Ten days into Sydney, and I'm rediscovering the pleasure of the flaneur, that bourgeois French character, much admired by Anglos, who ambles through a city on foot, observing its life without losing himself in it. The flaneur wanders not quite at random, but by following, at each juncture, the path of greatest interest. Perhaps he has a general direction, but no destination is so important as to distract from the distraction of the moment. Paris, which may express the perfect balance of destination and distraction, invented and exported the flaneur, and I'm pleased to report that flaneurie is alive and well in the labryinths of Sydney.
When I try to be a flaneur in a gridded city of North America, even one as interesting as Vancouver or Los Angeles, I cannot help but travel in straight lines. Los Angeles, in particular, is a city whose drama and richness are laid thickly along the vast boulevards that rush to the horizon; rarely does a side street offer an interesting enough prospect to inspire a turn. San Francisco's hill-shredded grids, studded with alleys and stairways, are more conducive to the flaneur's aimlessness, but those steep hills also require Big Consequential Decisions -- climb the hill or not? -- and consequence is the antithesis of flaneurie. To achieve the necessary lightness, the flaneur must navigate only by the smallest whims, his lefts and rights guided by the slightest hint that left, and now right, is what calls.
Sydney is the perfect city for the flaneur, at least the vast part of it laid down in the 19th century. Like London, Sydney grew up around trails -- some even defined by the Aboriginals -- that curve with the gentle topography. Neighourhood streets sometimes have little grids, but straight lines are always brief and tentative. Nineteeth Century Sydney grew by accretion, without consideration of larger consequences or the pursuit of a larger plan. You could say that its development was much in the spirit of the flaneur: Build whatever comes next, whatever way suits us at the moment. Today, Sydney is famously frustrating for anyone with a destination, but the sheer disorder of it, the impossibility of navigation, forces everyone to be a bit of a flaneur, and thus makes the flaneur feel at home.
That last link points to a map of Paddington, where Sydney's usual rows of terraces are scrambled into a knot so impenetrable as to mandate flaneurie. Here it is from my window:
Paddington lies between me and the beach, so on long walks aimed vaguely at saltwater I must thread this labyrinth and resist -- but why resist? -- its endless byways and alleys. I've spent all afternoon getting across this one district, barely a kilometre wide. Just beyond it lies another delight, which I found only by choosing minor streets to avoid the towers and traffic of Bondi Junction. A complete rainforest gully, including gentle Tolkeinesque structures that reveal the most innocent fantasies of the Bondi bourgoisie:
Such detail is everywhere. Soon I will begin strolling around industrial parks near the airport in order to meet my need for visual tedium. It's true, I've been tempted ...