The Flaneur’s Guide to Roaming

During a recent session of idle, seemingly aimless surfing on the internet, I was interested to discover that apparently I am what the French call a flâneur, which, it turns out coincidentally, is a person who enjoys exploring places in an idle, seemingly aimless way. There’s not much to it. Put simply, you go to some place and you stroll around. Clasping your hands behind your back is optional.

Just about the only mistake you can make as a flâneur is by walking instead of strolling. Walking implies a purpose and a destination and the true flâneur has neither of these things in mind when setting out. Not to sound too zen about it, but the objective is not to have an objective, other than simply wandering around, stopping when you feel like it, where you feel like it, maybe lounging a bit, but mostly just taking it all in while leaving yourself open to serendipity.

The French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire wrote an adoring portrait of the flâneur, saying among many other flowery things, that, “His passion and his profession is to become one flesh with the crowd.” (I agree, though personally I’m not so keen on the ‘flesh’ part.) A 19th-century Larousse dictionary was more ambivalent, defining flânerie as an even mix of curiosity and laziness. (I agree, except for the ‘even’ part.) Boulevardier or loafer, I guess it depends on your point of view. Maybe we could meet in the middle and simply call it roaming.

Of course, the thing about the word roaming is that the first image that comes to mind is no longer, say, a pleasant afternoon spent exploring the cobblestone side streets of the Left Bank. Today roaming conjures the shock of getting back from a vacation and discovering you owe your mobile phone carrier nearly as much as it costs to launch a communications satellite into orbit. But that’s about to change. If a proposed EU law passes next year, roaming fees in Europe will be a thing of the past.

Now, some might say that European commissioners have not distinguished themselves when it comes to law making. But I couldn’t disagree more. They most certainly have, though perhaps not in the way they would have liked. Some recent gems of EU legislation include banning bottled water companies from claiming that water helps prevent dehydration, blocking British jam makers from using the word ‘jam’ on their labels because their products didn’t have enough sugar, and my personal favourite, a 1998 law prohibiting the sale of bananas that are too short or that have an “abnormal curvature.”

But now they’ve moved beyond regulating the shape of everyone’s bananas to getting rid of roaming fees and I think we can all agree they’re on the right path. While this new law applies only to countries in the EU, if history is any guide it will soon become a worldwide trend. In Canada and the US many carriers already offer country-wide calling with no extra charge. North America-wide will be next. Then, eventually, everywhere.

Constant connectivity, oh boy! It’s almost here, but when it comes, we might realize that there’s no fun in being away when you’re not really away from anything. How do you think that’s going to change your next trip to Paris, when you don’t have to save your emails, tweets, Instagrams, tumblrs, Yelps, Facebook updates and weather checks until the next time you find a place with free wifi? Well, I’ll tell you. Instead of fiddling with smartphones in small, compartmentalized chunks of time, people will be at it all day long. You know, just like home.

This goes beyond you using your smartphone. Your smartphone will also be using you. There is, as everyone knows, an app for everything, but travel apps are the holy grail to developers because they can ask for your location and sell advertising based on that. So the next time you take your family to Rome, prepare yourself for this scenario: Trip Advisor will be pinging you with emails about a restaurant around the corner while the missus will be getting updates about nearby Fendi stores from AroundMe and the kids will sound like walking wind chimes as their chat groups update on WhatsApp. And all the while the sun is setting on the Castel Sant’Angelo and none of you stops for even a second to appreciate it, except when young Tommy finds a shot of it on Flickr from a better angle and you all look down at the small screen and say, wow.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m advocating a return to using guidebooks. Smartphones make guidebooks look like exhibits in a museum. You might as well scan the Dead Sea Scrolls for tips on a good falafel joint. But if you think about it, have the majority of your best travel memories–gastronomic or otherwise–resulted from something you read in a guidebook? For that matter, have any of them? Smartphones were supposed to revolutionize the experience of travel, but maybe one day we’ll look back and find they ruined the best part of it. Travel is about discovering new things about the world and it’s hard to discover new things after you’ve already read about them. 

My advice is to go out and explore. Stroll around aimlessly, see what happens. Become a flâneur. Give luck a chance to show you something you didn’t expect to see.  That’s what I call a good roaming plan.