Mindsnack #14 – The Weekend Flâneur
There used to be a time when laziness was classy and required work. Flânerie connoted wealth, intellect, an active idleness, and perhaps a tinge of hedonism. In the 16th century, the term meant strolling, with an implication of idle curiosity. However, the 19th century saw flânerie rescued by several French intellectuals such as Honoré de Balzac, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, and Charles Baudelaire. The German Franz Hessel popularised the idea in his heimat via his famous collection of essays, Spazieren in Berlin. In this period, flânerie became not only a sophisticated practice but also an object of scholarly study and its taxonomy was better explored – as one dictionary described it, there were mindless flâneurs and intelligent flâneurs, there were flâneurs of boulevards, parks, cafés, and arcades.
I will spare you a philosophical inquiry into the writings of 19th century proponents of flânerie, even a fascinating discussion of flânerie and the modern condition by Walter Benjamin, and instead ask you to consider a 21st century bourgeois version of flânerie – weekend flânerie. More and more people can afford to engage in the enriching experience of idle intellectual curiosity than before, at least on the weekend, but it is to my eternal chagrin that the age of reason, technology, and globalisation has made us not flâneurs but badauds, passive recipients of micro-history rather than actors. Laziness has unfortunately come to mean staying in bed all day or turning into a zombie before the idiot box.
While the great cities of Europe seem designed keeping flânerie in mind, there are a few elsewhere that come close to them. In fact, most half-way decent cities allow for some casual, intellectual strolling. More than size, it is about culture, diversity, and public spaces. So what would a flâneur – or a flâneuse – do in, say, New York on a Sunday?
The first thing to remember is that New York is famous for its brunch, a fabulous excuse to start drinking early in the day without people calling you an alcoholic. It is also a time to get your new friend’s name and number if you wish, or simply recover from the previous night’s festivities. City laws do not allow the serving of alcohol before 11 00, so perhaps you might be interested in visiting a nice little Armenian church beforehand – the St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral. It’s on the lower east side, but a quick crosstown tube ride will put you in the heart of the brunch district.
Though consecrated in only 1968, St. Vartan’s is the first cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church to be consecrated in the United States and resembles Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the world’s first cathedral, built around 303 CE by Gregory the Illuminator. St. Vartan’s has all the trappings of a typical Orthodox church, saints on a golden background, stained glass windows, and beautiful liturgies. Its stone cross, the priest told me once, was brought from Armenia and is from the 15th century, and the chandeliers are reconstructed modes of 7th century fixtures found back home. An excellent and quick read on Armenian Christianity would be the first volume (maybe second too) of Jaroslav Pelikan’s five-volume masterpiece, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.
Okay, so why visit a church? Well, unless you’re a vampire, you won’t burst into flames if you enter one. But more seriously, brunch is a very old Christian custom of a somewhat largish post-church meal – especially as Catholics and some Orthodox fast before mass. The portmanteau, ‘brunch’ was first used by a British writer named Guy Beringer in 1895, but the tradition has been around for much longer. A traditional brunch meal contains Eggs Benedict and champagne, but let’s be libertine, I say, and not fear to go wild with the menu!
On to the mimosas! Lower Manhattan is a packed with dozens of spectacular brunch places. I particularly like Elmo for the truffle fries (you begin to understand why the Italians and French have fought so many battles over truffle fields in the Piedmont) and because Chelsea just has a nice feel, the Russian Tea Room (just don’t ask them about the Simorgh on the wall!), Lafayette for everything on the menu, and Minetta Tavern for the drinks.
At this point, amateurs may make the mistake of visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters, or some such lovely place. However, flânerie is about watching, not doing; You want to engage, even intellectually, but not be completely drawn into the object of scrutiny – that would ruin flânerie. To molest a phrase from Gilles Deleuze and/or Pierre-Félix Guattari, watching is the haeccity of flânerie. Sailing or museums and galleries require work, and we just want to be lazy in style!
Freshly refuelled, you might consider heading over to Chelsea Pier. You can get a nice ride on a schooner there, taking you by Battery Park and the Statue of Liberty; you get a good river-side view of the New York skyline. To be sure, there are several places along the riverfront where you can grab a cruise, but Chelsea Pier is also a nice place to walk around before or after your cruise.
The Hudson waterfront is a great place for a leisurely stroll; there’s a nice park you can saunter through. But remember – flânerie is about observing and quick reflections. People, places, objects, all form a Denkbild to re-experience later. Head north towards Central Park. Those nice floral summer dresses you might encounter on the way just lift your moods Around 64th Street, you have the option of leaving the river and heading east to the Central Park Zoo; the polar bears and turtles are especially cute, and the species of penguin they have aren’t too bad either.
If you choose to skip the zoo, you have another lovely excursion opportunity around 72nd Street for the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park. If you like the water, you might enjoy taking a rowboat out to the centre of the lake and watching people pass by from there. There is a topless book club (NSFW) that meets in the vicinity but sadly, I’d rather read postmodernist and psychoanalysis tracts than their list.
Alternatively, you can keep walking as 72nd Street is where Cherry Walk, a segment of Riverside Walk, starts. It is named for the cherry trees found further north, near Columbia University, but Riverside Park is nonetheless a scenic landmark.
It’s evening by now, and you’ve probably worked off your delectable brunch with a good 80-block walk. That sounds like a lot, but taking the day to stroll down a beautiful stretch and watch your fellow urbanites probably made it seem much shorter. Nonetheless, if you are a cookie monster, you are close to one of my favourite pastry shops in the area (Morningside Heights) – the Hungarian Pastry Shop. The area is certainly a little dingy but not too bad by New York standards. Some might try to do the Parisian café routine but it’s closer to one of Bangalore’s darshinis. If you’re feeling peckish, you might want to try out the tiramisu or hazelnut torte and a cup of coffee. The tiramisu, by the way, has a delightfully promiscuous history you might want to look up.
Conversely, you can catch the tube and head back towards downtown for dinner. Tertulia and Pampano both offer a lovely Spanish cuisine but more importantly, they have sangria on tap. Pampano has several kinds of sangria and you will just have to come back. Note – these restaurants are a little on the pricier side, so you might prefer to grab a quick bite to eat from a street vendor and end the evening at Kazuza Lounge with a ghalyoon and black Arabic tea. The food is not so great, so eat before you get there. Kazuza is in Alphabet City but is, in my opinion, the best place for a ghalyoon in New York – for me, New York is Manhattan until Columbus Circle, and the suburbs extend up until maybe 100th Street but no more than 120th Street).
Flânerie is not about hitting tourist attractions; if that is what you wanted, you’ve wasted a day. Such jaunts are about amplifying and savouring Dasein. Big cities allow many variations of food, drink, people, and sights, but even smaller towns might have some avenues to explore one’s productive laziness – most places have their unique flavour. Chances are, in our daily grind, we don’t notice our dwellings until we’ve left and then we reminisce when we meet someone else from there who is also busy missing the simpler joys.
One might even say that in some ways, flânerie forces us to slow down our pace and pay attention to our lives. Via mobile phones, e-mail, and social media, we are at the world’s beck and call, responding to stimuli elsewhere and on someone else’s schedule. Flânerie brings us back to hereness; for me, that itself is worth the trouble.