There was something breathtakingly beautiful about watching my German sweetheart walk through European towns/cities like he owned them. He had a casual, yet confident gait. It was like these cities were built for him, and I suppose as an able-bodied white European man of respectable means, these streets were quite literally, built for HIM.
He is not an arrogant man. He is not outwardly obnoxious in his entitlement of space. He is quite kind, gentle natured and considerate of those around him. He is tall, athletically built, with sweaty palms and soothing eyes. His disposition is more suited to reading poetry and historical fiction (always with a romantic subplot) than the legal correspondences that pay his keep.
During the two years of our romance, I loved travelling with him. Our dispositions in this regard were well suited. We both have quiet natures— until you get to know us. We both enjoy the ease of having a general purpose to our days, without the constrictions of a well laid plan. We easily relax into causal-conversations, enjoying an espresso (me) / latte (him) or vinho da casa (both). And we shared a mutual appreciation for long walks, with no particular purpose, through unfamiliar villages, towns and cities.
Le flâneur: a gentleman who strolls, saunters, and meanders. A man of leisure. A connoisseur of the street.
Amongst the numerous hamlets we explored in/around the German state of Hessen, we also shared delightfully aimless walks in Portugal, Switzerland, France and Luxembourg.
To my Canadian eyes, watching a German man traverse the streets of Europe was like being granted admission to a magical performance.
He was always at ease.
The assumption of safety.
He had always belonged.
His presence was a given.
These streets were his.
And he was completely unconscious about his unquestionable belonging.
His entitlement to walk uncontested through unfamiliar streets was taken-for-granted. Like the blood in his veins and the oxygen in his lungs.
I was in awe.
Patriarchy walking beside me.
I was not repulsed.
I was turned on.
Let me tell you a story about one of our last mornings together.
We were staying at a hotel in Zurich. My sweetheart went out for a walk but forgot his room key. Upon his return, the front desk provided him a new key, even though the room was registered under my name and paid for with my credit card. I was surprised that the front desk had provided a key to our room without my consent or at the very least, a courtesy call.
With bewilderment at the ease by which the front desk provided him a key, I exclaimed, “Wow, white male privilege in action” when he entered the room.
My sweetheart’s uninhibited, yet defensive reply was, “I don’t have white male privilege!”
I had been reading Roxane Gay’s, Bad Feminist during our travels, so issues of gender, power and oppression were taking up a fair amount of real estate in my head. And it was utterly fantastical to me that my lover, my friend, my trusted companion was oblivious to the benefits afforded him by both his Whiteness and his maleness.
In spite of our shared disdain for conflict, a notably tense discussion ensued.
I was informed by him, that unlike North America, there was no racism in Europe.
I countered that racism is alive and well in Europe and to suggest otherwise is being willfully ignorant– an ignorance afforded by the very privilege he was denying he had. For heavens sakes, he’s German! Did I need to bring up the holocaust? And what about the wave of populism that had been sweeping across Europe? Or the fact that Imperial conquest and the violent erasure, forced diaspora and enslavement of the “uncivilized” had financed many of the streets we had walked together.
We were not very happy with each other at that particular moment.
Maybe he was right. Maybe his whiteness or his maleness had absolutely nothing to do with the ease at which he acquired a second key to our hotel room. But these privileges are not imagined, and I benefit from them too. I am White, able-bodied, with the means to afford travel. Our relationship conformed to a different-sexed/dyadic coupling– a configuration rife with privilege.
I had been a witness to the ways in which (White) German men have an uninhibited entitlement to space and belonging. I was not about to be fooled into believing otherwise.
We never had a chance to revisit this conversation. Life would quickly throw twists and turns at us that would make a long-distance relationship difficult to sustain. It is likely that his initial response of denial would be significantly tempered upon reflection, and global events of 2020 has forced introspection upon us all.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, I have identified a peculiarity about our fraught discussion.
The privilege I accused him of was two-fold: Whiteness AND Maleness. Yet our discussion was entirely centred on race. The benefits of maleness is such a given that it didn’t breach the walls of our discussion.
Not once did he ask me about my experience(s) travelling Europe on my own. He held no curiosity for how my experience as a woman might differ from his as a man.
Nor did I volunteer how it felt to walk unfamiliar streets alone in a foreign country. Always on-guard. Ever aware. Calculating safety. Limited by darkness in the evening hours.
I saw the beauty in the way he belonged. I had never seen anything like it. I had never experienced anything like it. Those streets were literally built for HIM.
I wanted what he had. I wanted to be le flâneur too. Who wouldn’t want to feel this sense of belonging?
May we all be so lucky.