The Secret to Finding What You Didn’t Know You Were Looking For

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I came across this accordion player while roaming my own neighborhood in Madrid. The man told me that his grandfather bought the accordion when he was a young man in Romania. “It’s 80-years old,” he told me proudly. Photo ©Mike Randolph

Earlier this year a Canadian magazine asked me to write an essay on mobile phones and travel. While working on the piece, I couldn’t help thinking that I was also writing about street photography. The similarities are clear. Street photography involves walking around and waiting (and hoping) to get lucky. That’s what makes it one of the hardest and most frustrating kinds of photography, but when it all comes together, it’s also among the most rewarding. I’m republishing it here in the hopes you find it interesting. -Mike

During a recent session of idle, 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 the whims of 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.

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Travelers at Madrid’s Atocha train station. Small cameras are key to getting these kinds of images. Photo ©Mike Randolph

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. The direction this is going is pretty clear.

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.

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The Rastro flea market in Madrid: If you need a specific kind of key cut, this guy is pretty sure to have it. Photo ©Mike Randolph

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 hotel around the corner while the missus will be getting updates about nearby Fendi stores from AroundMe and the kids, while searching tripwolf for sites they’re interested in seeing, will sound like walking wind chimes as their chat groups automatically 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.

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Early on a cold morning in the Arts and Letters barrio of Madrid, a man walks his Dalmatian while catching up on his texting. Photo ©Mike Randolph

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m advocating a return to using guidebooks. Smartphones make guidebooks look like relics from the past. You might as well scan the Dead Sea Scrolls for tips on a good falafel joint. But if you take the time to 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? Do you think apps will be any different? I once spent two days in Marrakech searching out places to eat that I had read about, but on the third day I struck out on my own. I got lost, which is both easy and fun to do in Marrakech, but ended up finding a place that served the best kebabs I had ever had.

Funny how getting lost can help you find places that you didn’t even know you were looking for. That’s hard to do with a smartphone showing you the way. Smartphones were supposed to revolutionize the experience of travel, but maybe one day we’ll look back and think 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 on vacation, from your life back home and also from your smartphone. Stroll around aimlessly, see what happens. Become a flâneur. As I said, clasping your hands behind your back is optional, but in my experience it helps. Look around, stop where you feel like it, and give luck a chance to show you something you hadn’t planned on. It almost always does, and those things usually end up being the ones worth remembering. Roaming is the best way to explore a place. And it’s free.

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5 Responses to The Secret to Finding What You Didn’t Know You Were Looking For

  1. Anna 22/09/2014 at 10:31 am #

    That accordion shot is amazing and I am sure that 99% of the people that walked by it and its owner that day were too busy or distracted to even “see” it. Before you can stop to smell the roses you have to first notice they are there! Beautiful shots. You clearly have the eye and mind to appreciate the beauty in details. Thanks for posting.

    • Mike Randolph 22/09/2014 at 10:57 am #

      Thank you Anna! I find that the most important thing is to stroll instead of walk. You go slower, contemplate things more, and notice stuff you would have missed otherwise. Thanks again.

  2. Mike Booth 22/09/2014 at 3:43 pm #

    Mike, you’re God’s gift to editors: a good photographer who can really write! Keep up the good work.

    • Mike Randolph 22/09/2014 at 3:51 pm #

      Wow Mike, that’s an awfully nice thing to say! Thank you.

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