I told everyone I was taking a “sabbatical” in Paris. As soon as I was snuggled into my window seat on Air France, I began to wonder why I needed to describe my month-long stay in France in such exalted terms. In truth, I was really just wanting to defy the benchmark of turning 60 by doing something I had always wanted to do as a younger man-live in Paris-if only for a month.
In my twenties, I had the opportunity to do just that, but instead forsook my suspect aspiration of hanging out in France as an “expat writer” to do the right thing and return to the U.S. and pursue my doctoral education. Strangely, at 60, I still seemed to need a rationale to justify a simple need to wander for a bit in my rapidly accelerating life.
Serendipitously, it came from the book I brought along to read on the plane, The Flaneur, by one of my favorite writers, Edmund White, an American who lived for many years in Paris and has written eloquently about the experience of being an American in that city. A flaneur, he explained, is “in search of experience, not knowledge. Most experience ends up interpreted as-and replaced by-knowledge, but for the flaneur the experience remains somehow pure, useless, raw.”
Ah, I thought, I have a purpose for what I really want to do with this month I am gifting myself. As ironic as I knew this was, I decided my goal would be to wander without purpose, to just be in this city of my dreams. I would be a flaneur.
Yet White had a warning for me: “Americans are particularly ill-suited to be flaneurs,” he wrote. “They’re good at following books outlining architectural tours of Montparnasse, or at visiting scenic spots outside Paris. : They are always driven by the urge toward self-improvement.”
I took up the flaneur challenge immediately after dumping my bags in my Marais apartment, determined to overcome my restrictive American character. Entering into the circulation of my fellow humans-different from me in so many ways yet fundamentally the same (aren’t we all hungry, thirsty, in need of love and freedom?)-I soon felt myself being gratefully absorbed into something more than just myself. By being in the streets, wandering without plan or even a map, I became immersed in the flow of colors (the incredible soft blue of the Parisian sky that must have inspired the Impressionists) and thousands of architectural details that in sum give this city such a sense of place. Whenever I found my mind leaving my existential experience, moving to such familiar ground as passing judgments about my fellow travelers to forming unnecessary and useless opinions, I arduously pulled myself back into the purity of the existential moment. It was as if I were participating in a grand walking meditation of Paris.
What has been interesting about allowing myself to wander, without purpose and without interpretation of my experience, is I succeeded in expanding the space of time. Everything slowed down and each minute filled out.
This was a great gift, for one of the things about aging that has plagued me more than anything else is the cruel acceleration of time. I wouldn’t mind so much turning 60 if I wasn’t convinced that the next 20 years wouldn’t speed by faster and faster than the last 20.
Yet, after two days of my flaneurie, after the haze of jet lag wore off, I began mining this experience for material for the fast-approaching deadline of my column, thus committing the worst sin for a true flaneur-utilizing experience for some purpose. It wasn’t long before I began consulting guidebooks, planning my attack of the city, setting up appointments, and committing myself to goals.
Oh, well. I guess I do have to do the Right Thing. After all, I am an American.