Istanbulites have it. Parisians have it. So do Florentines and Cariocas. I've also seen it along the dusty streets of Cairo and in London's East End lanes. It is a phenomenon I find most often when I'm on vacation in a foreign city, but it also occurs in cities domestic. I call it the slow life. And I'm trying to perfect it.
Here’s the thing: when I'm in full-on tourist mode, I can turn into a bit of a tourbot. The worst kind, too: a tourbot without an off switch. I rush from site to site, attraction to attraction, trying to take in as much of the city as I possibly can in the time allotted. Even though I know deep down it's a race I'll never win, I still tell myself to press forward, to keep seeing and doing and seeing and doing. But while I’m tourbotting, the city’s inhabitants (and some far wiser travelers than I) are indulging in the slow life. All around me, the slow lifers lounge in outdoor cafes, relax in parks, and stroll the streets, seemingly in no hurry at all. It doesn't matter what day of the week it is either since slow life weekdays and weekends are indistinguishable from each other. I find myself thinking, Don't these people have jobs or somewhere more important to be right now?
But the truth is, I'm covetous of the slow life, of the what’s-the-big-hurry vibe of its practitioners, of how effortless they make it look, this ability to move at the pace of a tortoise in a world filled with hares.
Eventually—although it sometimes takes a few days to kick in—slow life begins to wear off on me. I remember that I’m on vacation, and what's a vacation after all, but the act of temporarily vacating one's usual life? I remind myself that I move fast enough at home. It’s time to slow down, to turn into one of them. A slow lifer. I realize I have an off switch after all! And I’m not afraid to use it. I spend the rest of my vacation doing as the local slow lifers do, whether it's sitting for hours in a sidewalk cafe watching the tourbots rush by or visiting an old bookstore instead of another crowded museum.
And then, just as I’ve gotten the hang of the slow life, the airline is assaulting me with emails to check in for my flight. Is it time to go already? But I have more cafés to visit, more tea to sip, more wandering to do!
Resentful and melancholy on the flight (and desperately wishing the Boeing were a time machine instead of a plane), I return home. Once there, it's not merely the jet lag that makes me operate at half-speed, it's also my attempt to keep to the routine of the slow life. More than a magnet or T-shirt, the slow life is a souvenir worth hanging on to.
Over the years, I've devised strategies to keep the slow life within reach. For me, slow life is a "vacation" I can take anytime I want, without really going anywhere at all. It's a way of life I can slip into at will, especially when my world starts moving at a pace I'm not interested in matching. What follows is a list of 10 ways I practice the slow life. If you’re not already a slow lifer, perhaps this list will help you cultivate a slow life of your own. By the way, this is my blog's very first list! I really like lists. I like making them. I like checking them off. I even feel a sense of accomplishment after writing one, when nothing's scratched off at all. You will see more than a few lists on this blog. You should probably get used to it.
And here we go:
1. I view the world as my own personal promenade.
Good ole’ Tom and Jerry a.k.a. Right Foot, Left Foot. They’ve never once let me down. Ok, well, they have, but we’ll cover bunionectomies another time. Then again, maybe we won’t. But back to my point. Next to the scooting and crawling we did as infants, walking is the slowest mode of transportation we have. And it’s one of the best ways to slow life it. When I travel, I usually eschew public transportation in favor of walking. It’s less hectic than navigating traffic, I can control my pace, and frankly, I just see more that way. I walk as much as possible when I’m at home, too, whether to the convenience store on the corner or to one of the nearby shopping centers. Houston isn’t the most temperate city—sometimes it’s too hot to walk two feet outside my door, let alone several blocks to my destination—but I walk when the weather permits. Houston isn’t exactly a pedestrian city either, so when people pass me in their cars as I’m waiting to cross at a light, I recognize the poor-dear-she-must-not-have-a-car look on their faces. I wish I could tell them I’m just enjoying a little slow life at the moment.
2. Reading material. I never leave home without it.
When I was working, I never left home without a book. Knowing I had a book on hand encouraged me to take advantage of my breaks during the day and allowed me to talk myself out of working through lunch. I would even sneak in pages at red lights during rush hour. Ill-advised, perhaps, but it took my mind off the stress of the commute and kept the urge to rush and weave at bay. I finished whole books this way. At least Houston traffic is good for something.
I also keep a magazine issue or two in my car. I subscribe to only two publications, but somehow six month's worth will tower on my coffee table before I get around to them. If I'm early for lunch with a friend or if I'm having a solo lunch or coffee (see #5), I'm able to catch up on light reading. My car mags also come in handy when I have medical or beauty appointments. I'll take my Vanity Fair over a two-year old US Weekly any day. Having my own reading material at the ready gives me a little mind retreat to look forward to and it slows me right on down.
3. I’m regular.
I'm a barfly and proud of it. Nothing slows down life like a familiar seat in a favorite bar or restaurant. I’m a regular at certain establishments because the staff knows what I want and how I like it. I seldom have to wait, and unless I'm feeling chatty, they know to leave me be, especially if I have my laptop with me. I like to pop in just as lunch hour is wrapping up, when it's quiet enough to enjoy a late lunch or some booze imagination juice as I read or write. On the days I don't plan ahead by bringing my laptop, I journal (I always have a notebook in my handbag, although my iPhone notepad function works equally well). Even when I’m working, slow life creeps in. There’s something about imbibing during the day that makes you feel like you’re on vacation, but this method also works just as well at coffee houses. It’s the regularity that counts.
4. I just park it.
I love parks. I'm lucky enough to have two within walking distance of my house and I visit them often. When I travel, parks are where I practice the slow life most. My husband and I once ate croissants then dozed on a park bench in Paris. It was one of the best slow life experiences I've ever had.
A few years before that, I’d had another notable park experience, this time, closer to home. I worked walking distance from this park and I would often go there on my lunch break to eat, read, or simply relax. This was also around the time I had the ability to REM sleep during the day (I don't know where that ability has run off to, but if you see him, tell him I miss him). One day, having finished my PB & J and my eyes reading and rereading the same sentence in my book, I spread my jacket on the ground and fell into a deep, satisfying snooze. It was magnificent. Until a photographer from The Houston Chronicle roused me to ask if he could take my picture. He thought it would make a good human interest blurb because I looked so peaceful. Well, I was peaceful. Until you woke me up, I didn’t tell him. I allowed him to photograph me, but when it ran, it took months for me to live it down amongst my friends and colleagues. Not only did they think it was hysterically funny, they simply could not fathom how I could relax enough in the middle of a work day to actually fall asleep in a public park. The slow life. I guess it's not for everyone.
5. I'm a party of one.
My favorite dining companion always chooses restaurants I like, she doesn’t keep me waiting, and is ready to order when I am. She doesn’t mind if I ignore her completely to read or journal and she lets me eat off her plate. We’re so in tune with each other, we can hold a conversation without uttering a single word. And she even picks up the bill! Don’t tell my husband, but I’d say a lunch or dinner date doesn’t get better than that.
Dining alone every now and then is one of my favorite ways to slow life. Sure, a pleasant meal with good company is lovely, but sometimes silence is its own reward. How many of us have dined out with friends and thought to ourselves later how quickly the time flew by? That’s how it goes. But when I dine alone, with no one to distract me from the sensory experience of the food or from my own thoughts, a meal that could have gone by too fast with others at the table becomes one I can truly savor and even linger over if I want. Casual establishment or fine, the company is what matters. And when that company is me, I can’t go wrong.
6. Speaking of dining, I do it al fresco.
Here in Houston, (unless you like eating in a swamp teeming with mosquitoes and these bad boys) you only get about a month or two of ideal weather for plein air dining. I make the most of it before the patios turn into ghost towns by dining outdoors whenever possible. I am also a strong proponent of picnics. The slow life is all about watching the world go by and I can’t do that unless I’ve got a front row seat.
7. I silence my phone.
Better yet, I turn it off. Life changing. Slow life changing.
8. I don’t run when I should walk. I don’t drive when I can cycle.
I’m a runner. It’s meditative for me. It’s also when I get some of my best “writing” done. Story ideas just seem to flow as soon as my feet hit the pavement. There was a time I never would have dreamed of encouraging anyone, myself included, to walk instead of run, that’s how much I love running. But this past spring, on one of those aforementioned ideal days, I was running on the trail by my house when it struck me just how damn beautiful the day was. The sky was cerulean, with not a cloud in it. A cool wind rustled the trees, all of which were in full, magnificent bloom. Everyone was smiling and saying, “Good morning.” Baby squirrels and bunnies were running and hopping, climbing and nibbling. It was a cartoon-perfect day and I was moving too fast to truly experience it. So I stopped running and started walking. Slowly. I didn’t reach my cardio goal that day and I couldn’t have cared less.
Another way I slow life is by using my bike for short trips that it used to be second nature for me to take in my car. I’ve found that riding my Townie gets me there almost as quickly as driving and without the headache of finding a parking space or negotiating the roads with other drivers. I feel more present in the world from the seat of my bike. I pay more attention to my surroundings because I’m moving slower. I also like the breeze on my face.
9. I chase the sun.
Two of the only things we’re promised each day are a sunrise and a sunset. I try to make sure I’m there for at least one of them. And the beauty is, the sun rises and sets at its own pace. I have no choice but to slow down if I really want to appreciate it.
10. I just breathe.
Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. When I'm moving too fast or in the middle of an intense writing session, I often catch myself holding my breath. In fact, I've caught myself doing it a number of times while composing this post. But breathing is so much more than the process of moving air into and out of our lungs. By controlling and regulating our breathing, we can self-soothe, lower stress, bring about clarity, and of course, slow ourselves way down. It's a bodily function too easily taken for granted.
Cultivating my version of the slow life has required lots of practice and a hyper-awareness of myself as a person who needs to slow down in the first place. As a result, I'm more cognizant of when I'm speeding up and I can tell myself to brake. I don't always succeed. Sometimes it even takes looking at pictures from past vacations to remind me of what it is I'm trying to obtain.
What about you? Have you embraced the slow life? How do you do it? What should I add to my list?
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