“The greatest pleasure does not consist in experiencing new things, but in savoring the infinite variation of what we already know.”
-Federico Castigliano, Flâneur: The Art of Wandering the Streets of Paris
We’ve been in our house for ten days now. Each day we take a walk. Like many of us, we can’t go anywhere, so we walk– anywhere. No destination in mind. We wander. In other words, we do as the 19th century French poets did when they coined the term flâner: the art of taking a stroll. To wander to nowhere in particular, and to notice all the small details you normally miss.
When I lived in Paris, on Sundays, I’d walk to the Montparnasse market. The grandmothers would all mistakenly call their grandkids by their kids’ names. I’d spend hours watching all the chic Sunday outfits go by as they’d leave church. The boys would stop and make their moms buy mangos. I’d see a 16-year-old taking his younger sister to the market to get cheese. They’d always pick out the one she wanted even though he preferred a different one. I’d stop and get Lebanese bread and homemade hummus from the guy who sold olives.
From Montparnasse, I’d walk through Luxembourg gardens. I’d enter by the fountain with the horses whose faces looked so scared. Scared of what? I’ll never know. The university students would sit in a circle and talk about the American elections and the true spirit of the 21st century. The one kid wearing skinny jeans and Italian leather boots would hold up a beer and cheers to the 21st century.
On the grass to my right, a young couple would take a nap together in the sun. Whatever they fought about the night before was a distant memory– lather, rinse, repeat. In the gardens, we all forgave.
The tourists would all take selfies and then look at them. “Okay, one more,” they’d say. “I don’t like my face in that one.”
A woman on a prayer mat would ask me for money. “Spare some change, William?” she’d say to me. “You look like a William.”
I’d leave the gardens and see a dog shaking on the sidewalk. He’d cower every time someone walked by. A little boy, probably 6 years old, would come up to him, sit down next to him on the sidewalk and talk to him. It wasn’t his dog but still he’d sit there, eventually giving the dog a few pets. The dog, at first, wouldn’t do anything — no cowering. No tail wags. Just sitting there. Finally, the dog would raise his little paw and place it on the boy’s leg. There. That’s better.
I’d keep walking toward my house when a young woman would stop me and say, “Do you know the date of America?” I thought I’d misheard her.
“The year when Christopher Columbus discovered America?”
“1492,” I’d say.
“Merci,” she’d say as she’d tap the code into the door, walk inside. I’d never been so happy to remember a historical date.
These were my Sundays in Paris, when the streets were a little more empty with a little more music. There was always a lingering sadness for me but sadness isn’t always painful. It’s simply the realization that suffering can, and often does, gently give way to a kind of beauty.
There were tourists, the homeless, kids crying in the park, priests, cute girls asking for a light, musicians in the metro, and me, in the midst of it all, dipping a piece of bread in some hummus next to a dog who’d sleep super well that night with the help of a 6 year old boy.
You know what the streets around your house look like– perhaps so well that you don’t even see them anymore. But now, with this strange space and time that we have abundantly? Things might open up differently. Go for a walk like a French poet would (if you can find a solo locale…) Notice all the beauty you usually miss.
This life, this time, is a gift.