19 April 2014

RIVER-CRUISING MUSING: Doing Nothing

Relaxing in a cafe in Montmarte
in Paris, France.
Photo: Paris Tourist Office
There used to be a time when I travelled to do things. Now, to be honest, I travel to do nothing at all. There are only so many churches and temples, museums and ancient ruins anyone can see in a lifetime and still feel excited about. But I could while away lots of time dawdling on waterfronts, sitting in caf├ęs and snoozing in public parks. Or, best of all, admiring up a sunset over some splendid landscape. To me, travel is increasingly about just meandering along, soaking up sights and sounds and the essence of a destination, without being too worried about doing all its must-sees. No wonder I’m a big fan of river cruising.
We’ve all been to places where we just rush around trying to pack in every sight and experience. If you’re a package tourist, it’s the “If it’s Thursday it must be Rome” kind of feeling. But these action-oriented travels can be rather ineffective. Our lives and travels seem to have become about aims and bucket lists and ticking things off. But I don’t know if anyone has ever explained to me how this is better than doing nothing at all. And I wonder whether we really enjoy this kind of hectic travel, or if we just do it so we can boast to our friends about all the places we’ve seen and things we’ve done. Wouldn’t it be better if we just slowed down?
Dolce far niente by John Waterhouse, 1880.
Photo: Wikicommons
Interestingly, tourism started with the premise that we should get away and do nothing. The whole concept of leisure was more of less invented (and made possible) in the twentieth century. Before that, the working classes worked all the time, and the aristocratic classes never worked at all as Jane Austen fans will know, so the concept of an individual life divided into work and leisure, as we see it, was rather meaningless. Leisure became one of the ways the newly emerging middle class aped their aristocratic “betters”. Leisure, like consumption, became a symbol of social standing, just like a good suntan in Western countries – proof that you could spend your time lounging by a pool or on the beach and not have to work.
These days, we see leisure as a public good, even a citizen’s right. And yet we seem to be losing the capacity for enjoying true leisure, filling our days with busyness – not to mention endless digital communication. “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room,” said seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal. And surely in the intervening centuries, it has only become worse. Even travel, the ultimate in leisure activities, has become a dizzying round of doing things.
Doing not very much on a Greek beach.
Photo: Wikicommons.
Of course, a rver cruise can sometimes seem like that too, with its frequent shore excursions and must-see sights. But river cruises also provide plenty of opportunity to do nothing at all. By this I don’t mean simple inertia, something I touched on in my previous post On Feeling Lazy. What I really mean is the appreciation of tranquillity and inaction for its own sake, because it brings its own particular pleasures. It couldn’t be further from ennui, or that kind of bored frustration at having nothing to do.
We so seldom appreciate the art of doing nothing these days. Maybe it’s something we all need to practice a little bit more. When I head off on a river cruise, I always make sure that doing nothing is part of the experience.

What do you think? Why not add your comment and join the conversation.

1 comment:

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