Slow travel is not the same as moving to another place, but it’s not quite a vacation either. Sometimes it feels more like the former, sometimes more like the latter, and sometimes it feels like an experience we’ve never had – a terrain we’ve not traversed before.
When does it feel like a vacation? The first weeks of a new destination offer an endless array of tourist “must dos” and photographable moments. You make a list of all the things you have to do before you leave. Just understanding the basic bones of the city – and how you get from one place to another – are paramount. How do you say “please”, “thank-you”, “excuse me”, “can I have my check please” in the local language seems important -- even if most people understand English -- out of respect. But, after a couple of weeks, you realize you need some down time - you want to just spend some time in your apartment, reading a book or working on a project. Not all of life can be spent in vacation-mode. Yes, you will go to see the sights, but once or twice a week, not every day.
When does it feel like you are living there? After a few days to a week, you realize you need to know where a variety of essential stores are and which ones sell which things. How do those appliances work in your lodging? When you’re on vacation, if you can’t figure out how the coffee maker, or washing machine, or oven work, it’s not a big deal. But when you live someplace, you eventually want to make coffee before your spouse wakes up, or do a load of laundry, or bake dinner. We’ve only stayed in two places so far, and I have spent untold hours trying to understand the washing machines in two different countries – neither of which is like each other or U.S. washers. After a couple of weeks, you stop looking at maps every time you go out. You’ve developed an instinct for where things are relative to your home and each other. You begin to feel like this is “your” neighborhood and “your” city.
When does this lifestyle feel like something else entirely – neither vacation, nor residency? Lodging issues can make you feel a bit untethered. For most of our lives, we found places to live – within our budget and location needs – that we could adjust and tweak to suit our preferences. If we wanted a certain type of mattress, we saved until we could buy a new one. Here, we are at the whim of the places we choose – but only for a limited time. While we can’t really change much about the place we’re in, we’re never entirely sure what we’ll find at the next place. Our first place was in a great location, had a terrific host, and was roomy and well-stocked. But, it didn’t get much light and the furniture was not so comfortable. In this place, we’re also in a great location but this time we have tons of light, a little yard, and the furniture is comfortable. But the place is very small and compact, not as well stocked, and the work desk has to be repurposed as a table for eating meals. When you’re on vacation, you don’t look for a place that you can live in, and when you’re living in one place you build a place you can live in. This is something else – a new terrain.
Another difference from either vacation or regular residency is the amount of time spent with your travel partner (in our case, our spouse). In some ways, this is more like a vacation – we do most things together, most days, most of the time. When we are exploring a new place, it is fun to do that together. But we also need some space to work on our own projects, and after a while, we don’t both need to go to the grocery or the bakery. We aren’t together 24/7, but we’re together a lot more than we were before we started this lifestyle.
Probably the most significant plus of this lifestyle is the never-ending opportunity to learn about other people and other cultures. Slow travel offers an opportunity to stay long enough to pick up on some of the nuance of another place. What does the body language mean? What habits are irritating to others? What are local people most proud of? What makes a place truly special that you don’t read in guide books? Each new location offers a new opportunity for learning about others.
This lifestyle is the least consumerist lifestyle I’ve ever led. You can’t buy very much – you won’t have the room in your suitcase, or it will weigh too much. You begin to realize how many things you’ve bought over your life to fill a house. Instead, you spend your money on experiences, things you will use before you leave, small things to send to family or friends and, occasionally, a few really small, light things to keep. Sometimes if you buy something to keep, you have to discard something else to make room for it.
Slow travel also requires patience and flexibility. We didn’t have our Nespresso machine in Lisbon, but we found a great place to buy beans ground for the older-style drip coffee maker in the apartment. In London, we kind of figured out the moka pot located in our flat, but when we saw a French press on sale for 14£ we snatched it up, and had our lovely roasted coffee beans ground for a French press. You can’t buy the cereal you always eat, but you can find something similar. I think it was the lack of a clothes dryer in a chilly, damp Lisbon apartment in January that taught me the most humility. Unlike previous dryer-less trips where we could hang our clothes on a sunny outdoor balcony, it took 2-3 days for our jeans to dry hanging inside a place with no central heat. Part of me felt like it was just unreasonable to wait 3 days for a pair of jeans to dry – especially when each of us only brought one pair of jeans. Part of me just yearned for a simple clothes dryer. I think this is when the ordinary, routine privileges of my former lifestyle became apparent to me. Lots of people around the world don’t have conveniences I have taken for granted. And in the end, I realized it was dissatisfaction with the ordinary nature of the old routines of our lives that led us to this life of discovery in the first place.
No, we didn’t move to Lisbon, or London, or Helsinki. But no, we’re not on vacation either. Instead, we’re soaking up the education of our lives by staying just long enough.