There’s an interesting French word, “flâneur”. Translated it could mean: stroller, lounger, saunterer, loafer. An idle wanderer having no particular destination or objective. Flânerie refers to the activity of strolling and there are people in France, especially in Paris who are flâneurs. It sometimes seems as if the entire city is populated with them. And while they strolled, they observed and while they observed, some of them took notes. Sherlock Holmes once said to Watson ‘you see but you do not observe’. Most of us just ‘see’, most of the time.
The extraordinary slides imperceptibly into the commonplace, gliding past our consciousness as if non-existent, or it only existed as a fleeting, half-remembered impression, instantly forgotten. What colour was the coat the woman was wearing? What was curious about the dog across the road? Why did the man in the car seem to be waiting too long before turning?
Writers sometimes sit in cafés, watching. They fleetingly devise scenarios, stories about the people that pass them, who never notice that they are there. The mental filing cabinet fills with thoughts and ideas. It’s easier with individuals. An impression crystallises almost instantly, a collection of information about gait, facial expression, dress and a multitude of non-verbal signals which are assembled at lightning speed, the limbic and reptilian brain assessing threat, fear, anger or desire.
By way of explanation, I was turned loose in the city yesterday for a little bit of flânerie and found myself sitting at the interface between two arrondissements, drinking coffee. There was noise across the street. Several men, Afro-Caribbean in appearance, were talking loudly amongst themselves. Arms were waving, fingers being pointed and a few pushes and shoves exchanged. To Western eyes, this looked close to the breakout of a violent, possibly drug-fuelled confrontation. Very few stopped to watch. Parisians don't. After a few minutes, as swiftly as it had started, all was quiet. People went their separate ways.
I found myself wondering what were the circumstances that led to the small window of events that I had witnessed. Possibilities flitted ephemerally through my mind before I just filed it all away in the mental lockup. One of these days, I might pull all the files out of the filing cabinet, put them all together and call it a novel.