It is a truism to say that Paris is a city designed for pedestrians, but what is the experience for those who have trouble walking? Is it still possible to be a flâneur if physical problems prevent us from wandering freely around the city?
This was the crux of a mail I received from Patti, a reader of this blog, who is a regular visitor to Paris, and who until recently spent "lots of time nosing around alleyways and side streets". Unfortunately, she developed a problem in one of her knees last year which prevents her from walking very far, but she's determined to still keep exploring the city. She signed off with an imploring question - "what would you do if you couldn't walk properly?"
It is a question that immediately demands contemplation. What would I do? Most of the production of this blog stems from my interaction with the city on foot, and I realise that I take for granted the fact that I can turn at any corner, walk up and down steep staircases, and chance upon discoveries in cobbled backyards. Stopping to reflect, it becomes evident that Paris - like much of France - is wonderful for walkers, but an obstacle course for the disabled.
In the absence of a psychogeographical study of the city through the perspective of the disabled we can only pose questions. Does modern Paris offer free exploration to all of its inhabitants and visitors, or are whole swathes of the city off-limits to those who cannot walk properly? Does this change the way we view and interact with the city, and is it still possible to experience the serendipitous discoveries of the pedestrian if we are not on foot?
Certainly, relying on other means of movement does not always give satisfaction. Patti points out that she "cannot afford to take taxis everywhere", but such trips - where scenery flashes by unfocused - are rarely more than frustration to the flâneur anyway. The Metro is also out of the question, firstly because it divorces you from your surroundings, and secondly because in Paris it is a warren of steep staircases with very few escalators or lifts. So just how do you explore the city if your movement is restricted?
I posted the question on Twitter, and received a number of interesting suggestions.
For several people, including @Jacquesjer, the answer is the bus, and @MargaritaIP explains exactly when it is best to do this, "take the bus during off-peak hours, mid-afternoon, sit and enjoy central Paris". @mackhart, who has had similar mobility problems, gives specific examples. "When our knees gave out we enjoyed taking the bus 68 and 69 which covered most of the city between the two"
This is a suggestion I would tend to agree with, and one I have even previously written about on this blog. (Interestingly, in the comments to that post there was an interesting mini-debate on whether public transport can offer pscyhogeographical interaction with the city or not). It is also worth noting the free 'Arch-Bus' series of downloadable PDFs which point out modern architectural highlights on 12 bus lines across the city (currently published in French only).
Other forms of transport were mentioned. @LostNCheeseland suggested a "boat cruise" whilst @jbrowneparis mentioned the city's "rickshaw and pedicab services".
Two other people questioned whether mobility is essential or not for the flâneur. As @dogjaunt says, "place yourself where people walk past YOU. Sit there for a bit, find another good spot. It's all about observing anyway". Finally, @FUNDAMEMORIA offered a poetic solution to the problem - "read Baudelaire in a cafe, and imagine walking..."
Is this a situation you have ever been confronted by, and how did you deal with it? What advice would you give to an ardent flâneur in Paris whose movement is restricted?