Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Walk and Take the Urban Space


Wondering and wandering go hand in hand. Walking gives mental space to concentrate and go through issues that have jammed inside one's head. When in movement it feels like even the things that are stuck and without an answer begin to move and get a new order. For many creative processes walking is an essential part. One comes up with an idea but a good long walk enables the thinking go to the second level. The idea being processed gets a new and even better form. In hard times walking can be one of the few activities one can do. It is possible to adjust the pace and just keep moving no matter how slowly but still going somewhere. Maybe not going to a physical place but towards a solution and some outcome that leads forward. Walking can help to notice the steps that take closer to one's dreams. It is concrete action that makes one see action in issues that are hard to define.

35/52 Lauren Elkin's Flâneuse. Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (2016) is about walking in urban space and it's many meanings. It asks to whom the urban space belongs, who can walk there and who can wander observing passers by. It ponders how urban cities open to the female walker. It inspires to go and explore the cities around the world by walking.

Elkin is accompanied by women from different eras of time. Women who have both been keen to walk and knew their city with it's every detail. At the same time when Elkin walks with inspiring writers like Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys and Martha Gellhorn, she goes through their work and alleys they took. She takes the same paths and reflects the same issues they either brought up in their work or had in their personal life. If you love book, film and art recommendations this book will offer you many. There is so many interesting works to enjoy from films by Agnes Varda to novels by George Sand. Not to mention countless cites Elkin makes through the book raising a dream to become as well sophisticated as she is. I have always been deeply inspired by people who are able to move from level to another in cultural and societal discussions, how they can drop a name or two, cite some recent research, quote in French or Latin, talk about what is happening in popular culture today and draw lines of connection between this all.

Urban space has not always been available for women and even these days we ask ourselves if we can go out in certain parts of the city or walk around save in certain hours. City offers lots to explore but also threats. Even nowadays a woman can't walk alone in some places, either because it is not save or because it is not approved by society. When we walk we are not moved by others we move ourselves, take the space ourselves and explore it with our own terms. We can choose to take different route instead of being driven to given places and answers. Virginia Woolf moved with her sister Vanessa to Bloomsbury. From save and predictable Kensington to an area that didn't hold the best of reputation. What Bloomsbury gave her was freedom to walk and think. With fellow artists she could develop ideas and choose whole new ways of organizing her world. Some spaces still stayed closed for women. In A Room of One's Own women are not allowed to go to the university campus lawn and library. But Virginia is well aware of this injustice, she is a feminist who goes to test the limits of her time and writes to us all if there are faults in the current thinking.

Elkin defines flâneuse and seeks to show that women too can walk and observe. We might think why not, sure women too can observe and walk in urban space as they like. What has hold against this is that women are the one's to be observed and seen and thus it is impossible to observe, be part of the mass if you stand out. Man is the norm in urban space and men can fade themselves to the background. That is how the thought of flâneur is based, that men can hide themselves and become observers. In times when women were not that common sight on streets, cafes and bars they have raised more curiosity. But there were curious and adventurous women in history too, flâneuses, who took the space. Sometimes in disguise, like George Sand, most often without, taking the observing gaze directed to them and gazing their observers back.


Walking and going are protests per se but it is also good to notice that manifests are also partly about walking in public space. At the same time when one walks they tell why they walk. Apart from flâneuse in manifest the point is to be seen and to be present to the public eye. Elkin tells her story how she first tried to stay away from manifests and keep a low profile but eventually by accident got into one and learned how it feels to be in a group. She sees the meaning of the manifest not as opposing those in power but as a way to show fellow citizens that these kind of opinions exist. It might be that the presence of opinion encourages those who observe to re-evaluate their thinking.

When we travel we want places to open to us and invite us in. Even if we seek something different to what we are used to we still hope that the different works with the same core principles. Elkin tells about her experiences in Tokyo. She gets a possibility to live in Tokyo when her boyfriend gets a job in the city. When she gets there she begins to feel that the city is not as inviting as the other cities where she has made her home in. Tokyo craves time to get to know how it functions. Streets are marked in a different way and products on store don't look familiar. Tokyo wants the explorer to stay longer before it shows it's character.

Is to wander to be without any attachments or vice versa? Maybe the essence of flâneur is to be able to go to the shared urban space and explore it and get to know people with whom you share the space with. One can have a camp in the world or several camps from where they go to their walks. Walks can head to nearby streets or around the world. Point is to own the outside space with others instead of being bound inside the four walls. For Elkin Paris is her home in the world even though she has lived in various cities. Paris is where she begins her journeys and where she wants back. For author and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn it was restricting to own a house and be bound to certain place. She was in her bets element when she got to see the world, observe what she saw and report to those in their homes what happened in war zones. It is everyone's own balance between wandering and being in one place. Also the distance of these wanderings is something we can choose. Do we need to go another side of the world or is it enough to see how life goes in neighbor suburb.

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