THE FLANEUR: LESSONS IN WALKING FROM MY UNCLE
“To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The flaneur is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”–Charles Baudelaire
Many famous flaneur’s from James Joyce to Charles Baudelaire have reaped the benefits of the art of walking. I present for you my Uncle Philly. My Uncle Philly was a Dublin flaneur. A man who not only experienced and absorbed the street scape but contributed to it and became part of it as he impressed upon it his thousands of footsteps each day. Philly, unlike many of the men of his day did not make the decision to become car bound. He refused to get a driver’s license choosing rather to pursue two of the oldest methods of transportation: Walking and Biking. On a return visit to Dublin in the late 90’s I was lucky enough to join my Uncle Philly on one of his many walks through that great and historic city, and what I experienced in those few hours that day is at the root of why I love walking. The following are some lessons about walking that my Uncle taught me that day:
“The street becomes a dwelling for the flâneur; he is as much at home among the facades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls. To him the shiny, enamelled signs of businesses are at least as good a wall ornament as an oil painting is to the bourgeois in his salon. The walls are the desk against which he presses his notebooks; news-stands are his libraries and the terraces of cafés are the balconies from which he looks down on his household after his work is done.”-Charles Baudelaire
Having bussed downtown to the heart of city along the River Liffey, we had our walking cut out for us that day. It would be at least an hour and a half of brisk walking if we wished to get home in short time. But Philly didn’t seem to be in a hurry. To him it was more important to walk deliberately slowly, to immerse ourselves into our surroundings, to take in the fine details. As we walked amongst the crowded streets of Dublin’s ancient heart, he would stop regularly to point out places and details that would otherwise have escaped me. A nondescript pub, otherwise unremarkable, actually dated back a thousand years. A dark unremarkable laneway actually housed a hidden thriving marketplace.An abandoned warehouse had once housed printing presses for a newspaper of Dublin’s past. A newspaper where my Uncle Philly had once worked amongst the noisy dangerous letterpress machines. Down we walked through, Poolbeg, Townsend, Tara st, Gloucester, City Quay, then to the waterfront where we came to a quiet, neglected wharf, a place that Philly explained was once the busiest wharf in Dublin. Millions of gallons of Guinness barrels had once departed from this very wharf on their journey to the far reaches of the British Empire every day.So you see, Philly knew the value of walking slow, of taking the time to explore the small details of the environment. On we went through Trinity College, passed the football fields, through Dublin Castle, under the shadow of Christ Church and onto the pubs for a pint. Architecture, history, and the significance of otherwise indistinct places opened itself for Philly and I with each slow step.
While cities bring together huge numbers of people, paradoxically they also separate them from each other. The goal of the flâneur is to recover a sense of community… To do this, they let down their guard, they empathize with situation they see. There’s a constant risk they will be moved, saddened, excited – and fall in love.” ~ Alain de Botton
In true Flaneur fashion, my Uncle Philly knew what he knew because he had walked these places for decades. Every detail of every corner had impressed themselves on him in some way and they were as much part of him as they were a part of Dublin. However his walking also made a major impression on those he met. Philly knew EVERYONE! Everywhere we turned there was another familiar face. From the stall owner in the laneway, to the pub owner whose father had once welcomed President Kennedy for a pint, to the security guy at the jersey shop. People knew Philly through his walking and talking. He was a master listener and would offer a stern opinion when required. That people loved and respected him was clear in the nods and the handshakes that spontaneously arose wherever we went. He always had time for the ‘craic’, and people were only too quick to lean on him for support and stoic advice. What was evident to me that day was the importance that one person can have when they completely immerse themselves amongst the people they encounter each day. People want to know people. The current generation attempts to replicate this experience through the use of social networking and long distance communication. What’s missing though is the closeness which can only be created through face to face communication. In other words, for my Uncle Philly, walking provided the kind of rare character-building which only develops through honest consistent civic immersiveness.
For Philly, walking was synonymous with freedom. He once told me that “the day he couldn’t walk any longer would be the day we could cart him off.” This was evident as I walked the streets of Dublin with him, astonished at his endurance and stamina. He shunned buses, cabs, and driving, choosing to use his freedom to walk to its maximum capacity. Years later, despite debilitating lung issues that would threaten his freedom, Philly continued to walk every day, deliberately expressing his right to explore, to communicate with the crowd, and to become part of his surroundings in true flaneur fashion.
An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day-Henry David Thoreau
Philly taught me that walking is more than a means of getting from point A to point B, or something to be taken for granted. Walking is truly a profound gift, freely given to us in our youth, that provides us with a lifelong key to happiness by connecting us to our community, our history, and the many hidden details that only a true flaneur can perceive. When I walk through the old streets of my current home city, I often think back in appreciation for the experience in mindfulness that Philly, that gentleman stroller of the streets, offered me that day. I truly believe that the flaneur tradition of my Uncle continues to be passed on as I teach my own children the value of walking every day through the busy streets of my neighborhood and the through the old streets of my city. Thanks, and keep walking Uncle Philly!