A Book Review
Written by Emma Holter
The word flâneuse is a play off of the French noun flâneur, which can loosely be defined as a man who wanders through a city. The masculine term was coined in the 19th century when women were confined to the domestic space or chaperoned in public, and men were free to learn the ebb and flow of the city street. Scholars up until now have dismissed the concept of the flaneuse because of the social and practical restrictions set on women. And yet, the idea that women were not allowed to wander a city overlooks altogether their presences in urban spaces throughout history. In Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, Lauren Elkin puts the figure of the flâneuse back into the picture, and explores what it means to be a woman experiencing a city on foot.
The book hovers between memoir, travel writing, and nonfiction, flashing between the author’s own experiences and the experiences of other women who have walked through New York, Paris, Tokyo, Venice, and London before her. She pulls from the experiences of female journalists, novelists, and artists, and dives into how each woman interacted with, and been inspired by, the cities they lived in. This odyssey includes the George Sand who cross-dressed to gain anonymity on the streets of Paris, Virginia Woolf whose meanderings through London resulted in “Street Haunting” and Mrs. Dalloway, and the intrepid Martha Gellhorn who photographed and wrote dispatches for the English-speaking press from Madrid during the Spanish Civil War.
Elkin, a native New Yorker, first grew to know a city on foot when she studied abroad in Paris during her junior year of college. And now she lives, writes and teaches in Paris (in other words, she’s living the dream!). In this book, she retraces the paths of many women that she profiles and notes how her contemporary experience differed from theirs. Her most personal chapter is where she describes following her then-boyfriend to Tokyo to keep the relationship afloat. She details how her experience as an Franco-American experiencing linguistic isolation and culture shock, affected by her instinct to be a flâneuse in a city not built for a pedestrian.
I grew up in Los Angeles--a city whose urban sprawl, network of twelve lane freeways, and perpetual traffic make it impractical to get anywhere on foot, and you would be crazy to try. Distance is a constant impediment, and the most convenient way get from point A to B is to drive. That means being confined within a vehicle, superficially skating around whole neighborhoods, on freeways that have ten-foot high walls bracketing either side of the road. LA’s cultural districts are insulated from one another by large expanses of residential neighborhoods, so the overlapping and intermixing of linguistic, racial, and cultural groups is less apparent in the urban fabric.
When I moved to Florence, Italy for my first year of college, I felt more connected to this small Italian city than I had ever felt to Los Angeles. I grew to know the historic center by getting lost in the tangle of cobblestone streets--Brunelleschi’s red brick dome of the massive Duomo as my constant compass. I traipsed the city’s arteries, sat on each bridge straddling the Arno, and climbed the hills beyond the medieval walls to Piazzale Michelangelo, the Giardino Bardini and San Miniato al Monte to take in the vistas of the city. The Florentine pace of life encouraged to me to amble, to take my time, to observe and soak in my surroundings, and to feel rooted in that city because I had discovered it for myself. After one year, I must have walked down almost every street in the historic center, and I felt like I belonged to Florence with the passion of a convert. To me, being a flâneuse means feeling emboldened to wander the streets of a new city and having the freedom to do so. I completely agree with Elkin when she says getting lost on purpose, and letting your curiosity and instinct lead you towards things you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise, is half the fun of growing to understand a new place.
This book is so relevant to any woman who has lived abroad, spent time abroad, or traveled solo at any point in her life. Reading Flâneuse gave a name to something I have been doing for years now. It also made me want to buy a ticket and get on a plane immediately, so if you’re also in the mood for something transporting--read this!