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Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842

Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842

There is no English equivalent for the French word flâneur. Cassell’s dictionary defines flâneur as a stroller, saunterer, drifter but none of these terms seems quite accurate. There is no English equivalent for the term, just as there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, 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.

(Cornelia Otis Skinner, Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals, 1962)

“Flâneur” is a distinctly urban concept, connected especially with Paris during the last half of the 19th Century. The quote above defines the flâneur in almost hedonistic terms, whereas others – for example Baudelaire – tended to view the flâneur as more observant and analytic.

There is no such thing as a rural flâneur, of course, or even a suburban flâneur, so talking about “flâneur gardening” will inevitably be a twisting of the original meaning of the term. A real flâneur would probably never get dirt under his nails, nor would he cart around with a wheel barrow full of soil or any such strenuous activities, but this is where the change in time – from late 19th century to early 21st century – comes into play.

When I work hard I sit still in front of a screen or speak to people, and as a consequence time in the garden – fresh air, occasionally hard work and a connection to the soil – becomes a luxury pursuit, just as the act of strolling aimlessly around used to be a luxury reserved for those privileged enough not to have to spend their days working.

You could also argue that my gardening is as fruitless as the perambulating gentleman of leisure; what little produce I harvest from the garden could be more efficiently procured by going to the supermarket. The practical aim of my gardening is decidedly missing, and instead it becomes a pursuit of sensuality, of experiencing the surroundings and taking them in, both visually and by the senses of smell, touch, hearing and taste.

Mind you, I’m not adverse to a bit of old-school flânerie either; I love wandering aimlessly about a city and take in the sights and sounds and smells of the life that goes on around me. Being a casual, nonparticipating observer and spend hours strolling or sitting at a pavement café. Rome and Paris are excellent for this, as is Copenhagen to a large extent when the weather is nice, whereas a city like London is absolutely impossible to be a real flâneur in; the pace is too fast and there are precious few places to sit and engage in a spot of people watching.

I once took it so far as to go to Paris for a week on my own, simply because I had a lunch date with a couple of friends who were over from Australia. The rest of the week I spent mainly alone; strolling around the city, sitting in cafés with a novel or a news paper and only meeting other people when I randomly ran into a friend from London here or a friend from the US there. (I felt terribly glamorous and international, I can tell you!)

So there, that was my contribution to Mrs. Nesbitt’s ABC Wednesday for this week.

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A is for Aesthetics


Plural but sing or plural in constr : a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty.
(Merriam-Webster)

Some gardens are purely intended as useful production units for fruit and vegetables, but these are – I believe – excessively rare. Even the most utilitarian vegetable gardener seems to plan their plot with at least a small regard for beauty or take some degree of pleasure in the inherent beauty of their crops.

There is, you’ll agree, a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ oh, so very special about a firm, young carrot.

For most of us, though – even if we do incorporate some productive elements in our gardens – the aesthetic value of the garden and the sheer joy of the beauty of plants and being under an open sky seems to be the main driving force when we plan, tend and think about our gardens.

My personal design aesthetic is heavily influenced by the couple of years I spent thinking I should be an architect (that phase passed after studying for a couple of years…), and especially by the Vitruvian principles of firmitas, utilitas and venustas. The idea that a building should be both durable, usable and beautiful in order to be succesful is appealing to me, and I somehow think of this concept as being transferable to  gardening.

After all, we want our gardens to be beautiful, but we also want them to accommodate our utilitarian needs (a vegetable garden, a terrace,  maybe a barbecue or a firepit) and last – but not least – while most of us are prepared to do a fair bit of maintenance, we also tend to desire the garden to have some durability; plants should be suitable for the local climate, pavements should be stable and trellises should not come tumbling down in an autumn gale.

So remember this the next time you plan an addition to your garden: Will it be beautiful, will it be durable and will it serve its intended purpose. If the answer to any one of these questions is “no”, then it’s back to the drawing board.

Please visit ABC Wednesday for more alphabetical blog entries.

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