As I write this, I am staying in the beautiful little community of Bussum outside of the bustling city of Amsterdam. This past week my husband and I have enjoyed the lovely, culturally rich cities of Copenhagen, Denmark and Stockholm, Sweden. Now we get to experience the wonderful world of the Dutch.
Life seems different here but I still am not sure if it’s because I am on vacation mode or if it’s real. The pace seems slower and there seems to be a focus on enjoying life instead of racing through it.
I of course lump all three countries together in my observations which I’m sure the locals would not at all approve of, but although there have been some differences, I have tried to take away some of the life lessons that stand out overall.
First of all, I love the biking culture. In Copenhagen, we were told that 40% of the Danes ride bikes to work and it seemed like it was the chosen mode of transportation for most. Of course with a 180% tax on vehicles it makes sense.
In Stockholm, we didn’t see as many bikes but it was still very popular. Here in The Netherlands it’s definitely the way to go. Bike lanes are a given on all of the major roadways with their own stoplights and crossing lights. Professionals in suits and dresses along with the more relaxed riders peddle along the gorgeous paths lined with flowers and foliage, next to canals and waterways criss-crossed by scenic bridges here and there.
Even getting around can be a lovely, relaxing experience with the call to spending time outside being of upmost importance. Whether walking or biking, staying fit becomes a natural way of life without the constant focus of carving out time to schedule workouts.
Outdoor gathering spaces, cafe seating, parks and small playgrounds are filled with people who seem to know the importance of taking time. Coffee breaks become important and long meals savoring both food and conversation are given prominence throughout the day.
In Sweden for example, the Fika, or Swedish coffee break, is extremely important. It is often part of both the morning and afternoon and usually includes coffee and a sweet treat.
In Anna Brones’ book on the subject, she says that “life without fika is unthinkable”. She goes on to say that, “Whatever fika looks like, the point is that people deliberately carve out time in their day. It’s this intention to slow down and take a break that makes it such an important part of daily life — one that not only connects people by opening up windows to decompress and communicate, but because it’s a shared value — a tradition recognized as important throughout the country.”
My niece, who has lived here in the Netherlands for the past 8 months has seen the great benefits and challenges of trying to incorporate the “European lifestyle” to her own. She is slowly trying to readjust her American “training” of business and achievement to the Dutch lifestyle of savoring and connecting.
Both lifestyles have a lot to offer so the trick then becomes how to merge the two together in order to maintain a vital level of success with the ability to enjoy life to the fullest. The United States, while being very goal orientated yet not ranking high on happiness, could learn a lot from the area of the world that sweeps the happiness and contentment scales.
Before embarking on our trip, I read an interesting article on “white space” in graphic design. White space in design is the space between the design elements that is empty. Minimalism is all about this space and designers in all areas are grasping the importance of it.
The outcomes of white space in design are:
1. A clear focus on content which creates visual and emotional comfort
2. Creates a feeling of luxury and high quality
3. Creates balance and “breathing room”
4. Emphases the important elements being featured
As I have thought about the elements of the “European lifestyle” that I feel drawn to, I realize that what I love is their use of white space in their daily lives.
How can we incorporate these same principles in our lives?
1. Clarity. We can create clarity and focus on what we want to emphasize and enjoy. White space is about minimizing what we see that distracts us from what is purposeful. Possessions, schedules, toxic relationships, projects, or just things that take up our time and attention can be scaled down. For example, a dining room table is much more enjoyable without piles of clutter covering it.
2. Quality. Getting rid of extra clutter in our lives can create a richer, peaceful, more positive way of life. We can create a better quality life for ourselves simply by trimming down the things that bog us down. Learning to savor moments and the things we find important to us bring our own level of luxury, even if its relatively simple. Even taking time to sit down and enjoy a box of mac and cheese can be made into an enjoyable experience by using some imagination!
3. Balance. Removing non-essentials from our surroundings as well as from all aspects of life can create better balance and actual time to breath. Cutting down on other areas such as social media and exposure to news reports can also create this needed emotional space. Allowing time for fika is a great example-without the cell phone! For me, time in prayer and in the Bible create this breathing space as well as walking and exercising.
4. Prioritizing. Allowing our priorities to rise to the top and take precedence takes intentionality. Making choices of what to spend our time, resources and emotional energy on takes discipline, not to mention perseverance. We can often let guilt and others’ agendas dictate what we allow into our lives that only distract us from the most important elements. Saying “no” to even great things is a good place to start.
Even as I write this I realize how hard it is to incorporate white space into our American lives since being busy seems noble and the constant juggling of projects and activities is attached to our personal value. We could do well to take the advice of the graphic artist teaching about the importance of this space.
He encouraged practice. That’s all we can do. We can start with a small area and try ridding ourselves of the clutter and see that not only will we survive but we may even start to thrive. We may be surprised by the freedom that comes as our priorities rise to the surface and we begin to focus our time and attention on what matters most. Not only might we start to enjoy life more but we may also be able to be the best version of ourselves to offer to others.
My most important goal in living my best life is that as a follower of Jesus Christ, I believe that as I clear my life of unnecessary distractions and create the white space I’m looking for, it will allow me to spend more time learning how to walk according to the Spirit of God and then translate that into more meaningful experiences with people.
Jesus seemed to talk about this very idea when addressing the differences between Mary and Martha in Luke 10 and 11. It all comes down to focus, clarity, choices and space.
Slowing down and savoring life seems to be a great way to worship the life-giver and in turn will allow us to savor more of God in the process. And who doesn’t want that? These are all great lessons I’m trying to learn from the Europeans and I’m going to practice as much as I can before I hit US soil.
How about you? How can you learn to slow down and enjoy life a little more?