A preface, halfway

Born and raised in the Netherlands, and a long-time city dweller, I easily became a flaneur. A stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles through any city without apparent purpose but is attuned to its history, its architecture, its colors and smells and sounds, its diversity of people and the daily pace of the place — someone who knowingly or subconsciously searches for fascinating experiences whether big or small, for “adventure,” but is not disappointed by glimpsing a mere anecdote. I am interested in everything and in nothing. Whether I get passionate or casually drop a discovery is less important than my being there for the experience of aimlessly being there. I can easily lose myself in the crowd. I can observe it with immeasurable fascination and pleasure. I can sit idle for hours on a café-terrace and just gawk; I can stand and stare as if any object, whether living or lifeless, might become interesting if stared at long enough; or I can walk without destination to where caprice or curiosity direct my steps. I find my disorganized “research” endlessly absorbing.

Americans make bad flaneurs. They are planners. They are organizers driven by the urge towards self-improvement and hampered by the hammered-in acknowledgement that “time is money.” Americans tick off their lists of must-see standard wonders and make note of their progress and accomplishments — but do they ever get goose bumps? Knowledge they search, facts instead of experiences, “discoveries” rather than the calm pleasure of merely circulating. There are “How To” books with instructions for organizing vacations in such a way, that one makes the most of them. Check the Sunday travel section of The New York Times. 36 hours in Prague, 24 hours in Brussels, 16 hours in Portland, Maine. Each week a series of full programs with prescribed B&Bs, boutiques, eateries, sights that are “it,” therefore shouldn’t be missed. Always the same soulless program — it could be the same city they are talking about. Fly in, fly out, and time is indeed money, because these programs do cost an arm and a leg.

While living in the United States, far from real cities built for strollers and spending most days in true necks of the woods, I became … a wanderer. I explore the great outdoors as well as rural town life in the same fragmented way I previously had researched many European cities. That there are fewer people, and sometimes no people at all, doesn’t bother me a bit. The land is as immeasurably diverse and absorbing as any of the great cities of the world, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro. I can sit just as purposeless on a New Mexico rock as on a café chair in Antwerp, and be just as happy. I can wade through the tall grasses of the Kansas prairie just as aimlessly as I stroll along the canals of Amsterdam, and be just as happy. I am great at what other people may define as “wasting time.”

My inaction nevertheless leads to something more than just pleasurable (non-)experiences. The following chapters deliver testimony that I, the flaneur, the wanderer, am not really wasting time. These chapters are a random collection of physical experiences and mental snapshots, mostly fragmented; of conversations with people met unplanned; of quotes from books coincidently found on shelves; of sounds surprised by; of faint or vivid memories; of discoveries of color, of scent; of views unexpectedly opened; of scenes from every-day life, of scenes from Life. One thing leads to another, most often without I having anything to say about it.

The location is the American Midwest, Kansas, more specific Chase County and the Flint Hills. It was “chance” that guided me towards this part of America. Wandering into a Dutch bookstore in 1990, I discovered ‘PrairyErth’ by William Least Heat-Moon and I decided to apply the business stratagem known as blind luck and go see with my own eyes what it was all about. Later, after long years of rambling elsewhere, especially in New Mexico, I returned to the tallgrass prairie for new experiences and to relive old ones. I write about them in the way I walk, stroll, loiter. I stumble upon this and that. Sometimes, I look closely and I can clearly see. Other times, I am easily distracted or capriciously lured away to less significant details or events, or to something a better observer than I put into most remarkable words. Whatever it is I am writing about, it originates from that mixture of experiences that comes to the flaneur haphazardly, almost against the grain. Stroll with me.

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, October 2011 

Photo courtesy Hendrik van Leeuwen: Me and Blondie just before she died.