Go with the slow
By Marco Visscher
This article appeared in Ode issue: 15
Life doesn’t always have to be about rush, rush, rush. Many people are discovering slow as the answer to the superficial, fleeting nature of a hurried world. Not in an effort to swear off modern life, but in order to enjoy it more. Marco Visscher, Ode’s youngest and most frenzied editor, explores this new movement – and tries it on for size.
Is it the twisting roads or the awe-inspiring views that slow our rental car to a snail’s pace as we drive through Tuscany’s Chianti region? In search of relief from our harried lives at home, my girlfriend and I advance through the rolling hills full of olive trees and grapevines. Time seems to have stood still in these picturesque medieval villages, proving that life can still sometimes feel blissful.
The mayor of Castelnuovo Berardenga, the village where we are staying, echoes my thoughts. ‘It’s easier to enjoy life when you experience it slowly,’ he says. ‘ I want my village to create a place where peace and mindfulness are natural phenomena.’
Simone Brogi is one of the first mayors to join Citta Slow, a growing network of towns hoping to find an alternative to the turbo-charged life. These municipalities are more interested in preserving nature and restoring old buildings than in launching new construction projects. Civic investments are geared less towards building better highways and more towards creating bike and walking paths. They limit the presence of large chain stores and make sure small, locally-owned shops get the best locations in the city centre. They encourage farmers to grow environmentally friendly, native crops using traditional agricultural methods. But, Brogi notes, ‘it’s more a philosophy than a concrete list of policies.’
After a traditional lengthy Tuscan lunch, we take a walk around Brogi’s little town. The street is quiet today, he remarks. But it’s hard to imagine it ever bustles here. But he’s not concerned tourists will be put off by the slow pace. ‘In fact I hope,’ Brogi says, ‘that people who come here will take something of the slow experience with them. That when they get home they’ll make connections, that they’ll look at people on the street and say hello. Taking time for one another, that’s what it’s ultimately all about.’
Brogi’s wish to make things more leisurely in Castelnuovo Berardenga is just one example of a remarkable new global phenomenon. The ever-increasing escalation of speed in modern life has unleashed a deep longing in many people for more time and more peace. They want to downshift, relax, chill out. They want more time for family and friends. They want more of – the new catchword says it all – ‘the slow life’.
Slow? Isn’t that something out of the past? Personally, I like a little action. I may not own a car, but the 10 minutes I spend on the bike each day riding into Ode’s office are in high gear. I hate dancing to slow songs. I love how the dishwasher speedily cleans my dinnerware. And I am quite alright with multitasking—it saves time and lets me get more done! But now Ode wants me – of all people – to travel to an Italian hamlet where time has stood still, to learn about the slow life?
Modern city folk like myself are busy, busy, busy – and proud of it. A full datebook means an active social life. And so, one event is quickly followed by another and another. Peace is something for vacation, but even then we pack in as many sights as our busy days can accommodate. Quiet is for old people – or better yet: quiet is for after life is over.
Fast means good, progress. We go on crash diets (‘Just eight days to the perfect body!’) and if that doesn’t work, there’s always the immediate results of liposuction. We get takeaway Asian food, and eat it out of the container to save time, and when actually cooking, we reach for the microwave. We no longer expect a doctor to take time examining us; we want a pill that works – fast. If we are seeking a new relationship, there’s ‘speed dating’, which allows you to look over as many people as possible in the shortest period of time. For parents who are too busy to read time-consuming bedtime stories to their kids, there are now special one-minute fairy tales.
I’m not wagging my finger at people hooked into high gear. I’m the first one to try and shave off a couple of minutes whenever and wherever I can. I always feel rushed, nervous I’m missing something, scared the party is in another room. In line at the supermarket I glance out of the corner of my eye at the other lines. Should I switch? And I’m not exactly alone in all this. We are suffering from a collective ‘time sickness’, the term coined by U.S. doctor Larry Dossey in 1982 to describe the obsessive belief that there is not enough time in the day and that you need to move more quickly to keep up. How else to explain that more and more people are suffering the effects of a harried life: stress, sleeplessness, migraine headaches, obesity?
I’m in my late 20s and have watched how burnout or, the even more cutting edge term, quarter-life crisis (younger brother of the midlife crisis) has already downed a few of my friends. What will we call the crisis suffered by children today whose music lessons, sports activities, acting classes and television addiction mean they have no time to simply hang out and play – in short, to be a kid?
In response to the always quickening pace of life, a growing minority of people are opting for more peace in their lives, not only for their health, but in an attempt to enjoy life more fully. Some are working less, accepting a salary cut in exchange for more free time. They have traded in running and aerobics for tai chi and yoga. They are replacing the quick fix of modern medicine with more holistic methods of healing. They make time to cook a nice meal, to meditate, to visit friends or to make their love life less about panting and more about pleasure. In short, by choosing sometimes to go slow, they are finding more quality in their lives.
Friends who are striving to find more peace tell me that if your life is hurried, everything remains superficial. You can’t make any real connection with the world, others or yourself. It’s actually a paradox: the most important reason people ease off the gas pedal is because they think they are missing out on too much and want to experience more.
Although not yet an official movement complete with spokespeople and a website, the first chronicle of the slow life has already been written: the extremely entertaining In Praise of Slowness (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) by a Canadian journalist living in London, Carl Honore. The book sums up all kinds of social developments that point to an emerging cultural slowdown, from the growing popularity of tantric sex to our renewed appreciation of walking .
A number of compelling arguments exist for taking a step back from the frenzy of modern life. Working less – the starting point of many people’s quests for a more balanced life – doesn’t have to mean less productivity in the economy. With an average of six weeks vacation, European companies are still able to compete with their American counterparts, where the norm is two weeks. Indeed, in the United States, the new Take Back Your Time campaign is gaining support for its goals, which include adopting European standards of vacation time (www.timeday.org).
In the workplace, high pressure and long hours are often confused with effectiveness. But a lot of time at the office is needlessly wasted. The authors of management books increasingly agree that the best way to solve a problem is to lean back and put your feet up on the desk. (Albert Einstein was famous for this.) Letting go means making room for new insights and creativity. At 3M, the large American company known for the yellow post-it notes, staff are actually requested to spend 15% of their time slacking off. The policy appears to be a success. The pace of innovative product launches by the company is on the increase.
Business consultant Tom de Marco passionately advocates that employees receive more space in order to look back, look ahead or just look around. He calls it ‘slack’, which is also the title of his book. Slack means you can make choices about what needs to be done next. Nothing is more important to an employee, because when you have no choice, when your days are dictated by an ironclad schedule, you cannot grow in your job. In order to grow, you need to slow down and just think once in a while. And when employees grow, so do the companies they work for. Macroeconomists take note: this means increased employment, because a healthy growing company requires ample staff.
Quiet and mindfulness. These are Simone Brogi’s goals for the lovely Tuscan village of Castelnuovo Berardenga. I am definitely attentive to the wonderful Chianti wines I’ve sampled, but I’m having a little trouble with the quiet. I want to send a couple of e-mails so after meeting with Brogi, I suggest we go to his office. Then he drops a bombshell. Brogi doesn’t have a computer! No one here has ever heard of an internet café, and it’s starting to dawn on me that Tuscan villages are a little too well-equipped for the slow life.
We decide to drive to Bra, a city of 28,000, just south of Turin in Italy’s industrialised north. The slow cities network was started here five years ago. It now also includes towns in Norway and England, and is considering applications from Germany, Australia and Japan. We have an interview with Bruna Sibille, Bra’s deputy mayor and the initiator of the project. After driving for hours, and scandalously exceeding the speed limit in a narrowly successful attempt to arrive on time, we meet Sibille who – and I’m not making this up – seems too busy to talk.
During our short meeting her mobile telephone rings constantly. ‘We’re looking for ways to find a balance between the modern and the traditional, so we can have an enjoyable life,’ she tells us. ‘Modern and slow are not opposites. Slow is simply a strategy to give modernisation direction and meaning.’ Then Bruna Sibille dashes off to her next appointment.
Yes, this is the kind of thinking about slow that better fits the world I know. All that talk about a slower life sounds all well and good, but it’s impossible to do everything at a crawl. And that’s apparently not the point of the slow life. It’s about our right to set our own pace.
Sibille’s descripton of a mixture of fast and slow was a liberating eye-opener for me. I had never really stopped to consider the possibility of going slow when I wanted to. Never realized that the choice to either hurry or take it easy ought to be based on how I feel about the situation at hand. One area, for instance, where faster is not always better in my experience is when it comes to thinking. Snap judgments often don’t work out. But who’s to tell us – to take but one example – that you have to form an opinion about everything right away? I’ve learned that it’s valuable to set aside time for reflection before I announce my opinion to the world? And I know that my best ideas come when I’m in the bathtub or taking a walk, and not when I’m thinking hard.
Not long ago I was very much taken with the idea of being able to speed-read. Finally, I would be able to get through all those books gathering dust in my apartment. I ordered the materials for a speed-reading course but had – how ironic – not yet found the time to start. Now I had second thoughts. Isn’t it wonderful to take some time to read a good book, to lose yourself in a story? Isn’t my enjoyment of reading also about the experience of reading itself? Wouldn’t that pleasure disappear if I could read several pages in a matter of seconds? In Bra I decided that speed-reading would only increase my appetite, not my pleasure, for books; I would return the course materials.
Was I starting to get the hang of the slow life?
We wandered through Bra, full of curiosity, looking for signs that this is a slow city despite the presence of internet cafes. Was it possible that the conspicuous absence of neon and other garish signage we noticed could be a part of Sibille’s slow life campaign? We’re not sure. The focal point of her campaign, we do know, is limiting automobiles access to the city centre. A worthy but difficult political goal given how devoted Italians are to their cars.
Let me rephrase. It’s not just the Italians. Across the world, driving too fast is not seen as breaking the law so much as a national sport. Yet we know that high-speed driving is the reason behind most traffic deaths. And driving too fast in a city rarely makes sense. Given that traffic lights are increasingly timed to a pace at or below the speed limit, fast drivers must stop more often for red lights.
Local governments around the world – not just those in slow cities – are working harder than ever to reduce the speed at which cars drive along their streets. Speed bumps, radar cameras, narrowed streets, pedestrian amenities, campaigns against bumper huggers and lower speed limits are some of the traffic calming measures being introduced everywhere – usually at the urging of by local residents and neighbourhood groups. Studies show there is a correlation between the amount of traffic and community spirit in a town. The less street traffic, and the slower it moves, means more social contacts among neighbours in that community. So Sibille is on the right path, even if it’s not an easy one.
Around the corner from Bra’s town hall, where Sibille hones her vision of a slow city, is the headquarters of Slow Food. This organisation, which sparked the slow life movement in 1989, is more than a clever Italian retort to global hamburger chains. Slow Food strives to preserve tradition and quality in the cultivation, preparation and consumption of food, but also wants to challenge the overall culture of speed that reduces mealtime to refuelling . As its founding manifesto reads: ‘A firm defence of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life.’
As we take a seat across from Roberto Burdese, vice president of Slow Food, I begin with a confession: I sometimes eat fast food. He spares me a scolding. ‘Our battle is not against hamburgers or fries, but against all that’s vapid,’ Burdese explains. ‘We defend diversity in all its facets. We want to preserve the right to a varied supply of food and we see signs of doubt that this diversity will survive. The prevailing vision is that food should be cheap. This has turned food into a mass-market product. But why should you be able to eat a tomato every day? Tomatoes are sometimes shipped from thousands of kilometres away, put on a boat when they are still green and treated with chemicals to make them grow faster. This is madness. It is the madness of a society that has declared haste and productivity as its highest values.’
Burdese optimistically sees Slow Food – with 80,000 members in more than 100 countries – as the forerunner of a new global trend. But is the kitchen table really the best place to start a revolution towards a slower life? ‘It is the perfect place,’ Burdese answers. ‘It is the place where you can talk to your family and friends, where you can enjoy yourself. Lunch and dinner belong to the most important moments of the day. There is no better place to consider once again how you want to live your life.’
That evening we opt for slow in Osteria del Boccondivino, a restaurant in Bra that – fully in keeping with the philosophy of Slow Food – has been serving a combination of good regional dishes and quality wines at a decent price since the 1980s. My girlfriend and I talk about life, ourselves, the world and – as we eat and drink with deliberate slowness in order to enhance our enjoyment – about how the escalating pace of life is becoming a burden to society.
Is speed a uniquely western problem? After all, the world isn’t falling apart, we tell ourselves optimistically. Well, not completely… Globalisation is pushing the entire planet into a higher gear. Cultures that live in sync with the sun and the seasons, rather than digital clocks and palm pilots, are being sucked into the increasingly dizzying pace of the industrialized world. There is a good reason why globalisation was once described as a ‘survival of the fastest’. And to quote Swiss business professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum: ‘We are moving from a world in which the big eat the small to a world in which the fast eat the slow.’
An approximate description of how that works can be read in a book that was written long ago, well before ‘globalisation’ became a buzzword. In Momo, the brilliant German storyteller Michael Ende describes how ‘time thieves’ convinced villagers to save time by not stopping to chat with friends the neighbours or other social activities. Modern life set in, culminating in the conversion of the village tavern to a snack bar. The result: the more people tried to save time, the less time they felt they had. With the expansion of the global economy, this paradox is now spreading like a virus across the world.
Over dessert, we discussed Burdese’s observation that our speed-obsessed society is in danger of losing touch with nature. The economy, politics, culture, and even the environment itself are in a never-ending battle to keep pace with the technological developments continually zooming at us. These are times of exponential growth (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.), but people and the natural worlds are used to living at a more gradual pace (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.). How can a society truly be sustainable if it is based on economic principles that steer society towards a desire for more, more, more at an ever-faster pace? The calculator of corporate globalization would just multiply, but shouldn’t a calculator be able to do more than simply add?
Back home in Rotterdam. Eight messages on my voicemail, four SMS messages, 126 unread e-mails. The whole week is already booked up with visits and appointments. A week in Italy’s charming slow cities temporarily downshifted the pace of our lives, but the reality of being back in the buzzing world of work and socialising means our schedules are very busy again.
And yet here, in midst of modern life, lies the challenge. Few people today could tolerate the peace and quiet – and boredom – of the 19th Century, or even the 1950s. The stimulation, opportunities and choices of the contemporary era give colour and definition to our lives. These are real achievements. And yet in the throes of all this progress, we regularly overshoot our goals. We move too fast. Do too much. And lose the time for essential experiences – friendship, family, love, nature – that give life meaning. Exercising our own power to select slow over fast, at least some of the time, means nothing less than making space for mindfulness and pleasure in our lives.
With this Italy-inspired realisation in mind, I thumb through my datebook. I ask myself how all those appointments got in there. I then understand the challenge: to continually make your own choices, set your own pace, plan your own time.
It doesn’t sound so hard. I’ll start this evening by cooking a nice meal. Without the microwave. Then I’ll settle down with a good book. And read it slowly. That way I can catch my breath.