The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

La flâneuse

Yasmin Omar

“She adored Paris. She idolized it all out of proportion. To her, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of Cole Porter.”[1]

Since my acquisition of a Parisian postcode I have appropriated the Baudelairian art of wandering. This involves planting myself in an unfamiliar arrondissement and getting lost in the city’s cobweb of boulevards, streets and alleyways. I inhale the doughy aromas emanating from the patisseries. I become cocooned in a pupa of dusty tomes at second hand bookstalls. I ineffectively suppress my sniggers every time I spy a game of pétanque. Being a solitary traveller has allowed me to collect scraps of conversation and piece together a tapestry of daily French life.  “#je t’aime”… “Maman, maman, écoute, je veux te lire ce poème”… “La musique moderne est morte”… “Ce n’est pas un bon vin”…

But simply viewing a tapestry is a far cry from stitching one yourself. It seemed as if even meeting the gaze of a Frenchman was a capital offense. I couldn’t help but imagine a disdainful stranger menacingly brandishing a baguette as a sort of makeshift épée, leaving me feebly clutching the only weapon in my arsenal: a Marmite smeared crumpet. I had been ushered, kicking and screaming, into solitary confinement. Much to the chagrin of health and safety officers everywhere, there wasn’t an emergency exit in sight. I remained submerged in the darkness of anonymity. Pretty ironic given that Paris breathed life into the Enlightenment movement.   

It started with a job interview.

“So you’re applying for an internship at a fashion magazine?” my father asked, “Like…” (The Devil Wears Prada? Coco Before Chanel?) “…Ugly Betty?” Thanks Daddy. Love you too.

Granted, I was out of my depth. What did I know about fashion? As I blared out Lana del Rey and trawled through Vogue’s online catalogue I wondered what kind of detestable wannabe hipster I had become. I considered dip dying my hair and getting my nose pierced to facilitate my assimilation into the lace trimmed universe of haute couture. Instead I painted my nails black. It was the edgiest thing I could conceive of. There was no time for an existential crisis. I had an interview to prepare for. 

Later that day I arrived at the company offices. I perched myself awkwardly on the sofa Ludovic had gestured towards, trying not to be engulfed by the plentiful upholstery, as he went upstairs to fetch his notes. I was alone. I surveyed the scene. Models in muted beige glared at me from photo boards and the carcasses of decapitated mannequins slumped against mirrors. Eerie. “Look at you!” Ludovic exclaimed. “It’s like you don’t know what to do with your body! Relax.” I have never been in possession of my own skin, good sir. I often wonder who has been flouncing around in it for the past twenty years… The conversation turned to my future employment and I elaborated on details from my CV whilst an errant pug prodded at my toes. “So are you coming to the party or what?” my potential boss inquired. I accepted the invitation. If I wanted to work there I was going to have to show myself as a team player.   

It was a carnival, a panoply of creatives sprawled in beanbags musing on the feminist implications of the latest Palme d’Or winner. I fiddled with the fabric on my skirt, mentally formulating something vaguely intelligent to say. How do you say scopophilia in French? 

“It’s clearly just another case of male voyeurism, am I right?” a polka dotted creature stated. “La Vie d’Adèle could have easily chartered a heterosexual relationship but the director delighted in shooting the spectacle of female nudity.”

“Nonsense! I heard on the radio that Kechiche deliberately made the sex scenes seven minutes long to imitate the average length of intercourse. He’s merely concerned with verisimilitude.”

“What do you think?”

I had been posed a question. The expectation of an esoteric response hung in the air. “Umm… I agree with you. Absolutely.” With whom you moron? They’re each defending mutually exclusive arguments. You’ve seen the film, you can do better than that. My inner voice helpfully reminded me. Bit late now, brain. I excused myself, picking up shreds of my pride en route to the drinks’ table. 

At that moment, a bearded, bespectacled man approached me. We exchanged slivers of small talk. “So what do you do?” I ventured.

“I’m an editor.”

“Oh really? What do you edit?”

“Advertisements. And porn films.”

“Ah. Sounds… fun.” Probably not the most apposite adjective but it was the first one I could muster in my second language.  

A woman stepped over the ballerina poised in the box splits to join us. “This is my muse,” the editor explained “I can only photograph her, she’s an editor too.” 

I could have left there and then. If I had found myself in this situation over summer I undoubtedly would have done so. But my experiences over these past few weeks are gradually demolishing the wall separating my comfort zone from the great unknown. 

“So what kind of editing do you specialise in: jump cuts, continuity…?” I ripped a loose brick out of the wall.

“We’re not all that cinematographic,” admitted the woman “We love la Nouvelle Vague but our projects don’t really incorporate its style.” 

And we were off. The rest of the evening was spent in a rapturous discussion of 1960s cinema: Godard, Bazin, Truffaut, the works. All set to the rhythm of wine glasses being refilled and cheese platters being served. The pair’s party trick was to have someone name any Michel Legrand song — “Whichever one you want, we’re not fussed.” — and then they would perform the chorus, transporting us to Jacques Demy’s enchanted world.    

Hemingway dubbed Paris “a moveable feast.” So to sample this banquet, you must follow its unpredictable course, grab hold of its tablecloth and not let it speed off without you. At least, that’s what I intend to do.     

[1] Adapted from Manhattan, Woody Allen  


Yasmin Omar is an undergraduate at Cambridge University, UK, currently studying abroad in Paris, France.