“What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.” Charles Baudelaire
Cities are sexy. They are man’s self-appointed eco-system. They overflow with life and no matter how much we complain about uneasy development and crane-clogged skylines, we have become addicted to them. Cities are the drug we love to hate.
Nature is inspiring. Rolling seas, towering mountains and mysterious rivers are all instinctively attractive to us. They relax us, soothe our mind, provide a kind of other-worldly inspiration. But I can’t imagine myself being permanently cut-off from the buzz of bars, shops, cafes, the throng of fellow humanity.
This is what I’ve been writing about recently. My short-story collection Icebergs In Your Palms is my attempt at re-calibrating our viewpoints. I am a writer because I’m a flaneur and I’m a flaneur because I’m a writer. What is a flaneur? I’ll let Baudelaire explain it again:
“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.”
For Balzac flanerie was “gastronomy of the eye.” I’ve been walking around our Maltese cities and I’ve been observing a lot of beauty amidst the chaos. I find a walk around a promenade or an avenue far more invigorating than a stroll down a countryside lane.
In the 19th century the flaneur was seen as an eccentric, someone who likes his own company, who spends his time observing, noting, barely participating. For me, being a flaneur is both a Socratic and Epicurean way of being. It makes you question everything and indeed makes reflection a virtue in and of itself – and it elevates the simple pleasures to higher altars.
The flaneur is not a capitalist. He’s not a socialist either. He is a man who strolls, nothing less, nothing more. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Here are some quotes from the short stories I’ve written over the last few months. I will be publishing some of these stories in online reviews in the coming months, so stay tuned. I am also sharing some photos I’ve taken from my flanerie in cities beyond my shores.
“People living outside cities is unnatural. It’s like putting a tiger in a cage or a fish up a tree. It’s ungrateful, really. Human beings, our ancestors, like, have been perfecting the city, the ideal human environment for thousands of years, and now we repay them by going back to the wild.” She shook her head and took an angry bite of her saffron rice.
“I feel trapped in a city.” Johnny said.
“That’s because you don’t know how to look, what to do you with yourself.” She sighed.
A Girl and Her Take-Away
As she ate her burger and drank her triumphant wine, Ella spent her time watching the world go by. The city seemed to be afloat. Nothing stood still. People, be they boys or men, cars, whether in traffic or racing through, buildings both alive and in the womb; everything went by so fast, leaving only a faint aftertaste in one’s mind, as if nothing was meant to last, not concrete, not friends, not flesh.
Nothing in the city lasts, Ella thought, and that’s why I love it.
Later in the afternoon, he went back to the hotel and tried to fall asleep on the damp bed. It was dark when he woke up. Outside he could hear the melody of traffic going past and the howling of dogs in the distance.
Everything sounded so big in Madrid. Everything sounded new, too. He’d heard cars before, of course, and dogs too, but in Madrid, he loved hearing them more than he loved birdsong back home.
The city is its own eco-system, he thought. The moon was half-full and it shone like a bright phone above the city’s skyline. There were no stars out but the lights of the city were just as beautiful. The boy got ready to go out.
The McDonald’s Chronicles
Tourists and locals regularly jogged and took photos under the shadow of the giant bridge. Despite being a booming metropolis, Budapest felt like a natural city. Its bricks, its roads, its squares and architecture felt as though they hadn’t been designed by man, but rather they just blossomed out of his history.
Beauty and Darkness
“Tell me, Mr. Chef, what do you find beautiful?”
He paused and thought of a million things he could say. Language suddenly felt vast and ungraspable. So he decided on the truth. “Tuna. When I first moved to Tokyo I used to spend my mornings at the Tsukiji fish market. I never bought anything. But I can remember it all. The large hall with immaculate giant tuna, like some mythical creatures, laid out in such perfect order, the sound of bells, men haggling, auctioneers speaking on mega-phones, the smell of the sea even in the heart of the city. I can’t explain it, but it just feels awesome to me.”
Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife
Evening was slowly falling. The harbour’s lights glimmered like a necklace around the neck of the peninsula. The sea was still and mat like oil. The setting sun looked to be drowning behind the old bastions, its rays fading reluctantly into night.
People were out jogging and walking their dogs. The bars and cafes were full of people smoking and drinking, their faces illuminated by the light of their phones. Traffic widened and strangled music boomed from behind the cars’ rolled-up windows.
Cara loved this time of day. It was a peaceful moment that seemed to cast a veil of innocence over the maddening city.
Cities are vertiginous places. It’s not about heights. But people who suffer from a fear of heights don’t fear the heights themselves. They fear the way their minds react to heights. They can suffer fear of heights even when rooted firmly on the ground and looking up at a tall structure. Because even then, their minds start playing games:
Climb to the top and throw yourself over the edge.
How would it feel to free-fall from twenty-stories?
Can you fly? You can fly, even if it’s just for a few seconds.
What a way to die you coward!
And in a city, people with a fear of life and of living hear the same voices. They fear the temptation of the streets, the dark buildings in the dead of night, the roads to nowhere, the bars-behind-shutters, the shadow straddling the corner.
A city is a challenge to self-restraint. That’s why churches within cities only serve one purpose: architectural flourish. Nothing else.