Why you should care
Because sometimes those who wander are not lost.
It is, in some ways, incredibly perfect that the country and the culture whose codification of the “stroll” has seen them develop a whole vocabulary to describe it, is presently pimping the 75-year-old interest in dérive (literally translated as “drifting”). In France, being a flâneur with a marked preference for flânerie is comfortably understood; in the U.S., people walking way too slow — to the subway in New York or their car in California and every type of perambulation in between — are called way worse.
But in France? A flâneur is a stroller — not something you push babies around in, but one who simply savors walks. (And a boulevardier might be one who strolls just a bit more fashionably.) When Continentals talk about Americans not being able to enjoy the finer things in life (and hikes don’t count — too much effort, too much equipment), you get the distinct sense they’re talking about this: wandering around with no particular place to go.
… discovering an unplanned city that overlays the very planned city opens the mind to new ideas and experiences.
Born out of Guy Debord’s avant-garde art-agitation movement of the 1940s, dérive (to hear Debord tell it), is about “a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.” Which is precisely what we’d call “wandering around” if we were trying to convince someone we weren’t wasting time. Which we’re very sure this is not. Because based on ideas propagated in what Debord later elaborated on as “psychogeography” — approaching an urban landscape and letting cues, clues and contours of both the architecture and geography pull you this way and that — discovering an unplanned city that overlays the very planned city opens the mind to new ideas and experiences. Sort of like parkour for lazy folks. Or, a bit more graciously, parkour for people who don’t need multiple fractures to feel like they’ve been somewhere.
“Motorized transportation strips the multiple layers of meaning away from traveling,” says Lyon resident, musician and fan of dérive Nico Poisson. His initial interest sprang from earlier attempts by American and British artists to try to revive it. But dérive is all about thought, intuition and taking note of the city that maybe you thought you knew but you had never really seen. And using Google Street View is not seeing anything. “Plus wandering, really wandering, is not as easy as it sounds. The mind and memory are always using patterns,” patterns that might subvert intuition, says philosopher and dérive fan Josefine Nauckhoff. This attitude is one that seems to be increasingly catching on, with dérive-derived events like Burning Man and Maker Faires. And because there’s always someone somewhere trying to quantify the quality of an experience, there’s even an app for those who feel naked while drifting without their phone.
“Waiting for fortune to find you seems so passive,” says Poisson. “We’re all about finding fortune.”