A little over two years ago, just a few months after I decided it would be a good idea to start blogging about my life, I wrote about how I constantly got lost in the twisty medieval streets of Aix-en-Provence. Except I wasn’t really lost, I wrote, because I would always end up where I needed to go eventually. I was just wandering.
I’ve wandered a lot in the two years since then. I left France and went to Washington, then to Los Angeles, then to Washington again, then to Nashville. With each move, I find myself exploring unfamiliar roads, looking for landmarks and struggling to draw a mental map (except now I have an iPhone, which takes some of the paralyzing “where-the-heck-am-I-now” feeling out of most excursions). But I’m realizing that there’s a second component to what I described in Aix. It’s not just the exploring that makes wandering so distinctive; it’s also the fact that I’m doing it alone.
It’s a bittersweet feeling. On one hand, I stumble upon these amazing things, things I might never find — or find interesting — if I knew exactly where to go. A sunny pier in Santa Monica. An unexpected, breathtaking view of the Washington Monument in D.C. A bluegrass band playing in a park in Nashville. Novelty and naïveté make one wonder at the world.
I get this feeling of excitement and discovery that bubbles up in me — and then I realize the downside: I have no one to share it with. I can text my boyfriend or call my mom, but sometimes you just have to see it in person. And besides, pinning it down in words or iPhone pictures usually doesn’t work. I’m euphoric but lonely, rolled up into one confusing, but not entirely unpleasant, emotion.
It turns out that the French actually have a word for me, one who wanders alone: a flâneur. I’m not sure why I never learned this while I was wandering alone in France, but I’m glad I learned this today, while I’m still wandering alone in Tennessee. As a New York Times reporter wrote about her solo trip to Paris:
It was easy in Paris to surrender to the moment. … This was not simply because I was in Paris, though it has long held a kind of magic for many Americans. It was because I was there on my own. In a city that has been perfecting beauty since the reign of Napoleon III, there are innumerable sensual details — patterns, textures, colors, sounds — that can be diluted, even missed, when chattering with someone or collaborating on an itinerary. Alone one becomes acutely aware of the hollow clack of pétanque balls in a park; the patina of Maillol’s bronze “Baigneuse se Coiffant” that makes her look wet even on a cloudless day in the Tuileries; how each of the empty wine bottles beside sidewalk recycling bins is the embodiment of someone’s good time. There is a Paris that deeply rewards the solo traveler.
Indeed, the city has a centuries-old tradition of solo exploration, personified by the flâneur, or stroller. Flânerie is, in its purest form, a goal-less pursuit, though for some it evolved into a purposeful art: Walking and observing became a method of understanding a city, an age. Baudelaire described the flâneur as a passionate spectator, one who was fond of “botanizing on the asphalt,” as the essayist Walter Benjamin would later put it.
Certainly it’s possible to enjoy exploring a new place with another person. But wandering alone — there is a kind of magic to it, if you let it happen.