When I think back to my time studying abroad four years ago, there are two things that stick out in my mind.
First, I remember being cold the whole time. Southern France was unseasonably chilly that spring, so I had brought the wrong clothes, and I was too money-conscious to buy the right ones. Instead, I layered three pairs of tights and double-wrapped my scarves and bought a cheap winter hat from a street vendor.
Second, I had no obligations outside of classes, which meant I would spend hours getting lost in the web of tiny medieval-era streets. (When my toes got numb, I would warm up inside one of Aix’s endless supply of French boutiques, fingering the price tags of clothes I wished I could buy.) My extensive wandering was such a profound experience that I blogged about it at the time.
Then, a couple of years later, I learned about the word flâneur. It’s French — fittingly — and it has no direct translation in English, but it means something like “one who wanders alone.” A New York Times reporter described it like this: “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.” This word resonated with me so deeply that I wrote another blog post about it.
So this is my third time blogging about the profundity of wandering. I can’t promise it will be my last.
It was on my most recent solo trip to France and Italy that I realized how intensely I enjoy wandering.
When I visited my aunt in Venice, she handed me a guide book and ticked off a list of things to see: churches, museums, famous pieces of art. “Or,” she said, “you can just walk around and have an adventure.”
Venice is a flâneur’s dream. It’s delightfully illogical. The city was built for boats on canals; streets meant for walking were an afterthought. My aunt explained that when — not if — I got lost, I could not ask a stranger to direct me to her street. “No one knows street names here,” she said.
Instead, I memorized how to get to my aunt’s apartment from the nearest landmark, one of Venice’s hospitals: cross the canal, walk down a street that looks like a dead end, take a right at the sculpture of a cherub, take a left at the church built out of marble, cross another bridge, then turn left at the red stucco wall.
It was like one of those arcade games that gives you a long series of tones, one after the other, and you have to play them back in the right order. Play them in the wrong order, and you might end up in a canal.
Here are the rules of wandering:
You walk and observe. You notice little things — the cobblestone in the pavement, maybe, or the way shoes are displayed in a shop window.
When you are hungry, you eat. When you are thirsty, you drink.
When you get to a fork in the road, you glance at your options, and you decide which direction looks most interesting. It can be a gut decision or not. You can stand there and ponder it, or not. You can walk one way and decide a few steps later to turn around. It doesn’t matter.
That’s the whole point. Nothing matters when wandering, except the wandering itself.
And this rule is the most important and the most difficult: You must resist the urge to look at a map. You have to turn off that part of your brain that craves control. You might take deep breaths, as if you’re working through a particularly difficult yoga pose. (The discomfort is in your mind, the teacher says as she pushes your body deeper. Breathe through it.)
Because once you look down at a map, you’re no longer wandering. You’re walking with a purpose, which is all very fine but it’s just not the same. When you’re wandering, you must succumb to the inevitability that you will get lost. You must trust that you will find your way.
It is in that uncomfortable space, halfway between lost and found, that the magic happens.
One day, I wandered my way to a relatively populated path along a canal. It was sunny and hot, so I stopped to get a scoop of chocolate gelato. Then, I ducked down a dark street to find shade.
“Street” is a generous word here — it was narrower then the span of my arms, and lined with dizzyingly tall brick buildings. Lines of laundry cast a shadow.
At the end was a deserted square, surrounded by nothing but doors to houses. As I started to turn around, I noticed something affixed to the far wall: a small shrine enclosed behind mesh. Someone long before me had found it and stuck a sprig of flowers inside.
Beautiful, I breathed silently, and I stood there, alone, until I decided it was time to move on.