Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Les flâneurs

We went up to the Alps last week, and while the girls and C. skiied, I wandered around the village and followed hiking trails. Sunday morning I walked up a snowy trail that ended, as it turned out, where several ski runs of varying difficulty came together into a broad piste that led down the mountain. I was wearing my warmest boots--Bean boots that were designed for milking Maine cows on winter mornings--and so I stood there and watched the skiers for a while.

The traffic on the slopes was steady. Our region was ending its first week of the two-week vacances de ski that every school in France has in February, and Paris and its region had begun its vacances a day earlier. A word about school holidays: French school vacations are staggered, with the country divided into three regions. Over a four-week period, every school child in France has two weeks off. Region A has the first two weeks, then beginning at the end of Region A's first week, Region B has two weeks; when Region A goes back to school and Region B begins week two, Region C begins week one of its vacation. And every year the order in which the regions have their vacations changes. Brought to you by the people who put 100 centimeters in a meter.

Meanwhile, back on the mountain, it was more crowded than it had been a day or two before. Not only had Parisians arrived on Saturday, but schools in Britain had begun their vacation as well. From where I was standing--well to the side of the slope, out of everyone's way--skiers came down the mountain from three directions. I watched for a while, guessing who was French and who was English (not hard: the French are better dressed, even on skis), guessing who was going to fall, guessing who was together.

Then I heard French voices close at hand, and not skiing voices. Walking voices. I turned, and three couples were walking down from the nearest ski lift. They were of a certain age--the men were mostly grey and the women mostly carefully tinted. They were not carrying skis; they were in their tenue de ville: street clothes. The women were sleek in tight jeans, turtlenecks, tailored down jackets, and boots dripping in fur and shearling. The men were in street shoes, jeans, and cashmere. Two of them had corduroy blazers slung over their shoulders. And there they all went, along the center of the slope.

This is why nonchalant is a French word. Like a good Calvinist, I was following the rules I thought existed, standing well off to the side, making sure not to get in the way of anyone's skiing, and dressed--well, at least I wasn't wearing my circa 1991 Easter-egg blue bell-bottomed nylon pants. The Bean boots were warm and sturdy and utterly lacking in style. If I had worn them into a French dairy barn, even the cows would have rolled their eyes. I had on my purple parka that is one size too big, a faux-shearling hat from a New York street vendor, hand-me-down gloves. But these French, they were strolling along as if walking down a ski slope in loafers and cashmere was the most natural thing in the world.

As I watched, they came to a steeper bit--it was, after all, a ski slope--and there was a little giggling among the women as they picked their way down it. Two of the men did not even break stride as they turned, put their blazers down on the snow, sat down, and slid down to the less steep bit. All the while talking, talking, gesturing, probably about the economy although, maybe, just about lunch.

They moved out of sight for a few minutes, and I was distracted by someone falling further up the mountain. When that person had found her skis, though, I turned back, and moved a little so that I could see where the walkers were. I figured they would have moved to the side of the slope--lower down, it was full of skiers, some of whom were going pretty fast. But when I looked, they were ambling down the center of the piste, chatting amiably. As though they were walking down an allee in the jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. Skiers, meanwhile, who had started a half mile or more up the mountain, were swerving around them on either side.

In French there is a verb, flâner, which translates as to stroll. Except that it doesn't really translate. Americans--I can't speak for the English--have a hard time strolling. It is so...aimless. So unfocussed. We need to have a place to go, a destination. Even if we make one up, we still have to be going somewhere. Our history does not encourage strolling. We are a nation of Calvinists who must not squander our time, and of immigrants who have to chase down the next opportunity. If we do stroll, then we are self-conscious about it. We are rebelling against our parents, our teachers, our history books and Sunday-school lessons.

But in France you see flaneurs all the time. Whole families on Sunday afternoons, out for a stroll, children running ahead, grandmothers lagging behind looking at the neighbor's delphiniums, young couples hand in hand. Fathers and grandfathers often get left behind at the boules court, which seems to me to be an entire sport organized around the principle of strolling back and forth. Unself-conscious. Breathing the air, right now, and being present, right here. Nevermind the skiers and their tight turns. It's a lovely morning, there's snow in the Alps, the sun is shining, there will be good things for lunch. A good time to take a stroll.

I thought about it for a while, and then I turned and walked back down the way I had come up. Small steps.

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