As a kid I never liked the summer. I always expected too much of it, thinking I needed to have the best summer ever and inevitably setting myself up for failure by staying inside reading books all day. Of course, I got some enjoyment out of the books I read—or was it just relief from my boredom?—but I always returned to school without a tan or a new set of fun, adventurous experiences. I guess it paid off in the long run—as it turned out I had been like an ant to other people's grasshoppers because choosing books over having fun helped me get into college. Even as I got older, I continued to stay inside like a nerdy grasshopper, but this time, instead of reading YA novels or whatever my ignorant teenage self thought was interesting, I was holding down resume-padding internships so I could spend away in fact-checking and data entry the time I had left to use as I pleased.
This year is no different in that I scored a bland, business-casual internship. But this time I'm in New York, this is my first summer living on my own, I'm in a mostly unfamiliar city and, besides a 10-to-5, I don't have any obligations. So, I've decided to seize the moment by being unproductive. I've been wandering all over, whenever and wherever I'm in the mood to just, you know, go.
After a month and a half of walking around gawking at things, I've started to feel a confidence, a sense of belonging. Naturally, it's likely just a false thrill of self-congratulation that comes from knowing more or less how to get around via the subway. As a summer intern, I have a New York address, but only for three months. It's home like the mid-Atlantic is home for Canada geese in the winter. I'm not settled in enough to have shed the urge to romanticize, to muse that the city seems sprawling and dense at the same time, glossy one second and filthy the next, that every casual interaction is potentially friendly or disturbing. Which is to say that lame generalities are of no use. What is a city but a place full of people, all of them different and changing and unpredictable?
When we're conditioned to optimize our lives, to seek out the most fun and the greatest novelty, not having a plan is the most refreshing thing humanly possible.
I guess I don't know what big truth there really is to learn about this place, but through random choices and detours I am gleaning little bits of knowledge, sketching out a few more little points on my mental map. These are things I haven't learned so much as picked up by accident. I'm somewhere between a tourist and a local—a flâneur, a wanderer, someone who strolls, who is ambivalent, curious, lazy, never in a hurry because he or she isn't really going anyplace. There's nothing productive per se about doing this, which is exactly the entire beauty of it. It's hard to find something truly purposeless. Even the way people conceive of fun is tinged with efficiency and optimization. Successfully spending your leisure time is generally defined as making the right choices that result in having fun: You have to find the right way to not just have fun, but to have the most fun possible.
As for me, I suppose I could be having a more epic time—in the course of my strolls I have gotten lost or bored on occasion—but there's something about the idea of making your way through a summer unintentionally. A flâneur chooses a path moment by moment, at random. When we're conditioned to optimize our lives, to seek out the most fun and the greatest novelty, not having a plan is the most refreshing thing humanly possible. A flâneur doesn't brick his or her summer or, rather, doesn't think of it that way because of this lack of a plan. It's much harder to set yourself up for disappointment if you throw out not only the step by step itineraries, but all your vague, painfully unattainable aspirations too. The thrill of being in New York really tempted me to get caught up in wishing that this would be the summer that I finally became cool. But, at the end of the day, I'd much rather be detached enough to no longer feel the pressure to meet, exceed and crush my goals or to have goals at all. This isn't shiftlessness, it's just summer and my free time during the summer at that. The ultimate luxury is when your free time is truly free—free of structures and plans, but also free of insidious dissatisfaction. After all, you can only be happy when you stop worrying about how to be happy.
Emily Lever is a French-American writer who wishes she led a life of adventure. You can follow her on Twitter here.