Everybody wants to travel, but nobody wants to be considered a tourist. Slow travel is the idea to travel mindfully. Its thesis is that travel shouldn’t be a jam-packed itinerary of eating, snapping photos, throwing out your trash out and leaving. Travelers should focus on experiences, not items on a list. It’s a movement to make travel more sustainable – necessary, as more than one billion tourists descended on the world’s cities in 2014 alone.
So far, I’m in. In the accelerated, over-stimulated world that most of us live in, slow travel is an open invitation to disconnect, to move slow and act slower and truly absorb the culture.
And yet, since the movement’s righteous beginnings (it was an offshoot of the Slow Food movement started in Italy to protest fast food) its meaning seems to have been slowly warped by travel magazines and hipster ‘holier-than-thou’ travelers. Instead of a movement dedicated to living in the moment while traveling, it’s become a movement that simply reviles those who aren’t able to dedicate decent amounts of time for a trip. Short trips are automatically a part of the industrial military complex of travel. Perhaps those most hated of all are the weekend trippers, like me.
The slow travel movement is a great concept, but it seems the rhetoric has changed.
“Imagine living for a week in a little French cottage, buying fresh vegetables from the farmer’s market every morning, sipping cafe au lait on your favorite sidewalk terrace, and taking leisurely day trips to neighboring villages and chateaus,” says an online article on the benefits of slow travel.
I agree, it sounds lovely. I also agree that multiple flights aren’t sustainable, but I fail to see how “sipping café au lait on your favorite sidewalk terrace” makes you a better, more sustainable traveler than those who don’t have the time to do so.
I’m the first to dream of elaborate month-long trips in one location. I plan hypothetic summers abroad studying a language and dream of being completely assimilated in multiple cultures, slipping effortlessly between the late dinners in Spain and the quick espresso shots for breakfast in Italy. Unfortunately, that’s not an option.
Most of us are only able to break away for a week every year. A week that we’re able to parachute into a new city, walk the streets, enjoy the food and take pictures before we fly back home to work and family and car payments. And we’re lucky to be able to do even that! I’d rather enjoy a couple nights of late dinners in Spain, surrounded by Spaniards, than none at all.
While the slow travel campaign has a good heart, I think its followers are forgetting that slow travel is a mindset, and people can effectively “travel slow” even with a limited amount of time.
Last summer my husband and I drove from our home in Milan, Italy to Verona for the weekend. We did touristy things, like see an opera in the Arena Verona and eat pizza at 1 a.m. with the other tourists in Piazza delle Erbe after the show, but we also didn’t bother anyone. We strolled through the city, we stayed at a local B&B where we discussed the changes Verona has gone through in the last 20 years with the owners. We descended to Lake Garda and rented bikes, leaving the car behind to not add to the hated traffic. We ate at a local osteria high above the touristy piazza and later joined locals and visitors alike in a summer dip in the lake.
In two short days we felt like we had completely escaped our everyday lives. Our phones were off and our feet were sore from exploring. We had reconnected to each other and relaxed enough to let go of our usual weekday stresses. Isn’t that what slow travel is truly about?
Pico Iyer, ultimate traveler and proponent of stillness writes, “The essence of holidays, and therefore travel, is to get what you don’t get enough of the rest of the time. And for more and more of us, this isn’t movement, diversion or stimulation; we’ve got plenty of that in the palms of our hands. It’s the opposite: the chance to make contact with loved ones, to be in one place and to enjoy the intimacy and sometimes life-changing depth of talking to one person for five – or 15 – hours.”
Mass tourism can be problematic or even destructive, but it doesn’t have to be. Tourism can be sustainable regardless of the time spent in each destination. Can you fully immerse yourself in a culture in one weekend? Probably not. But you can get a taste. On my weekend trips I’ve familiarized myself with foreign menus, held conversations in a mix of languages and listened to the country’s current events from a local perspective. My carbon footprint and lack of local experiences may not make it into the slow travel canon, but by unplugging and being mindful of those around me, I was still “traveling slow.”
Purists snub their noses at us weekend-trippers, but I love culture, I love travel and I’ll take what I can get. It’s proven that travel makes people more empathetic, so isn’t it better that I see as many places as possible? Bump into as many different cultures as I can until I have the time to truly explore them further?
The weekend trip is a chance for us to slow down our normal life, to stay in one city for at least three days and simply enjoy our time there. We can reconnect, reboot and refresh – all before work on Monday.
I may not have a month or even a week to descend into a new culture, but I do have inexpensive transportation, an open mind, and a weekend.