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flâneuse / freedom

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The portraits I paint here attest that the flâneuse is not merely a male flâneur, but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own. She voyages out and goes where she’s not supposed to; she forces us to confront the ways in which words like home and belonging are used against women. She is a determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city and the liberating possibilities of a good walk. (Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, p 22 by Lauren Elkin)

Having grown up in a very rural area of Pennsylvania, living in a house that was quite literally in the middle of a corn field, the first step towards freedom was a driver’s license. Elkin speaks about the awfulness of needing a car in the suburbs where everyone drives instead of walking. This is something I fully understand and resent now (dependency on a car, that is) but as a teenager, the only way I was going to escape was by car. So I had hounded my parents nonstop in the year preceding my 16th birthday – in Pennsylvania then, you could get your learner’s permit at 15 and I did. I got my license immediately and loved getting out of the house and just driving around aimlessly with friends in the “country” but within that first year I took off running for the city. Driving down the blue route, the infamous “Sure Kill” highway (the Schuylkill Expressway) led me straight into Philadelphia where I would park in South Philly and spend hours walking up and down South Street with a friend. South Street, back then, was where I felt like I was somewhere that I belonged. There was some harassment, some cat-calling at my teen self but back in the late 80s and 90s, South Street was a rare place where I, a woman (a teenager) could blend in. After all, while walking in an area surrounded by people wearing leather, punk and goth gear, hair in every possible color, piercings that were unimaginable to me then, I was not as noticeable as I was walking in a less “colorful” place or in the suburbs. Even when I was propositioned or harassed, I could walk away and keep walking. Oddly, I felt protected there – South Street then was a gathering place for the “freaks” and misfits and I wanted very badly to be part of them. Fishnets and combat boots were part of the uniform there. Fishnets and combat boots on a woman anywhere else was just asking for trouble or caused people to assume you were trouble.

Much later, during my travels to Europe and eventually having taken up residence in the Czech Republic for three years, I had long since abandoned the fishnets and combat boots. (I still had the tattoos, though!) I, like so many before me, fetishized and romanticized the idea of Europe, as a whole. (Of course, this mostly meant “Western Europe”.) Somehow, to be in Europe was far more adventurous and interesting than a city in the States. For me, it was just as far away from a corn field in Pennsylvania as I could get. I traded the fishnets for black turtlenecks and I saw surprisingly few landmarks and tourist attractions during my travels because I didn’t go to these cities in order to see important or famous things. When I lived in Prague, I would spend most of my free time walking. When I traveled, I spent insufferable hours flying across an ocean in a tin can to do nothing other than to walk somewhere other than where I lived. For me, it was empowering to realize I could land somewhere and just take off in a direction without worrying about where I’d wind up or how I’d get back. It was empowering just to know I could always find my way home and it sharpened my senses to walk somewhere unfamiliar.

And then, even later after that, after returning to the States and eventually doing what’s been called “settling down” – getting married, having a child, and doing what I never thought I’d do (own a home), I still love taking time to wander. I walk with people sometimes – my husband, my son, friends – but nothing beats walking alone. Walking alone means I can stop when I want to without feeling guilty about holding people up, without having someone try to figure out what my gaze is fixed on and then demand that I explain what I’m looking at, walking alone means I can walk through “sketchy” parts of town without someone complaining or fussing over feeling safe or warning me to be careful.

Though I am not a man, I do sense that men walk for different reasons. The men I’ve known have walked for inspiration or to feel cultured and erudite, to learn about a space or to feel a part of something. I, too, have walked – and do walk – for these reasons but I don’t think that men generally walk to feel “free” or to defy societal norms that have been placed on them.

Case in point: This past Summer, when I spent a few weeks on a short Summer abroad program in Berlin (through UW), my son stayed with Grandmom and my husband stayed at home working. We emailed frequently and occasionally talked by phone or Skyped. I enjoyed occasionally going out or eating dinner with the other (young) students. Generally, though, during the majority of free time I would grab my headphones and head out the door knowing only that I was going to get coffee or food at a particular place and the rest of the time was up in the air. I walked. I walked and listened to music. I explored Kreuzberg (the neighborhood we were staying in) and I took long tram rides to other neighborhoods. The feeling of being off on my own made me delirious with joy.

One time I was walking around with one of the other students and we had a very brief conversation about children (specifically, I mentioned that I thought child leashes were awful.) Later on in the trip I was told that she had said something about “seeing my parenting side” and she thought it was nice because they “didn’t usually see that side” of me. My annoyance and anger at hearing this surprised me. Why should they “see that side” of me, I ranted. I am more than just a mother, I went on, and and I was here to NOT have to think about those things and to not have to be “on” as a parent and a wife for a short while.

* I feel like I need to add this sidenote because – continuing to prove my point – it’s scandalous for a women to say she likes time away: I love being a wife and mother more than anything else I’ve ever done but a few weeks of wandering the city, speaking German and not worrying about schedules and lunches and bedtimes after eight years was quite nice. Flâneuse-ing is a wonderful vacation.

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