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083: Clear Your Head With the French Art of Flaneuring – Erika Owen

Erika Owen is a Midwest-raised, Brooklyn-based author and self-proclaimed Iceland enthusiast. Her most recent work, “The Art of Flaneuring: How to Wander with Intention and Discover a Better Life,” was published by Simon + Schuster in October 2019. You can find also her writing on Vogue, Travel + Leisure, Bon Appetit, Healthyish, Departures, and more.

In This Episode, You Will Learn:

  • The history of flaneuring.
  • How Erika flaneurs in New York City and around the globe.
  • How flaneuring can clear your head and increase creativity. 
  • The benefits of flaneuring in the workplace.

Connect with Erika:

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Interview Transcript

Erika, thanks so much for taking some time to join me today. I appreciate it.

Of course, thank you so much for thinking of me.

Yeah, so you’ve got this book that has just come out, and I’d never even heard of this word before. And if I say it wrong, my apologies to the nation of France. So what is “flaneuring” and how did you become interested in it?

Sure. So flaneuring, it’s one of those words, I think of it a lot like the word hygge. That Scandinavian term of being cozy. Everybody knows what it feels like, but they hear the word and they’re like, “What? What does that word mean? What planet does it come from?” Flaneuring I think, is very similar. And I think it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, which is one of the first things that drew me to it. For me, flaneuring is very much about getting out of my head. It’s about walking without intent. Not having a destination in mind.

Which for somebody who is busy, we’re all busy, it’s hard to do that. So it’s kind of a special act to me. It’s part of my, if you want to call it, self-care routine. And I was first drawn to it through travel. It was definitely trying to experience places in a different way, in a way that felt genuine to me. And my immediate response when I’m looking for an authentic experience, is to become part of the wallpaper and just watch. It’s a task that doesn’t ask much of you. It just asks you to exist in a space.

And so when did you actually hear the word? When were you introduced to it?

Sure. So there’s a really great book that I knew about before I started working on this with Simon & Schuster, and it’s called Flaneuse. It’s by a woman named Lauren Elkin. It is a wonderful book about her own experience in traveling around the world, and using flaneuring is almost a form of therapy for her. And that’s the first time I had heard about it. It really opened my mind to all the different things that flaneuring could mean to somebody. For me it was purely a physical escape. Mental escape too in the fact that you’re not asking anything of your brain. But she was using it as a very active way to get through some tough stuff in her life, and also journaling about that experience. Which I think is pretty powerful.

And in your book, you reference her work and some of the history of flaneuring. Which man, I was really interested in that. So break it down of where this came from. Who was involved with it? And even who wasn’t supposed to be involved in it?

Sure. So if you look back, there are histories of flaneurs all by different types of names as well. Dandies, I think would also play into that; the English dandies. But the original flaneur is turn of the century France. It was a group of men who were seen as highly intellectual. They were going on long walks, gathering observations and different elements of what was going on around them, to create poetry for party talk, for artwork, for essays, anything they were working on. The tough part about that is usually women were not included in this group, so to call a woman flaneur was not a nice thing to call that particular woman. The idea was she was a lady of the night.

So that was something I really tried to address in the book. That flaneuring is for everybody. It’s for men, it’s for women. If you’re in a wheelchair, there is a certain way that you can flaneur and explore a place in that way as well. Driving, if you live in the middle of the Midwest where I grew up, and walking down a highway is not good for your health or it’s too cold to get out and walk, I think there’s a way to do it as well while you’re driving.

Now what I think is interesting when we talk about walking, because we are talking about walking, not that it can’t be done like you said, in a car or in a wheelchair, or some other form of transportation. Is that in my area in Southern California, most people walk for one reason, and that’s to walk the dog. We just walk the dog. Obviously some people are runners and everything, but I see lots of people in the afternoons or evenings walking their dog.

When you think of your experiences overseas, traveling in an international space, take me through. You arrive, you land, you go to your Airbnb or hotel or whatever it is, what are you next thoughts in terms of how you’re going to explore that area or that city?

Sure. So whenever I plan a trip, I used to be just type A. I had to have every hour planned, something to do, something to Instagram. I was very much that kind of traveller, and I’m very thankful that I’ve migrated away from that. But a lot of that work comes in, I think ahead of time. And it’s, what are the important things that I want to do? And then I’ll plan those for maybe a day, and then I leave certain days completely open. So I go to Iceland once a year. I really love that space and I think it’s an amazing country to flaneur in as well. And to use that as an explicit example here, I would get there, I would choose an area that I’ve been interested in.

Whether it’s in Reykjavik for a certain reason of people watching, or if it’s in Pingvellir national park for the sake of really interesting geography or a pretty rock lava formation, whatever, something that I want to see. So that is my main driver. I’ll find something that inspires me usually through the landscape and I’ll just go. It’s tough because a lot of the times when I’m travelling, it does require a little bit of driving to get there. And that I know is a little bit against the ideology of flaneuring. But once you get there, just make a very clear intent to not think about which direction you’re going in.

Granted it depends where you are, and some safety plays into that. There are a lot of really deep crevices and ridges in Iceland that you don’t want to be falling down. So I love flaneuring with a friend as well, and I think it’s a really fun thing to do to experience a place with someone you love, without any kind of agenda on your mind. I give myself an afternoon and when I start to get hungry, I’ll head back to the car. I’ll head back to a spot that looked particularly enticing on my walk. And I’ll just spend some time thinking about what I just saw. I usually don’t write about, which is kind of interesting considering I do so much writing. Journaling about my flaneuring is not usually a thing I do.

But you talk about that in the book though. You suggest that that’s a possibility.

I have a lot of friends who do it and love it, but it doesn’t stick with me all the time. It has to be right mood.

This word sounds so upscale, so rich, so lavish, so luxurious. Like, “What are you doing today honey?” “I’m going to go flaneuring.” It’s like, “What?” Do you get pushback on that, or is like, “No, this is kind of hoity toity kind of thing.”

It’s become my dad’s new favorite word. He loves to drop it in whenever he can in phone conversations. But I haven’t had any pushback in terms of it being hoity toity. I agree with you, it is a very fancy word. And I would argue, we were talking a little bit about the word hygge too. That’s more of a silly sounding word versus fancy, but it’s one that catches people’s attention. A lot of people had mentioned that they had heard of it before, but had no idea what it is. And are a little delighted when I explain it, and they realize that it’s something that they’ve probably been doing most of their life. I think that the level of how relatable it is, once they give me a chance to explain helps.

Sure, sure. Okay, so let’s talk about the benefits. You mentioned these a little bit, but I want to be explicit about, what are some of the benefits here?

Yeah. So again, I think it really depends on the person. For me personally, and that’s what I can really speak to, is I find that the moment I decide to take a walk, go on a flaneuring session, it’s not like a weight is off my shoulders but I’m usually sitting at my desk with my shoulders around my ears. That kind of level. It just drops. Everything drops a little bit. For me, just giving myself the approval to go do something that is good for my brain and not necessarily productive for much else in today’s working world. It’s not sending an email. It’s not texting someone back. It’s just taking “me” time.

So I think that’s a really important thing to have in your day-to-day. And I’ve spoken with a couple people in the book too, who chatted about the benefits of meditation and walking meditation specifically. And I think that this does play into that. I’ve worked through many issues on my flaneurs. Just whatever’s happening in life, work through a tough work issue. It’s not necessarily intending to head one direction physically, but it is working through something in my brain and the different scenarios. There’s always a physical aspect of it as well. I think walking is amazing if you can do it. If you have the time to do it, the ability to do it, it’s good to just get outside and have some fresh air.

I loved all the different perspectives that you interwove in the book in terms of you interviewing people that you knew in your own life. Others, and what their experience was. That was very fun to hear from others. So let’s say that I want to get started with this, maybe I’ve done it a little bit my whole life. I’m not going on an international trip anytime soon. How can I test the waters? How can I jump in here?

Yeah, when I first moved to New York, and I think it does help when you’re in a new city. Although I will argue that whenever I travel back to Wisconsin where my parents live, I re-discover my home town in all kinds of ways just from walking around. It’s so different to experience a place in person, feeling the cold air on your face, smelling a certain smell in a certain part to town. Versus being in your car listening to music that transports you somewhere else.

It is so different. Just to interrupt you real quick. I went with my wife and daughter to walk our dog last Saturday, and our daughter doesn’t usually join us. She’s twenty and she’s at college, and so she joined us. And she said, “Wow, I never even noticed all of these things.” We were pointing out all these things, and it’s the streets that we drive every single day. From the flowers, to the dogs, to the fences. It’s not revolutionary things, but they’re very interesting.

Oh, flowers. That is something I notice every time I walk. Even in my neighborhood just down the street that I live on, how they change. I love my neighbors in the building next to us, but they cannot keep a plant alive. So I love seeing the different plants that they incorporate into their stoop area, it’s pretty fun. I have to ask, what kind of dog do you have? I love dogs.

Our dog, her name is Lexie. Officially Lexington, but my family said, “Too much.” And she is twelve years old. I think she’s half terrier, half dachshund, and @lexingtontrotter on Instagram. We don’t post very often.

Love it.

Yeah, she’s great.

Yeah, I think dog walking is an incredible way to flaneur as well.

Do you have a dog?

I don’t, but I grew up with a Border Collie black Lab mix we loved, named Spot. He was wonderful.  He was hard to walk, because if you gave him a little bit of leeway, he would bolt. And he was strong, so I don’t know if I would ever go flaneuring with Spot if he were still around to be honest.

The problem is dogs love to flaneur. That’s the problem.

And if you want to let them take the reins, that honestly a great way to start. The one thing that my friends have told me is, “I can’t get my mind to shut off. I can’t tell myself not to choose where I’m going.” Which is so hard, and I respect that. And I have a lot of trouble with that depending on the day. And I think one thing that I chat about in the book, and it’s potentially one of my favorite elements, is the idea of flaneuring games. Matt, who I spoke to, and he’s quoted in the book, introduced this idea to me. And it’s very simple. It’s walking around and setting maybe one rule to keep your brain busy. So if I see someone in a red jacket, I’m going to take a left turn. That’s it. You just go around. It’s definitely better done in a cityscape, as opposed to out in the middle of nowhere.

I might be walking forever if I ever tried to wait for somebody in a red jacket.

Yeah, of course. So maybe customize it to your location. But that’s something that I’ll pull out if I find myself, I’ll walk down a street and be like, “Oh, I remember this amazing café down this way. Maybe I should stop by.” I’m like, “No, don’t do that. Pick a color jacket and you’re just going to follow that color wherever you see it.” Or even just in general, a color. I think that’s a good way to start, especially for people who aren’t travelling anytime soon. I think it’s something anybody can do. It’s not just an international activity by any means.

As I was mentioning, when I first moved to New York, I had no money, as many other people who first move to New York. So I would put twenty dollars in my pocket and I would get off the train somewhere in a neighborhood I had never been, and I would have enough for lunch and maybe something else. And I would just wander and explore. And that has brought a whole new depth to this city for me, and I think I would have left years ago had I not done something like that.

Wow. One of the things in the book that really intrigued me, is your expansion of the concept of flaneuring beyond just physical walking. You talked about in the workplace, via computer, some other ways. Would you mind expanding that concept for us? So we’ve got the kind of walking – not aimlessly, but what’s a short definition would you say? Walking with intention?

I would say walking without intent.

Without intent, there we go.

Yeah, or letting the route take you somewhere. That’s how I’ve described it to other people. Yeah, giving into a route, as opposed to planning it yourself.

Sure. I don’t know why this comes to my mind, but when I was growing up malls were a thing.

Oh, yes.

Malls are not really a thing now, but back in the 80’s, 90’s. And my dad, we’d go to the mall and my dad would be like, “Stay to the right. We’ve got to stay to the right.” You just stay to the right the whole way.

That is kind of funny.

You could not cross over to the other side as a family. It was like, “No, we’re just going to stay to the right and go the whole way.” I’ve got that engrained in my head, Erika. Stay to the right.

That sounds about right to me. The Janesville Mall, that’s the closest mall we had to me growing up in my family. It also reminds me, you say stay to the right and I have this automatic traumatic memory of being on the wrong side of an escalator in New York City when people are trying to get by. Because they will just push you. They’ll push you around if you’re standing on the left-hand side and they need to get down or out. So yeah, I feel you.

All right, so let’s expand this idea of flaneuring for people beyond just walking. What are some of the other ways that we can explore without intent?

Yeah, so I think there’s a chapter all about flaneuring at work. And that was the hardest chapter that I had to work on. Just because flaneuring outside was so familiar to me. Getting outside, walking around, walking on the weekends, walking with friends, that was something I knew very well. And as I was writing this, having a fulltime job and working on this book, it’s funny and counter-intuitive how much stress there was going on for a book that is supposed to be all about getting rid of some stress. It forced me to figure out different ways to act on that flaneuring process promise while I was doing my daily work. So one that I really love, and I do almost every day, is I call it cyber flaneuring and it’s good Google Earth based.

So picking a location, and usually I’ll choose different areas of Scandinavia, just because I have a really big interest in geography there. It can be anywhere, just drop a pin, whatever. Somewhere on the planet, and zoom in to the Google Earth view and take a look at what’s around. Take ten, fifteen minutes. I promise it will take you out of whatever headspace to a small extent, to a big extent. Help you clear a little bit. I think that’s been a really powerful one that I’ve practiced and learned about. And it was actually the suggestion of a friend who was like, “Oh, do you ever spend time on Google Earth?” And it was like a lightbulb went off. I’m like, “Wait a second.” That’s a great way to explore the world without even going outside if it’s the middle of winter or something.

And for people that haven’t done that, that’s not just an overhead view. You can actually go onto the street view and literally walk the streets of the world.

Paris. Hong Kong. Wherever you want to go. It’s amazing. And sometimes I do like to go to places I’ve already been just to start off. Maybe it’s a street in Reykjavik, maybe it’s somewhere in Lisbon. But then you’ll find yourself zooming out and piecing together, “Oh, I know where this is, but what is over here, or what is here?” I feel like it’s a really good brain activity. It’s very creative. So it’s been an important part of that. And the one I mentioned earlier too, that was interesting, was flaneuring while you’re driving. It sounds dangerous because the whole idea is that you don’t have a route in mind and you’re just giving in, which is the exact opposite of what you should be doing while you’re driving. But growing up in the Midwest, we did a lot of Sunday drives.

Go out for a drive.

Yeah. Yeah, especially when it was too hot to do anything else. My dad would entice us with dollar ice cream cones from McDonalds and then we would just go on a drive while we ate that ice cream. And it’s something that I’ve been doing, and I didn’t realize that not everyone really does this. Whenever I go back home I’ll ask to borrow the car, which is a thing I have to do now again, which is so funny to me. I feel like I’m sixteen. I’ll take a drive around the lake that we live near. And the lake is just the destination.

Go down a road I’ve never been down. Whatever it may be, whatever looks interesting. Sometimes there are new roads, which is always fun to explore. And that I see as a way of flaneuring as well. You’re expanding your mind map of a place that you’re very familiar with, but you’re experiencing it in a different way. Maybe it’s the light of the day is different than the last time you remember. Or maybe the last time you were there, you were fourteen years old. It’s been a really beautiful way to re-discover a special place.

That’s pretty much how I drive and that’s why my wife drives everywhere. If we go somewhere, she’s the one driving, because she does not want us to take forever to get there. Because I’m like, “I think it’s over here, we’ll just go this direction.”

Yeah, my boyfriend is very similar. He’s a photographer and he loves taking candid shots, which I support. But if we’re trying to get to a certain place by a certain time. He also picked up Ikebana, the Japanese art of floral arrangement, which I love. But now he likes to stop and look at different plants that he could potentially take a branch from. Which I also support, but I just stand back and watch it happen. I’m like, “This is flaneuring. You are the ultimate flaneur.”

“Yeah, and we’re late. Hurry up! Quit flaneuring.” That’s pretty funny. You say that out in public kind of loud.

Yeah.

I am a pretty focus-driven person, and so a lot of what you’re talking about feels like a total waste of time. I mean, a total waste of time. Why am I doing this? Talk me into it if I’m a type A person. You’ve already given me some great benefits, but I don’t know. I get those benefits by going to get a massage, or going to meditate, or whatever. Talk me into wandering aimlessly.

Sure. So you mentioned getting a massage and going to meditate. I think this is actually the easiest possible way – and I mentioned it’s a part of my self-care routine. And I think it is a part of many other’s peoples, whether you want to call it that or something else. It’s free. It’s a free thing to do. It’s friendly for all budgets, which I really, truly do love. I do believe that anybody can do it. It’s tough when you look at the experience of me versus the experience of maybe a young black woman who wants to have a similar intent of going out and walk. It’s a different type of thing that you have to approach in terms of safety. But anybody can be doing this.

It’s budget friendly. It is a waste of time, but I think that there’s some beauty in that. With how productive everybody is nowadays, and how connected we are. Our eyes are glued to screens, which I feel the effect of that. I know that I stare at screens more than others probably do, but I talk to my parents and they also feel the effect of that. So I think that just getting outside and re-experiencing a familiar space, and adding depth to your experience and how you interact, and how you appreciate the different things in your life. You could definitely argue that is a waste of time, but I think after doing it for a month or just even a couple of weeks, just noticing the first time that something looks a little bit different than you remembered is pretty delightful.

And I would add that kids are natural flaneurs. They just explore. My kids are older now, so they’re not as much into that. But we will sometimes take a trip to Los Angeles and it’s like, “Oh, we’re just going to take pictures, or explore, or find a restaurant.” We have no destination necessarily, it’s driving and exploring and seeing things we’ve never seen before. But kids have a natural tendency to do that, and I think if we allowed our kids to kind of lead the way in the same way that we even talked about our pets leading the way. There’s this natural exploration and curiosity.

Really a lot of what you’re talking about too is curiosity. It’s cultivating a curiosity that ultimately I think would benefit us in the workplace. It also expands my mind to other cultures or ways that people live. Because I’ll walk by someone’s house or drive by, and if I’m noticing, “Oh, interesting. Look at how they’ve got that. I would never do that, but that’s -.” If I’m coming from a place of non-judgement, just out of a place of curiosity. A place of seeking to understand, without ever really talking to them. But just seeing it.  It expands my mind. It expands my empathy. It expands my curiosity.

It seems like that curiosity, it creates space in my brain. It creates curiosity that I can bring back into my work to not feel like, “Okay, I’ve always done it this way. I’ve always thought about this thing this way. I’ve always done this task this way. I’ve always connected with this person this way.” Is it possible that wandering creates space for more curiosity in the workplace? That’s what I’m thinking.

Yeah. Of course, yeah. There are so many times, and I’ve found myself taking just laps around the building here at work. And starting out the window or just standing in front of a window and watching people pass below. Because I’ve had to leave my desk because I’m frustrated with something. And I come back and I can solve it or figure it out, or create a better presentation or something around those lines. Just from taking a quick little break.

Yeah, yeah. I enjoyed the book. I really did. And I thought it was so fascinating how it expanded my mindset of something that is pretty simple. It’s a pretty simple concept. But it really expanded it to encourage me to think about it in a more holistic way. I do want to encourage people, you should get the book, and it’s on Kindle. Is it on audiobook yet? Maybe?

Yes, it is. Yeah, it should be available through Amazon, I believe.

Fancy. The Art of Flaneuring: How to Wander with Intention and Discover a Better Life. And you write all over the place too. Other places, you write. And so if people want to read your articles, what’s the best way for them to go and check those out?

Sure. Yeah, I’m always promoting them on my Instagram, which is just @erikaraeowen. But also my personal website, which is just my full name .com as a link well with all of those. It’s a lot of Iceland stories.

A lot of Iceland stories, my goodness. Yeah. Good. Well, we’ll obviously have all of that in the show notes. Erika, it’s so great to meet you. Do you have another book in the works? Any thoughts? Not that you have to, but do you have anything coming?

Yeah, there are two things I’m working. There’s one more that I’m working on with Simon & Shuster that should be out, I’d say Fall 2021. It’s called Law Breaking Ladies as a working title. And it’s biographies of various rebellious women. So female pirates, female mafia leaders, crime lords, that kind of thing. Just very straightforward biographies and illustrations. It’s pretty fun so far.

Female flaneurs.

Yeah, there might be some of those in there. I haven’t come across any yet, but I’m sure.

It could be you. You could write about yourself then.

It could be me. The pre-requisite is that they have to had been arrested, so we’ll see.

Whoa.

Yeah.

We could arrange that somehow. I could call you in, “We’ve got a shady character walking down 19th Street.”

Wasn’t Jane Fonda? She was just arrested, right? It can’t be too hard.

There you go. Thank you so much Erika, I appreciate it.

Yeah, thank you. Thank you.

thank you!