Slow Cycling

Something is getting lost as amateur cycling embraces a macho culture of speed and Strava.

I walk, therefore I am

I went for a walk the other day.

Not just any old walk, mind you. I spent a day rambling along the coast with a man who is traveling the length of the Mediterranean Sea on foot.

One of our stops while walking the Costa Brava: Pals, Spain

One of our stops while walking the Costa Brava: Pals, Spain

Juraj Horniak calls his quixotic year-long odyssey the 8 Million Steps. His aim: to explore the tradition of slow living in southern Europe.

And what better way to do so than on foot? After all, walking can be a supreme act of slowness.

Nowadays, though, faster forms of transport, powered by engines, winged and wheeled, hold sway. When we do walk, it’s often with a very modern blend of impatience, distraction and hunger for achievement.

Witness the rise of speed walking and power walking. The boom in gadgets for counting steps. Or the wired hordes scuttling along with eyes glued to their smartphones. No wonder the World Health Organization described walking as a “forgotten art.”

It is an art worth preserving. Walking is the workout that Mother Nature designed for the human body. But it also does wonders for the mind and the soul.

When you walk without purpose or haste, with nothing more to do than put one foot in front of the other, you start to see the world afresh. You notice flowers and trees and birds, the shapes of clouds in the sky, hills on the horizon, architectural quirks and flourishes, the faces of passersby.

Quick selfie on the Slow walk on the Costa Brava.

Quick selfie on the Slow walk on the Costa Brava.

You also come to know yourself better, thanks to the internal monologue that is the soundtrack of every good walk.

By relaxing the mind, walking turns on the creative taps, too. Ernest Hemingway went for a stroll whenever he felt deflated by the blank page. “I would walk…when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out,” he wrote. “It was easier to think if I was walking.”

Nietzsche put it more succinctly: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”

A recent study by Stanford University showed that even walking on a treadmill gets the creative juices flowing.

Small wonder then that many thinkers have written about the power and the glory of a good stroll: Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Vladimir Nabokov, WG Sebald, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas De Quincey, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Bruce Chatwin.

As the speed of everything ramps up in the 21st century, a renaissance in walking could even be the first step to kicking the modern habit of hurry.

After all, everyone has their own natural walking speed, their own tempo giusto. You know when you’re doing it too quickly (or too slowly) because it just feels wrong.

The same goes for life in general. When you’re living too fast, you feel out of sorts. When you slow down to your own tempo, everything feels right.

Checking out the frescoes in one of the houses built in the 19th century by merchants spending fortunes amassed in Cuba back home in Begur, Spain.

Checking out the frescoes in one of the houses built in the 19th century by merchants spending fortunes amassed in Cuba back home in Begur, Spain.

 

Done properly, walking can reintroduce us to the idea of living at the tempo giusto. To enjoying what sociologist Franco Cassano described as “the sweet anarchy of inventing your own path, every single moment.”

That was how my walk with Juraj felt. We set off along Spain’s Costa Brava on a morning of blue skies and bright sunshine. Our path meandered up and down hills, through forests and small villages, past ancient stone walls, alongside steep, rocky cliffs rising up from quiet coves and inlets. Parts of the trail had been worn into the ground by shepherds tending their flocks over the centuries.

Stairway to heaven: One of the many inlets and small coves along the Costa Brava.

Stairway to heaven: One of the many inlets and small coves along the Costa Brava.

We paused to marvel at unusual rock formations  and a butterfly of such ethereal colouring that it must have floated in from a Gabriel García Márquez novel. We stopped to gaze at boats bobbing on the glistening, rippled surface of the Mediterranean. Or to inhale the sea air and bask in the simple joy of walking in a beautiful place.

Along the way, we chatted about food, travel, family, books, art, history, music and everything else. But there were also interludes of companionable silence, moments for arranging our own thoughts or just letting the mind wander.

At one point we took a wrong turn and got lost. But neither of us minded since hurry was not part of the excursion. Plus the unplanned detour served up a sweeping view of the coastline we would not have seen otherwise. Finding our way back to the path turned into a small adventure that had us giggling like schoolboys.

After the day’s walk, we spent the evening in a restaurant in Begur, drinking cold white wine and chomping through platter after platter of local seafood, including a “sklop,” a rare prehistoric crustacean that looked like an extra from Jurassic Park.

In one of those delicious twists of fate, the fisherman who had landed the ugly creature that morning was sitting at a nearby table. When he saw us tucking into his elusive quarry, he bought a round of drinks.

IMG_4950_2

Juraj holding up the sklop before handing it over to the chef….

 

I went to bed that night feeling full in every sense of the word. Stuffed from the meal, of course. But my mind, my heart and my spirit were also brimming over.

That is what walking can do for you.

It’s also what makes 8 Million Steps a wonderful undertaking, and Juraj a very lucky man….

The sign says it all, really….

Pit-stop on the Costa Brava

Pit-stop on the Costa Brava

Avoiding Hotels and the Art of Slow Travel

French bakery - By Julie Kertesz via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the woman in the bakery who clinches it.

The build-up is pure Paris. In a smart boulangerie off the Boulevard Saint-Germain, I am waiting to buy breakfast for the third morning in a row. Levitating on the aroma from the baking ovens, I ogle the exquisite pastries and eavesdrop on a couple arguing in stage whispers in front of me.

When the moment comes to place my order, the woman behind the counter interrupts me. “Bonjour, monsieur,” she says, with a triumphant smile of recognition. “If I’m not mistaken, you would like a croissant and a pain au chocolat, n’est-ce pas?”

Et voilà!

Suddenly I am not an anonymous tourist anymore. I am a local. Well, not quite a local (I’m not chic enough ever to be a true Parisian), but I have become a character in the morning drama at this boulangerie.

I am now the Man Who Always Orders One Croissant And One Pain Au Chocolat.

To anyone who aspires to be a traveler rather than a tourist, this is delicious vindication. It is like a Parisian version of Cheers: walking into a bakery where everybody knows your name, or at least what you eat for breakfast.

Such moments are rare in this world of Fast Travel. We are often too rushed to connect with local people or cherish the small details that make each place thrilling and unique. Result: everywhere ends up feeling the same as everywhere else.

This is particularly true if you use hotels. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve stayed in some wonderful hotels and enjoyed myself immensely along the way. But lately the charm has worn off. More and more, I find myself waking up in well-appointed rooms and wondering: Is this Taipei, Toronto or Torino?

Hotels everywhere trade on the same formula: walls painted in safe, restful shades; crisp white sheets and black-out curtains; flat-screen TVs at the foot of the bed; clock radios with iPod docks; desks with ethernet cables; organic toiletries in the bathrooms.

And don’t forget that perennial fixture: the trouser-press. Who uses those anyway? And how?

Even the little touches – that soapstone sculpture by the sofa, those art-books on the coffee table, the original watercolour above the bed – that are supposed to be the USP of boutique hotels can have a contrived air. Like something left behind by a designer or consultant who has already moved on to another project.

That is why I often avoid hotels these days. Slow Travel is about engaging with local people and experiencing a place from the inside. Renting a private apartment is the perfect way to do that.

And it’s easy to arrange now thanks to a gamut of websites. My favourite is Airbnb. In recent months, I have used the site to stay in the apartment of a choreographer in Bologna and a designer in Bogotá, a mini-mansion on Venice Beach in Los Angeles and a stylish bachelor pad in Mexico City. All cost less than a standard hotel.

More importantly, each one had its own character and allowed me to experience the city like a local. While grappling with jet-lag, I hung out with the guy selling tacos at the crack of dawn outside that loft in Mexico City.

Even rentals that don’t work out so well – the cramped flat owned by the chain-smoking fortune teller in Paris springs to mind – deliver a rare glimpse into local life and add vivid stories to my traveling database.

The boulangerie moment happened during a recent stay in a charming apartment right on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Plucked from the Haven in Paris website, which specialises in boutique rentals in the French capital, it was the sort of pied à terre that dreams are made of: Oak parquet floors. Chocolate-coloured silk curtains. High ceilings with tall windows looking out onto a statue of Danton. A sweet little kitchen for cooking up the fresh produce on sale at the market round the corner.

To my delight, the owner of the apartment keeps a bookshelf stocked with tomes you might actually want to read. I even found myself leafing through Jean-Paul Sartre for the first time since university. Can you imagine that happening at a Marriott?

But the main appeal was the way the apartment plugged us into neighbourhood life. A strike on our first day meant there were no newspapers at the kiosk across the street. For the rest of our visit, the vendor and I kept up a running joke about how industrial action is practically the national sport in France.

And then, of course, there was the food. Every morning, we brewed our own café au lait and went down to the boulangerie to buy the pastries for our petit déjeuner. We shopped in the local marché, picking up cured ham from the boucher, a glorious medley of cheeses from the fromagerie and a bottle of burgundy to die for.

By the end of our stay, the apartment felt much less like a rental and much more like “chez nous.”

Will we return in the future? It’s hard to say. Part of the appeal of staying in private homes is that there are so many to choose from.

But if one day we do go back to “our place” on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, I know where I’ll be buying breakfast.

 

NB: The woman in the photo is NOT the same woman quoted in the blog post.

Speed Demon

I have seen the future of the automobile – and it’s sleek, sexy and fast as hell. It’s also environmentally-friendly.

On Monday, I took part in the annual Eco-Rally from Brighton to London. It’s a showcase for the new technologies that are greening automobiles of all shapes and sizes.

On a day of wind and patchy sunshine, fifteen of us drove a convoy of state-of-the-art sedans, sports cars and vans from the south coast of England to City Hall beside Tower Bridge in London. Our vehicles were powered by everything from solar energy to electricity to vegetable oil – with petrol and diesel often playing a part, too (think hybrids). Many of the cars were built using green materials and methods.

What does all this have to do with Slow?

Quite a lot, actually. We have allowed traffic to blight our towns and cities. A central plank of the Slow revolution is to take back the streets from the automobile.

That means a lot less driving and a lot more walking, cycling, scootering, rollerblading, street football and parties, road hockey, etc. Building a strong public transport network should be a top priority for every politician. As should cutting carbon emissions.

When it comes to cars, less is more.

But let’s be honest: there will always be a need (not to mention a desire) for private automobiles that can shuttle us from A to B. The key then is to make these vehicles as green as possible. And that is were the Eco-Rally comes in.

On Monday, I drove the Lotus Eco Elise. It’s a zippy, no-nonsense roadster with an engine that growls like an irked lion. The interior is lined with hemp and eco-wool.

My passenger was the clever and rather beautiful founder of a green consultancy. So picture the scene: hot car, hot blonde, heading-for-middle-age me at the wheel.

I felt like I’d stumbled into someone’s mid-life crisis. Possibly my own.

But the highlight of the day was taking the Tesla for a spin. There is only one word for this car: Wow! It is totally electric and almost completely silent, which means zero air and noise pollution. It also looks like something James Bond would drive, neatly obliterating the old saw that eco-friendly means boring and worthy.

And did I mention that the Tesla is mind-blowingly quick? We’re talking 0-60 MPH in 3.9 seconds. I have never felt acceleration like it. This is the kind of G-force you experience in a souped-up supercar, or a jet fighter.

The Tesla is a breakthrough. Okay, it costs a small fortune. But it shows that we can build zero-emission cars without sacrificing style, performance or sex appeal. And already a cheaper four-door model is coming to market.

But what about all that speed?

As an advocate of Slow, I certainly felt a pang of guilt climbing into the Tesla. But I have to admit that the unease didn’t last long. After the first surge of acceleration, I was whooping like a teenager on a rollercoaster. It was a bit terrifying, but also hugely exhilarating.

Can drivers be trusted with that kind of power at their fingertips? Can I be trusted? I have my doubts.

Which probably means I should stop fantasizing about getting a Tesla for Christmas …

Unplugged

Just back from nine glorious days in a cottage in a forest by the sea in Sweden. Swimming in the Baltic, soccer on the sandy beach, eating under the stars. It was heaven.

A big part of the charm was that we never once looked at a screen of any size: no email, no Internet, no phones, no TV.

Which made me wonder: is unplugging now the ultimate luxury?

Of course, being online can be wonderful. We are hardwired to be curious and to connect and communicate. The problem is that in a world of limitless information and constant access to other people, we often don’t know when to stop.

Being “always on” is exhausting and superficial. It erodes our producitivity. It locks us into what one Microsoft research called a state of “continuous partial attention.”

That’s why a backlash is gathering steam.

Consider the rise of the Slow Technology movement.

Or the response to news that more airlines are planning to allow travelers to use mobile phones and surf the Internet during flights.

You would expect a roar of applause from passengers desperate to stay connected in the air.  But the opposite is true. A recent survey of business travelers – the Crackberry demographic – found that 91.2% were against wiring up flights for phone and Internet use.

Why? Because the plane is now the final frontier, the last place on earth where you can completely disconnect, where you can forget about your inbox and voicemail. A place to doze, doodle and daydream. A place where your time is truly your own.

One frequent flyer I know puts it this way: “I hate flying but I look forward to flights now because it’s the only time when no one can bother or interrupt me. These days I do some of my best thinking on planes.”

And of course there is another compelling reason to resist the wiring up of flights: Can you imagine anything worse than being woken by someone in the next seat shouting ”I’m on an airplane!” into a handset?

For more thoughts on this, check out my piece in the current issue of Vodafone Receiver.

Slow London

It’s finally here.

The first Slow Down London festival kicked off on Friday with, among other things, a very slow walk across Waterloo Bridge. Over the next 10 days, one of the world’s fastest cities will be exploring the benefits of putting on the brakes with a heaving smorgasbord of talks, activities, workshops and media coverage.

This is hugely exciting. If you’d said to me five years ago, when In Praise of Slow came out, that London would be holding a big Slow Down festival in 2009 I would have written you off as a dreamer. Or a loon. It shows how far the Slow revolution has come – and how fast.

Of course, skeptics say it’s impossible to slow down in London. But they are wrong. You don’t have to move to the country to decelerate. You can be slow anywhere because slow is a state of mind. It’s about how you use time.

Slow Down London does not aim turn this magnificent city into a Mediterranean holiday resort or a painting by John Constable. The energy and dynamism of London are wonderful  The problem is that we get caught up in the frenzy and it backfires on us. We can get so much more out of London by slowing down a bit.

So if you live in or near London, I urge you to take part in some of the festival events. If you live somewhere else, why not start planning a Slow Down festival in your own town?

Tonight, I will be speaking at the Southbank centre about the Slow movement. On Monday, I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion about what the Slow movement means for crafts and the art of making things. And on Wednesday, I’m chairing a discussion about Slow travel.

In other words, it won’t be a very slow week for me…

 

Slow down South

I’m in Buenos Aires at the moment. It’s amazing how the Slow philosophy strikes such a powerful chord here. I have a theory. Well, actually, I have several theories but here’s the one on my mind at the moment. Like others in the developing world, the Argentines feel that drive to catch up with the West as fast as possible, perhaps without even asking whether everything we have is really worth striving for. But Buenos Aires is also a very cultured city, a place where people read books and talk about ideas, which means they are more open to cultural shifts like the Slow philosophy than are other places. Result: a fascinating paradox and an ardent desire to make sense of it all. Just a thought.

Slow camping

There is nothing slower than camping. We have just returned from three nights at theResurgence Summer Campwhich was held near Malvern, Worcestershire in England. I spoke on the first morning and then the rest of the time we slipped into festival-goer mode. It was a joy waking up to the sound of birds singing instead of the trill of the mobile phone or that ping from the email inbox. The site was set by a river and surrounded by trees, and the sun shone constantly. The best part was watching our children spend the whole day, and some of the night, running around playing with new friends. So much freedom. The composting toilets take a bit of getting used to, but nothing beats showering in the outdoors. We’ve got the camping bug now and are already planning our next trip.

Speed walking

Research in 32 cities around the world has revealed that, on average, pedestrians are now walking 10% faster than they did 12 years ago. The acceleration has been most acute in the booming economies of Asia. The Chinese have upped their walking speed by nearly 30%. The weird thing is that some cities with a reputation for being laidback now rank among the fastest. Dublin came fifth and Copenhagen second. As it happens, I was in the Danish capital yesterday and didn’t notice a brisker pace, but maybe it was just a slow day. Here is the conclusion of the head researcher: “People’s walking pace is determined by how much they think they’re in a hurry, how quickly they think they should be doing things…I believe a lot of it is technology-driven. These days, you press send on an email and if someone hasn’t responded in ten minutes, you think: ‘Where are they?'”