An attempt at flânerie in San Francisco: Part I, The Idea

I started the day restless and angsty: I made the mistake of going online first thing in the morning. My house in San Francisco now has wifi, so I did the standard online circuit of email, Facebook, newspaper sites and blogs before even getting out of bed.

For a variety of reasons, this left me feeling like shit. Facebook made me feel like a low-grade stalker, the news was about the death of Ted Kennedy and election fraud in Afghanistan, and email added to the list of things I have to do.

After eating breakfast I was even more frustrated. I have about 50 pages left in the book I’m reading, Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, but I couldn’t decide whether I felt like reading them or if I felt like trying to relax by doing something lighter. Meta-stress about being stressed out was setting in when I had an idea. I would embark on a bit of a project: I wanted to go on a stroll in San Francisco. Like really go on a stroll. Walk through San Francisco, the city of multiculturalism, natural beauty, and tourism; a past of earthquakes, jazz, the beats, and the hippies; and now home to a new generation of hipsters, yuppies, immigrants and going green. I would engage in 21st century flânerie.

I first became interested in flânerie on my plane flight to Paris for my time abroad. On the plane, I read a book my aunt had given me, Edmund White’s The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris. The book was mostly a historical and personal account, but White’s allusions to the philosophical concept of flânerie really stuck with me.

Flâner (the verb form of flânerie) can be loosely translated from French to “to stroll.” Edmund White’s book didn’t go into depth about the philosophy of flânerie, but he would occasionally provide teasers into this concept such as, “Why must we always imagine the flâneur as sad?”

Over the course of my time in Paris, I would learn more about flânerie. To begin with, I lived a few blocks from some of the most well-known passages in Paris. Built in the 1830’s, the passages (translated into “arcades”) are covered walkways lined with shops. They are at the heart of the idea of flânerie, a notion first developed by the poet Baudelaire and reexamined by many including the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. The idea is more or less to lose oneself in walking in a city.

So my idea is to try to do some Baudelairian flânerie in San Francisco sometime in the next week. But I want to really do it right, so there’s a lot of theory on flânerie I want to read up on.

We’ll see how this project turns out. This idea sprung out of a desire to not feel stressed out and conflicted, so hopefully I won’t end up feeling out of place on my walk. But even if I do, I think this will still say something about me, flânerie and maybe even our time.

I think San Francisco will provide an excellent backdrop for my experiment. For Benjamin in his analysis of Baudelaire, the social and historical context of flânerie in 19th century Paris is key. I’m thinking of doing the walk in Chinatown or the Mission.

Anyway, stay tuned, and here is a picture I took of one of the passages near where I lived in Paris:

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