Slow living Montreal

In praise of slow living, ie. slow the fuck down, Montreal

“I consider cycling and walking my therapy — an antidote to my naturally wired persona and my a-million-thoughts-a-minute brain, and a refuge from often-frustrating online debates and angry trolls. I credit a car-free lifestyle with improving my mental health and dramatically decreasing my daily stress levels.”

This past Saturday and Sunday, we were treated to the most glorious of fall weekends. Brilliant sun, summer-like temperatures, and everywhere we looked nature was on fire as Mother Nature puts on one last, dazzling show before winter slowly starts setting in. 

I chose to stay as far away as I could from social media and the daily barrage of online messages. I opted, instead, to slow it all down and spend as much time outside as I could, soaking up everything around me. 

In all honesty, I consider cycling and walking my therapy. While I know it’s not feasible for everyone, I fully credit a car-free lifestyle with improving my mental health and dramatically decreasing my daily stress levels. Walking and cycling provide an antidote to my naturally wired persona and my a-million-thoughts-a-minute brain, as well as provide refuge from often-frustrating online debates and angry trolls. It’s nice to detach and slow down.

Putting some distance between you and your life

Of course, I’m not preaching anything new. This slow-living phenomenon has roots in the Slow Food movement, started in the 1980s, in Italy. I suppose it’s no surprise that Italy is also the country where dolce far niente is both a popular expression and a way of life. Dolce far niente means observing all the big and small elements of life around you and recharging your batteries. It literally translates to “sweet doing nothing.” It may sound like idleness, like checking out, but it’s the opposite. It’s more like slowing down enough to take it all in and take a break from the rat race. It’s a way of reorganizing your energy, of unwinding and putting some distance between you and your life, your problems, your irritants or obsessions, whatever they may be.

Walking and biking do that for me, and as a child who spent an inordinate amount of time reading alone, making up stories, roaming nearby forests in search of Big Foot, I sincerely hope today’s kids are searching for him, too.

Boredom isn’t a bad thing

Don’t be afraid to let your kids get bored. I sometimes fear that children’s activities are so structured that kids these days simply don’t have time to discover, problem-solve, observe the world around them closely, develop a sense of wonder and just figure things out on their own. 

While I marvel at how computer- and smart-phone-savvy they are, I also worry that so much non-stop stimulation doesn’t allow for them to tackle moments where absolutely nothing is going on around them. Allowing them to make something of those “empty” moments, to fuel them creatively and imagine the world differently, is, I believe, essential. 

There is magic in imagination and finding your way out of boredom. It also allows children to grow up understanding that not everything around them is geared to constantly cater to or entertain them. You don’t have to be the recipient of energy and attention all the time, the centre of all the action. I think it’s vital for both your mental and emotional development and your self-reliance to be bored, to be forgotten for a little, to be left to your own devices. You need to learn to simply exist.

Slowing down the world’s relentless pace

And life is best savoured slowly. Unrushed. It’s where its meaning is often found. It’s why so many of us “find ourselves” in the activities we love and most get lost in.

“J’existe. C’est doux, si doux, si lent. Et léger: on dirait que ça tient en l’air tout seul. Ça remue. Ce sont des effleurements partout qui fondent et s’évanouissent. Tout doux, tout doux.”

“I exist. It’s sweet, so sweet, so slow,” writes Jean Paul Sartre in Nausea. “And light: you’d think it floated all by itself. It stirs. It brushes by me, melts and vanishes. Gently, gently.”

Of course, one doesn’t need the philosophical musings of a depressed existentialist agonizing over the banality and emptiness of life only to eventually discover hope to appreciate slow living. It’s more about reminding us that in a world obsessed with “getting things done,” it’s okay to occasionally leave things undone — to revel in the often unnoticed and undervalued small little pleasures. The tiny, imperceptible things that make us question, think, smile, sigh with gratitude, bring us peace. They don’t have to be grandiose or loud.

In her thoughtful collection of essays on walking, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, the brilliant Rebecca Solnit observes: “Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented society — and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.” 

Sounds about right to me. 

The preciousness of ordinary peace 

During a long, leisurely bike ride to the West Island with a friend on Saturday, and a long solitary walk on Sunday, I soaked it all up. Montrealers were out in full force by the shimmering waterfront jogging, biking, walking their dogs, suntanning, reading their books, talking to friends, fishing and kayaking. The paddling clubs were putting away their boats for the season, people were lining up for ice cream, picnic tables in parks were occupied by friends or families BBQing or throwing kids’ birthday parties, balloons bobbing in the air. 

I saw a couple dancing the tango, lost in each other and their intricate, slow, sensual steps. Two people were sitting in inflatable beanbag chairs facing the water, popping open a bottle of Prosecco just as I biked by. Newlywed couples were taking their first pictures. Yard after yard, people were raking bright yellow, crimson red, vibrant orange leaves. Rows of Canadian Tire paper bags lining the edge of their properties, by the road, ready to be recycled. A very ordinary, very Canadian image, repeated everywhere across the country this time of year. 

Noticing the everyday details

Everywhere I looked, I saw mundane, ordinary images of people on their front lawns going on about their daily suburban chores — preparing their rose bushes for winter, changing the oil in their car, putting up their Halloween decorations. The luxury of living in a place where there’s no war, no famine, no running for your life. It’s good to be reminded of how lucky we are as we go about our business complaining about the noise of leaf blowers, the traffic and the potholes. We are privileged beyond belief. It’s okay to notice.

At one point, my friend and I found ourselves sitting on a memorial bench to rest. I’ve always loved the idea of benches that honour a lost loved one. Often, they’re placed in places that were special to the person who has passed away, allowing us to look out at a view they, too, enjoyed while they were walking this earth. I always read the dedications. There’s a story there. A life lived. The one we happened to sit on that day was dedicated to Ben Pownall, who died in 2019.

“May the winds whisper in your ear how much I love you and miss you. Love, Sue. xx.” 

Sue loved Ben. Sue misses Ben. I hope Sue is doing okay. For a moment, I was connected to two people I don’t know and will never meet because I sat on a bench and read a message honouring that life and that relationship. That wouldn’t have been possible if I were whizzing by in a car. 

You can do ‘slow’ in a fast city 

Most of us have learned to associate fast living with cities and “slow and relaxed” with the countryside or the sleepy suburbs, but you can do “slow” in a city, too. You can live in the middle of a busy, bustling city and still walk down quiet alleyways and neighbourhoods, peeking through windows, stopping to pet dogs and talk to neighbours, “trying to feel,” as writer Annie Dillard says, “the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.” That mindfulness and appreciation for what we’re surrounded by can’t be done at 100 km per hour.

You can’t fall in love with your city while looking at it through the windshield of a car. You’d miss the rush of the river rapids by the LaSalle waterfront, the chirping of the birds on Mount Royal, the clang and hissing of your local café, the appreciative murmur heard in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the smell of fresh Montreal bagels wafting through the Mile End, the sounds of multiple languages being spoken around us, the crunch of a residential street full of autumn leaves, the hustle and bustle of the Atwater Market’s farmers’ booths, the intense, bright colours of the seasonal produce, the “Comment allez-vous?” and “Combien pour le panier?” bantering as you reach for those crisp apples and Quebec garlic, the sound of daycare munchkins awkwardly/eagerly/confusingly shuffling to the park, all tethered together so they don’t wander off. For all that, you need to be sur le terrain. 

And all these images and sounds and smells give us something in return. They remind us that we’re human and connected to each other and to a city we call home. What we come to consider our space suddenly expands. 

“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back,” says Solnit. It’s a beautiful exchange. But for it to take place, you need to slow down long enough to allow it to. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.