I followed the river toward the Uffizi Gallery where I stopped, enchanted by the scene below. A handful of people, some barefoot, others in striped socks, were sunning themselves, eating and drinking red wine at cafe tables, and reading newspapers in Adirondack chairs on a grassy bank of the Arno. What looked like a Slim Aarons photograph was the Società Canottieri Firenze, the Florence rowing club, a respite tucked under the Uffizi where, at any moment, a member might slip into a boat and glide away.
This sort of aimless strolling is conducive to savoring, to finding joy in the moment, a practice that some social scientists have found can be cultivated and may help lead to a more fulfilling life. In “Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience,” the scholars Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff describe savoring not as mere pleasure, but as an active process that requires presence and mindfulness. It’s “a search for the delectable, delicious, almost gustatory delights of the moment,” as they put it.
By walking a city in this engaged yet relaxed fashion, we may also become more open to the unexpected, to the little surprises that sometimes turn out to be the best part of a day, or an entire vacation.
Walking after dinner in New York one early September evening, I cut through Lincoln Center. The night was sultry and as I neared the Metropolitan Opera House, I heard music. A few steps later, I found myself at the edge of a hushed crowd at an outdoor screening of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Only a moment ago I was on the sidewalk. Suddenly, I was at the opera. I don’t remember what I ate for dinner that night, but I still recall the happy feeling of unexpectedly stepping into that tableaux. I thought of what the sociologist Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber, a researcher at Columbia University, wrote in “The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science,” their investigation into the word’s history: “When out of uncertainty and the absence of control there emerge good things, they are doubly welcome — they suggest that the gods are smiling.”
In addition to nurturing the ability to savor, strolling can be a way to begin to understand the cities we visit. In Tokyo, the sidewalks were my introduction to the city’s architecture, food and folklore, sparking what would become an abiding affection for Japan. Wandering neighborhoods amid contemporary and modernist buildings, temples, shrines, markets, Metro stations and department store food halls with bento boxes and Bel Amer chocolates almost too exquisite to eat, helped to slowly reveal the city.
The early flâneurs were typically students of modernity, interested in their own time and place. Yet strolling is an undeniably engaging way to plumb a city’s past. Clues are everywhere. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of going slowly enough to notice signs and historical markers. Other times, an object or architectural detail that piques your interest — a gate, a gargoyle — provides a portal to another time. Stories of vanished ages can be triggered by a single stone, then explored back home through books and websites. When I was traveling in Istanbul everything in the streets — the carts selling simit, sesame-seed-covered bread rings; the tables of books at the Sahaflar Carsisi, the used-book bazaar; the crumbling, vertiginous steps between the Bosporus and the cafes of Cihangir; the wooden waterside homes called yalis; the minarets and calls to prayer — all told stories of a teeming city as it is and was.
Being in a big city among so many strangers can be at turns exhilarating and disturbing. In 19th-century Paris, the anonymity of the crowd and questions of identity fueled dark imaginings and gave rise to stories like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” as Walter Benjamin writes in “The Flâneur,” a chapter in “Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism.”