What the French Taught Me About Texas

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Flaneur - What the French Taught Me About Texas TravelI’ve been in Austin, Texas for a week; I have another week to go. Several people here, upon discovering that I’m a visitor, have asked me the same question:

“So what do you want to do while you’re here?”

I shrug. I’m up for anything. Most days I pick a neighborhood, stroll around, poke into coffee shops and cafes, and strike up conversations with random people.

Apparently this is rare. Many people think they need to travel with an hour-by-hour itinerary of events. They’ve got plans, maps and agendas that guide them from breakfast ‘til dessert.

If you only have 10 vacation days per year, this strategy makes sense. Losing one day through inefficiency – sleeping late, missing the train – equates to losing 10 percent of your annual time off from work. You feel pressured to fill that unscheduled gap between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The clock is ticking.

Unfortunately, this harried pace prevents the spontaneity that creates the most amusing chance encounters. I’m referring to the take-a-side-street, say-yes-to-invites, make-new-friends-in-strange-places spontaneity.

There’s a French word that expresses this idea: “flaneur.” This refers to someone who strolls around, without hurry and without haste, drinking the sights and sounds, ready to experience anything.

American actress and author Cornelia Otis Skinner describes a flaneur as “the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time, which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city.”

What a beautiful way to live. Frugal with time, yet unhurried.

The French have described the way I want to spend my time in the beautiful state of Texas.

Even if you only have 10 vacation days per year, dare yourself to try it. Resist the urge to jam-pack your days as if you were at a business conference. Stroll aimlessly. Talk to strangers.

Better yet, try it today, in your hometown. Take a side-street. Stroll into an art gallery. Meet someone new. You never know what’s around the corner, even those corners in your own backyard.

P.S. I have heard that some parts of French-speaking Canada use the word “flaneur” to refer to loiterers. That’s NOT the kind of aimless strolling I support.

P.P.S. Please don’t turn the comments section into a Texas vs. France debate. This ain’t the place.


  1. says

    I’ve found somewhere in the middle is perfect: i.e. every other day I have a plan, the days in between are left flexible for random adventures or double-dipping on the planned activities. This is almost necessary because we’re now traveling with a one and three year old, who almost always need a day in between to recover. Glad you’re having fun. If you make it up to DFW let me know.

    • says

      @Philip – That’s a great way to structure a trip. Sometimes too little structure can be as bad as too much, so a happy-medium strategy works well. (And although I won’t make it to Dallas on this trip, thanks for the offer! Feel free to visit me when you’re in Atlanta!)

  2. says

    This is so true! I’ve found that if I’m vacationing somewhere it’s better to wander and talk to the locals to see what they like to do. I used to live in NYC and although I understand why people want to see things like the Empire State Building, I felt sad if they didn’t get to see so many of the other great things that the city has to offer that only locals know about. Wandering rather than scheduling allows a vacation to be more relaxing and gives you a chance to truly get a feel for the place.

  3. says

    I like to explore cities by foot. On my last vacation, I strolled on the river walk and just spent time taking in the sites. I didn’t have an agenda at all, and it was great! My next vacation will definitely have to have some unscheduled flaneur time.

  4. says

    My favorite day on our trip to Switzerland was our “Do Anything Day.” I did what I wanted by myself; Met a few new friends, was taken to lunch, and spent time quietly observing nature. Then I let my puppet out of the bag and made some children laugh. They didn’t even speak English, but I found that laughter is the same in any language.

    • says

      @Jacki — “Laughter is the same in any language” — that’s such a beautiful statement! I’m going to file that sentence in my mind, and use it. :-) Your Do-Anything-Day sounds amazing.

  5. says

    I definitely agree. When me and my BF went to Portland, the only things we planned were going to at least one brew pub for some local beer and a bit of shopping. We only really had two days there but because we didn’t plan it out so much, we just walked around, went to places we wouldn’t normally check out, and had a really relaxing and fun weekend. Ah the French, they’ve sure got a way with words.

    • says

      @MoMoney – Yeah, it’s too bad there isn’t an English word for flaneur — although if enough of us use that word, we’ll just adopt into the English language. You know, like “entrepreneur.” :-) Portland is definitely on my list; I can’t believe I haven’t been there yet.

  6. says

    Welcome to Texas! We generally visit a city for a few days longer than you need to see tourist sites. I prefer to hang out with the locals and feel a city’s pulse while I’m there.

    Austin is a cool town…and only 5 hours from us! (Why didn’t you visit Texarkana? You could be a “flaneur” here, see everything, and still be back in Atlanta for dinner….).

    • says

      @AverageJoe — I didn’t realize you’re in Texas! Oh man, I’ll have to schedule a jaunt to Texarkana on my next trip. “Texarkana” — What an awesome town name. I Googled it to make sure it was real. :-)

  7. says

    Flâner: there is another definition of this word that you shouldn’t emulate though. It is to stand around, inactively and waster space. There are signs back home that say ” Interdiction de flâner!” Which pretty much means, don’t stand here and do nothing” They usually put these signs up near local businesses where teenagers might gather and smoke or something. So please, don’t flâne and please do so as well!

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