In the early 1800s, scientists were working on a sci-fi-esque technology that would revolutionise the way people spoke to eachother. And getting nowhere with it. What they had to work with was a current: a continuous, stable electrical current. What they lacked was a way to turn this super-fast electricity into coherent communication. Lots of wacky ideas were put forward, but it wasn’t until the 1830s someone realised the trick might be quite simple: switching the thing off.
A binary system was developed, where interruptions in the current – little blips of coded absence – could take the place of letters. They called it the telegraph, and for the first time in human history, people on one side of the world could talk to those on the other side almost instantly.
It was a watershed moment, but it was immediately followed by lots of 19th century hand-wringing on how this newfangled tech was going to be the downfall of human connection, independent thought and basic grammar (telegraph operators used to save time by abbreviating phrases – BTU was ‘back to you’, ‘see you later’ became CUL). Sounds familiar doesn’t it. Fast-forward about two hundred years and we’re having the same conversation. With the pace of modern living, with instant gratification on tap and the sum-total of human information literally at our fingertips, people are more worried than ever about speed.
Enter the Slow Movement.
The advent of the Slow Movement
The Slow Movement gained traction in the mid-80s after a Rome resident campaigned against the opening of a McDonalds in the Piazza di Spagna. This spawned Slow Food – a more sustainable and regional alternative to fast food – then came Slow Cities, Slow Living and (of course) Slow Travel. The Slow Movements unofficial godfather, author Carl Honore, described the phenomena this way:
“It is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible.”
Live slow. Travel slow.
This approach seems particularly apt when it comes to travel, because it’s one of those activities that lends itself to binging. Our instinct is to cram in more highlights, more temples, more monks, more galleries, more meals, more wanderlust, faster faster faster, all in order to “maximise our time”. Travel companies now promise twenty Europe countries in 15 days. Big bus trips drag photo-snapping tourists from highlight to highlight like an elaborate Pez machine that dispenses superficial memories instead of candy. People have actually started using the phrase ‘I’ve done Belgium’. We now expect all current all the time. No telegraphic blips. No interruptions. No meaning.
The Slow Travel movement is a cultural whiplash against this kind of thinking. Instead of spending your two-week European holiday flying from museum to museum in the back of a bus, you pick one spot – maybe a cottage in the French countryside – and stay there. You take the time to learn the rhythms of local life. You buy food from the market. You cook it. You explore. You spend some time doing nothing. This idea is that place, a real sense of place, takes a dedicated chunk of time to cultivate.
There’s an awful lot of clutter in modern life, and the only logical antidote to clutter is simplicity. Slow Travel excels at simplicity. Freed from the pressure of ‘seeing everything’, you can actually relax a bit and enjoy your holiday. There’s a better chance you’ll meet local people, see a few sights off the traditional tourist path and get an appreciation for a different way of life (which some would argue is the whole point of travel in the first place).
Slow Travel also tends to keep tourism dollars in the pockets of those who need them most. Money stays in local communities, local restaurants, local farms. You usually also end up saving on transport an accommodation costs and practising more of the local language. It’s basically a distillation of our favourite bits of travel, without any of the frenzied list-checking or selfie-snapping competitiveness that distracts from the fun of the journey.
The telegraph is an interesting flashback in history. On the one hand it’s nice to know that people 200 years ago worried about this stuff too (and in fact every great leap forward in communication technology has been accompanied by prophecies of social doom); but it’s also important to remember that for the telegraph, the meaning, the words, only came from absence. From silence. You can’t have current all the time, and you can’t travel on a continuous hamster wheel of highlights. Now more than ever, we need to switch off.
Jump on board one of Intrepid’s Basix small group adventures, where you’ll be blessed with a bunch of free time to travel as slow as you like.
Feature image c/o Moyan Brenn, Flickr