glanced up. The photo of flowers and windows shows what I saw.

I spent an hour nearly alone watching the sunset on a ghost forest in Neskowin, Oregon. Harsh winter storms had uncovered ancient remnants of forests that had been buried for centuries under the sand, and suddenly there they were. At the time, I didn’t even know what I was looking at.

San Francisco is ideal for the fledging flâneur. One can walk from the financial district through the heart of Chinatown and over the hill to Fisherman’s Wharf in an easy, meandering day. Make it a full day and keep going to the Golden Gate Bridge – it’s walkable.

Try your hand at being a flâneur. Regardless of where you are, you’ll be in a different place than you’ve been to before.

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