“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” ~Marcel Proust
If you have ever traveled out of the country, think for a moment about what you brought back with you — other than souvenirs or a stomach bug. What did you learn about yourself and the world by leaving the comforts of home?
International travel definitely provides perspective on our cultural norms and the way we live our lives. Most of the time when I've traveled abroad, I have found myself returning home thrilled with the adventure and novelty of another country, but profoundly grateful for my life in Atlanta — especially as it relates to toilets, showers and predictable electrical outlets.
This past week, I was on vacation in Marbella (pronounced Mar-bay-uh), a coastal town in southern Spain that is a destination spot for vacationing Europeans (and for Michelle Obama and her daughters who were there a few weeks before me).
I came away from this trip thinking that Spaniards know a few things about living well and having fun that we Americans have yet to embrace.
Marbella is known for it's beautiful Mediterranean beaches and as the vacation spot for globetrotters and celebrities, including Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith. We chose to stay in a quieter area away from the beach called Old Town. We stayed in a quaint pension, The Townhouse, which was lovely, comfortable, and reasonably priced.
Old Town looks like the movie set of a perfect old European village replete with narrow cobblestone streets, whitewashed buildings, boutiques, and courtyards with fountains and outdoor cafes. Flowers are growing everywhere — on vines climbing walls, in pots on the streets, and draping from window boxes on the apartments and old houses.
The month of August, the entire month, is vacation time for Europeans. The town and beaches were full of Spaniards on holiday, as well as Germans, French, British, and Scandinavians. We encountered only a few other Americans whom we could spot because they were wearing their tops at the beach (women) or not wearing a Speedo (men).
In Spain, daily activity begins late morning with lunch around 2:00. Everything closes around 4:00 for siesta. I'm not kidding. Storefronts close and lock up. Restaurants stop serving. The streets are totally deserted. I found this unbelievable when someone told me and went out anyway thinking it was an urban legend. It's not. I wandered the streets alone wondering what these Spaniards do during siesta. No one was around to ask.
Around 9:00 p.m., the streets come alive. Stores open up again. Restaurant owners pull tables and chairs back outside, and shops enjoy a brisk business. The small streets in Old Town were packed with people — not just night owl clubbing types but entire families with children in strollers and grandma and grandpa following behind. The children were cleaned and dressed up. Women looked refreshed and elegant. Men were chatting easily with friends and looked relaxed. Everyone seemed happy and full of life.
Dinner generally begins around 10:00 p.m. You see large groups sitting together in courtyard cafes enjoying Sangria or wine followed by lengthy meals that are not rushed along by harried tip-seeking servers. (Tips are not expected.) It's assumed you will spend the evening at your table, and it is often well after midnight before the meal ends. Children are involved in all of this drawn out dining, and to our amazement, they were incredibly well-behaved, even as dinner lingered into the late hours.
Only occasionally did we see someone talking on a cell phone during dinner. None of the children were texting or playing with electronic games or complaining of boredom. They were eating, talking, and generally enjoying being with other people in a relaxed and vibrant atmosphere. It felt like a huge family celebration.
Granted, this was vacation season, the weather was perfect, and people had a reason to feel upbeat. But the sense of community and joie de vivre were uniquely European — maybe uniquely Spanish. You don't see too much joyful communing at Applebee's or TGI Friday's. It's mostly “gobble and go” here in the old USA.
So what did I bring back with me from my trip to Marbella? Aside from two beautiful leather purses, a couple of scarves, and some gifts for my family, I brought back an appreciation for some very life-affirming customs embraced by the Spanish people . . .
1. Take enough vacation to really vacate. A week of vacation allows you to begin to de-stress and unwind by about day four. By the time you feel relaxed, it's time to pack up to go home. A month of vacation would feel like a real sabbatical, but it's unlikely to ever happen in the U.S. However, a couple of weeks off a few times a year would be enough to feel like you have a real respite and time to relax and rejuvenate.
2. Rest during the day. The Spanish take their siesta time very seriously. The working world shuts down, and people rest and spend time with their families. What a concept. A short siesta during the day would probably save many professionals from stress-related illnesses and workplace conflict. What if offices had siesta lounges and computer and cell phone use was discouraged for an hour during the day? Wouldn't that be blissful?
3. Make meals an occasion. I am embarrassed to say how infrequently my family sits down together for a meal. Granted, I have three teenagers who are off in different directions. But even when we do sit down together, the meal is brief — more of a means to an end rather than a relaxed and fun family event. Busy American life does not lend itself to regular lingering meals, but I would like to make it a goal at least once a week to have a sacred family meal that isn't rushed. Maybe we'd even have a real conversation.
4. Enjoy a sense of community. The environment of Old Town Marbella lends itself to congregating with friends and family. It's harder to do that in the suburbs or even the urban areas of most American cities. But it's not impossible. American's tend to isolate themselves and watch television or surf the net rather than go out and spend time with extended family and friends. When I observed the pleasure that the Spanish had in communing with each other, I understood why many people in the U.S. feel restless and lonely. We need to interact with others to feel whole.
5. Allow children to entertain themselves. The Spanish children we saw in Marbella were uniformly better behaved than children I observe in my community and in the U.S. in general. They are included in social activities with adults, and they don't need television, computers, ipods or cell phones to keep them entertained. From an early age, they learn social interactions, table manners, and a sense of the inherent value of community. With all of the activity around them, they had much to occupy their senses and imaginations.
In the land of plenty, it is easy to become a bit smug about all of the luxuries and creature comforts that we enjoy as Americans. Not that I want to live elsewhere — I am profoundly grateful for my life in the U.S. and recognize that I am blessed far beyond most people in the world. But it was eye-opening for me to realize that some of our blessings as Americans have pulled us away from valuable cultural traditions that our European cousins still hold dear.
It doesn't hurt to be reminded that a balance of rest and work, punctuated by regular human interaction and simple fun, is what makes for a full and joyful life. I think I'm going to give it a try.
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