There was a time when my relationship with the city was physical, built through my journeys, my wanderings and my incursions. It lasted as long as I could see. From my adolescence, when I started to go to Porto alone, until the day I could no longer see the city with my own eyes, I maintained with it a relationship of fascination and of creation of understanding. I am not in favour of self-contemplation, so I will not unroll here memories in a narcissistic expansion of one’s own navel. Our life does not interest to others because it is ours, but because it touches theirs. What I am saying here can’t be summed up in one sentence: I have become a flanêur of my city. The flanêur is the one who hovers. The chronicler João do Rio, who hovered endlessly over Rio de Janeiro, said he wandered, thus capturing the city’s scene and the obscene. The one who hovers knows how to catch the almost imperceptible aromas of what happens, the fine particles that detach themselves from the anonymous bubbling and weave the day-to-day life of the city. Sometimes, one flies low, when something more intense has the force of light in the path of the insect. And then he returns to his wandering with no purpose but to exhaust himself in the experience of seeing, smelling and feeling. Walking there, passing by again and again, entering the same places and new ones and being amazed by them all without really being amazed by any of them. The flâneur is a passer by – a trance-unit, one who is in a trance by the simple fact of hovering.


The flanêur discovers, in the city he wanders, the singularity of not being able to reduce it to any other, even when he draws parallels with those he knows. He has the perception of singularity and knows that everything he sees and feels, in the flow of all the things that cross and invade him in that city, is intense, full, and fleeting. What happens at each moment is exhausted in the fullness of the instant, either you live it right there, or you don’t take it in your pocket anywhere. Those who carry the city in their pocket are the photo hunters of mass tourist, those who stroll in Disneyland, but these are not flanêurs. The flâneur is, to a great extent, the opposite of the tourist who gets drunk on images: he does not believe in the 10-by-15 portrait as a possibility of fixing the real. Most of those who hover born and die without writing a line about what they like best: the pulse of their city — their city and not just any city. They would write the profusion of sensations, they would write the solitude and the party, the winter drunkenness in an empty alley and the burning eroticism of certain velvet places that only life without too many concessions to discipline can offer. They would write but they do not write, because that would be to replace the pleasure of the street for the insipid quietude of the office. On my next coming to earth I would like to be a full-time flanêur and to concentrate, in the too short and too long space of a lifetime, all the fibres and veins of the city I fell in love with.


One day, out of necessity for a profession, I asked myself what I could be without ceasing to be a flanêur. And I found out: to be an urban ethnographer. Of deviant behaviour, because of those who behave well there there is not much to say. I started to feel and to write and to say the city by profession. It was a matter of turning it into something more than a lover. Or less of something, because there’s nothing more substantial than a mistress. This less something was to make the city the object of rational analysis. It was a professional demand, but also a new stage of hovering — because the flanêur does not hibernate. I became an urban ethnographer and started to sell my city in classes, books and congresses. And in meetings of ethnographers, where everyone was very fond of their city, each one of theirs and all of the city in general, as at a picnic where everyone’s lunch is brought together and everyone tastes everyone else’s.


Meanwhile, the lack of sight and the threat of blindness happened. At that time, I had an all-terrain bicycle which I used every day to ride around the city. I bought it to ride in the mountains, but I soon discovered that my transmontanas’* roots had been curtailed by the breath of the city. The clean air of the big spaces made me dizzy, the horizon was too far away — and I was soon overcome by a restlessness that, if I had the imprudence to see a psychiatrist, would have been transformed into a morbid state. But everything dissipated as soon as I reached my town, regardless of how threatening certain streets were to those who looked at them for the first time. That’s how the city got to fully know me. It let me walk down its dress like one does with a mistress, sometimes taking it off just for me, and then I saw with my own increasingly weakened eyes things that I shall be ashamed to tell to whomsoever, as Régio used to say of his Portalegre city in the upper Alentejo. I discovered paths that led me to promontories overlooking the over the landscape, and from there I gathered images that I knew were the last ones; I unveiled paths between pieces of woodland lost on the edge of the Douro, and, close to the water, I picked up the last glimmers from that greenish green mirror. I was a happy flanêur – the flanêur of the bicycle. I remember stopping at certain high points from where one could see the river and the line of the houses and the noises that coiled together, coming from afar, in a deep throat. From the high points the city shows not only its pose, but above all its voice. It breathes and gasps — like beings circulated by blood. I remained there on my bicycle, with the balance sustained on a single foot against the ground. Standing still, looking out over the murmuring placidity of it all. In the distance the whole city is serene. Close by, it becomes noise, it jostles us in its indifferent arteries, giving off the smell of urine that sleeps on the corners — until we close our eyes and see how ugly, disorderly and absurd it is.


The intense thing about a city is that it contains the best and the worst. As a question of professional duty, the ethnographer of deviant behaviour must nurture an interest in the worst. As a matter of unfathomable destiny, so must the flanêur. The deviant is supposed to be the tumultuous and evil side of the city, the side where he expresses the wounds and shows, whoever comes by, how full and miserable one is, lord and servant in the entrails of the great beast. The nooks and crannies, the hollows and the alleys, terraces and small squares and grass in the midst of sad buildings, dirty groves with ducks on standing lakes, but also the full light of the great arteries — everything in it contains all the opposites simultaneously. It is tricky, it deceives the tourist by showing him the beautiful. The tourist is the fool of beauty. And he hunts for it in images fixed by Japanese cameras. A Japanese may have the whole world at home in photographs. The flanêur may have had the whole world in a deep dive that later he can neither tell nor show on a social network. Anyway, in those pauses where I let the city talk to me, sitting on my bicycle with a single foot on the ground and the sight of castaway looking for the shore, I often thought about how everything I saw would soon disappear from my eyes. For those times, I swallowed as much of the landscape as I could. Now, the contractors and mayors can come, and change the city: they can do little against me. I shall no longer see the nonsense they do, the grotesque ways in which they tear the bride’s dress. She took it off just for me and I ran all over her skin when I lay on her like this, sliding down her flanks with my bicycle.

Luís Fernandes

Published on 11-11-2022

Text and image originally published in the book: Pires, Bernardino (2022). A cidade do Porto na obra do fotógrafo Bernardino Pires. IN-LIBRIS.

*Transmontano – from Trás-os-Montes region, Portugal.



LOCAL: Porto

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