A Flaneur’s Guide to Wandering with Intention

“Not all who wander are lost” – J. R. R. Tolkien

According to Erika Owen, the most basic definition of a flaneur is someone who strolls. The origin of flaneuring dates back to the late 19th century when the ability to wander signaled a “level within society with the privilege of living a life of leisure – or at least enough time in your day to walk without a care in the world.” When Erika wrote The Art of Flaneuring (Blackstone Publishing; 2019) neither she nor anyone else could have predicted that walking would become a vital part of daily life for so many people in 2020. Here, Erika shares the benefits of meditative walking and her tips on how to wander with intention.

June 10, 2020
Climbing mountains in Iceland
Southern Iceland.

enRoute Can you tell us a little bit about your book?

Erika Owen The book is all about experiencing your immediate environment in a new way. There are so many times I go about my commute or daily walks without thinking about where I’m going or what I’m seeing. It’s easy for your own neighbourhood – or even the places you go when travelling – to become part of a daily blur.

I believe that learning to slow down and actually observe can improve so many facets of life. Each space has so many different layers and personalities. The Art of Flaneuring is simply a guidebook full of methods for better observing the world happening around you. I say “happening around you” because the entire soul of the book depends on the flaneur passively taking in the scenes around them as opposed to being an active participant. If I could gift someone I love one thing in the world, it would be the deeper understanding of their own neighbourhood.

Laundry hanging on a clothesline in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, New York
The cover of Erika Owen's book “The Art of Flaneuring”
Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, New York.
The Art of Flaneuring.

ER What inspires you to get out and walk?

EO I want to be able to say, when I eventually leave Brooklyn and New York City, that I experienced as much of it as possible. I want to be the person who has stories about random corners and especially kind experiences with strangers. I want to be able to give restaurant recommendations and share particularly beautiful vistas with people planning trips here. This is the main driver of my inspiration – if I’m here, paying the astronomical rent, I want to know what the heartbeat of my city feels like.

ER As you wrote this book, you spent a lot of time flaneuring through New York City. What did you learn about the city on your walks?

EO So many things! But the thing I’ve noticed and loved the most is the people. If you walk around the same space enough times, you will start to notice the same people, kind of like cartoon characters in a given storyline. There are so many strangers I share regular waves with. New York City is a true mix of all the cultures in the world, so I love to think about this even as I walk past unfamiliar shop signs in new neighbourhoods, overhear conversations in different languages and take in the new–to–me food smells. I’ve learned that people are kind, no matter where you find yourself, and you’ll notice it the most when you’re observing the small interactions between people completing what they would consider mundane tasks – holding open a door, helping someone carry groceries to a car, a random compliment. People are also emotional, which you can hear in the raised voices of an argument. Happiness is a spectrum here, and every space showcases it.

Apartments in the Clinton Hill neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York
Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, New York.

ER Do you prefer to plan your route or enjoy the spontaneity of a stroll?

EO It’s really hard to not plan a walk, and I talk about that a lot in the book. In the beginning, I would certainly have a plan for the first few minutes. Now, I tend to just get out there and start walking. I often surprise myself with the turns I choose, which I consider a good thing in terms of my flaneur progress. But it’s still hard sometimes. I find that I most often go out on long, flaneur–y walks when I have something big on my mind. Those are the times, when I’m completely lost in a thought process, where it’s easiest to just walk without a route in mind.

ER Do you have any tips for someone who wants to start flaneuring?

EO My friend Laura Teusink, who is quoted in the book, is an awesome yoga and meditation instructor. She gave the advice of listening to the beat of your footsteps as you start to walk as a method of getting out of your thoughts and putting the urge to plan where you’re going at bay. I start out all of my walks using her method: Listen to each step, time the steps and get lost in that rhythm.

Also, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. If you find yourself checking your map to see where you are, that’s totally okay. In fact, I encourage that you do so once in a while, just to orient yourself.

A man with tropical flowers walking the streets of New York
Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York.
Dalvík, Iceland.

ER Do you listen to anything on your walks?

EO It depends on the day! I walk without music as much as I walk with my headphones on. Most recently, I have been loving this pianist, Hania Rani. There’s a lot of life in her songs and it provides a great soundtrack for late spring walks. I think the sounds of a neighbourhood or street are so important in flaneuring. You want to take it all in, so save the audio distractions for a place you know incredibly well.

ER Is there a flaneur from history who has inspired you the most?

EO If we’re talking strictly historic names, the famous ecologist Aldo Leopold comes to mind. His book, A Sand County Almanac, simply paints a picture of the land he owned near Baraboo, Wisconsin. I visited this space when I was a middle schooler growing up in Wisconsin and to see the place he so beautifully described in writing was a wakeup call of sorts to me. I would call it one of my original moments of inspiration as I started to uncover my own love of writing.

The mossy terrain of Iceland
Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland.

ER How has walking helped to clear your mind during this time?

EO Flaneuring has been such an incredible way for me to get out of my head lately. Before the pandemic, I was training for a strongwoman competition, so my activity levels were much higher – working out was very much therapeutic for me. Once the stay–at–home orders hit, I found myself feeling incredibly claustrophobic with muscles crying out for some activity. I’ve actually been incorporating flaneuring into my regular runs, I highly recommend it.

When you’re flaneuring for meditation, the biggest thing is to recognize when you’re drifting off and pulling yourself away from the scene in front of you. Your breathing is an important tool. In the book, I spoke to Ellie Burrows – cofounder of MNDFL – about just this. She had a lot of great tips for keeping present, but my favourite was to remember that meditation is not getting rid of thoughts, it’s organizing them. She recommended having a mantra whenever you feel yourself drifting too far, which I practice myself. Mine is, “look to your right.” It’s a physical action that often severs my brain from whatever thought was taking over, while also giving me a new direction to look.

Trees in the Clinton Hill neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York
Dalvík, Iceland.
Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, New York.

ER In your book you talk about vacationing through Google Earth. Where have you travelled to virtually?

EO I would say I “travel” to Iceland about once a week. It’s my favorite place in the world, so far, as well as a place that taught me how to deepen my flaneur practice in recognizing the movement and activity in a dead–quiet natural space.

The biggest thing to remember about cyber–flaneuring is that it’s not just clicking random spots and looking at the pretty photos. That is part of it; but do some research on the towns and communities you’re viewing through a screen. Walking without intention is one thing, but this task is more about losing yourself in the exploration of a place far away. I love to pick a town in Iceland I’ve never heard of and look up their city website. I’ve added so many regional museums and sights to my travel wish list doing this. The best part is, if you manage to travel there someday, it will hold a special place in your memory and heart.

A river in the Þingvellir National Park, Iceland
Þingvellir National Park, Iceland.

ER If you could explore one place by foot IRL tomorrow, where would you go?

EO There are so many places on my list that I haven’t visited – the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Copenhagen – but the one place I would like to re–discover through the eyes of a flaneur is a park near my home in Wisconsin called Natureland. I have so many memories of it growing up, but I would love to cross–reference those mind maps I have with new details, sounds and sights. I think it’s important to revisit the most familiar places with a new drive.