Savouring idleness on holiday

Savouring idleness on holiday

This year I’ve unwillingly signed up for a nomadic lifestyle. It with itself brought a lot of challenges and ad hoc movements between places, blurring the line between working and non-working time, home and away, belonging and not belonging. Quite often I’ve been on the move and I’ve missed having my own physical dwelling and my small world around me. I’ve missed my usual rituals which make a great part of my everydayness and of who I am. Instead, I’ve been torn between the countries, the houses, the Airbnbs, here and elsewhere. All my belongings are temporarily boxed up while my vital stuff is packed in a single bag with which I move around. And while I am waiting for the stars to align and I can finally move into a flat in London, I am in Novi Sad, slowly sorting and packing my things before our family house is pulled down and we need to move towards the end of the year. So basically, when I am at home, I live surrounded by the construction site, and the construction site is not really the best place to wake up in or work at. When I think about it, I hadn’t asked for all this when I wrote to Santa last year! 2020 has been nothing I was expecting it to be; my known world has disintegrated and I’ve been all over the place, both physically and mentally. But then again, I am not alone in this. The whole world has been shaken and we all need to adapt and try to find new ways of being – even if it is moving around with a bindle stick, whistling the famous ‘Hakuna Matata’ song and hoping for the best.

An escapade

To keep peace of mind, I often dislocate from reality, which is currently full of dust, noise, uncertainties and tensions. I’ve always enjoyed solitude and being in liminal spaces, where I can do things my way and without having my thoughts interrupted. I would then pack my small backpack and leave for places in which I can focus and be physically active, and which fill me up with calm and joy. These places are normally away from the cities, where the absence of humans give way to the presence of wildlife, and where the colour green exists in abundances. This time, however, I made a slightly different choice. I didn’t feel like being physically active at all, I felt like I needed grounding in a place and literally doing nothing for extended periods of time. I thus sent myself to a spa town, a settlement in the border region where the River Drina separates Serbia from Bosnia, nestled between the foot of the wooded mountain Gučevo and the city of Loznica. This place, built around sulphuric thermal springs many moons ago, became my temporary sanctuary.

Banja Koviljača is not only the oldest spa town in Serbia but has been also known as the elite Royal Spa Resort with cutting-edge medical services. Its history dates far back into the past, however, the turning point in its development marked the year 1858 when the healing properties of its thermal springs and mineral peloid (mud) started to be used in the treatment of various diseases. Here, King Aleksandar I Karađorđević built Kur-salon for the entertainment purposes of the aristocratic elite. It contained the lavish ballrooms, the first gambling room in the Balkans, and an avant-garde congress centre. Banja Koviljača cemented its reputation as a spa town during the reign of King Petar I Karađorđević who built for himself the sulphuric bathtub near his residential palace. The spa consequently became a modern centre for prevention, healing and rehabilitation. In 1998, it was named the “Special hospital for rehabilitation Banja Koviljača” positioning itself among Europe’s state of the art rehabilitation centres. I simply thought this sounded like an ideal place to be, to heal my RA joints and exhausted mind.

Kur Salon

Slowing down

The first couple of days I was only pottering around the place in a blasé manner. The noise from the building site was gradually being replaced by the soothing shades of green, the cranes and bulldozers got the shape of trees and bushes, and the thick city dust turned into a crisp air of the Royal park. It was difficult to get used to the sounds of nature instead of relentless drilling noise and hundreds of decibels which were messing up my thoughts. Instead, the prolonged pealing of the bell coming from the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, which I could hear every day around lunchtime, was incredibly calming and therapeutic. I would walk out to the park with my laptop, randomly choose a bench to rest on, and do some work. I was finding cosy spots in and around the park, and, although my mind was still focused on work, I soon started to feel the difference. The tension left my body, instead, the fresh air and oxygen cleared my head and lungs, and my heartbeat became slower. Not only the heartbeat, my body movements too. The laziness overwhelmed me and I couldn’t be bothered to change that. I tried to imagine what the life of a sloth is like – do they only move slowly or they also think slowly? Or they don’t think at all? Anyway, the first few days of my stay I spent in the easy working mode, however as the weekend kicked in, I pressed the “Idle” button and, like that sloth, let my arm hang down the tree for days.

The Royal park

Bodily grounding

I didn’t go far, nor did I do much. I embedded myself in the surrounding landscapes. I was aimlessly wandering about and exploring the wild coast of the river Drina watching its flow as the storm was closing in. I was sitting at the wooden bench sheltered by a straw umbrella and counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder. I was picking berries in the forest, and chasing dragonflies and admiring their beauty. I was getting scratched whilst trying to reach out to the juicy wild fruits in the thick bushes. I positioned myself on top of the hill and observed the formation of the rainy clouds and the curtains made of rain connecting the surrounding hilltops and valleys. My hair was humid, my skin was scratched and muddy and my whole body was shaking in the sudden blast of chilly air. I wrapped myself in the beach towel and stood for hours in the summer breeze. When the sun shone through again, the tingling sensations overwhelmed me. Standing there, seemingly lost and alone, feeling the elements on the naked skin meant being part of the natural processes. As Tesla once said, when one feels the electricity in the body, then she knows she is part of the universe.

The Mount Gučevo

The mud bath

When one is in a royal spa, then why not behave like a king? I put on walrus moustache and got into King Peter’s shoes. I walked into the grandiose building adjacent to King Peter’s bath. I decided to purchase a “Royal day” as I was dying to learn how the king himself did it. The wellness centre is of a retro-futuristic interior; a mixed bag of old-fashioned design and new technologies which give away the modern era. It is certainly regal, very spacious with high ceilings and vaults and giant wooden doors with stylistic iron decor. I followed the therapist down the long corridor to the peloid room. The treatment started with the mud wrap. The bed was covered in cling foil over which the mud was spilt from the bucket and spread over by hand. It looked like the finest Belgium chocolate was melting all over the bed, although it was far from it for its smell of sulphur. I got wrapped up in peloid in which my body too became liquid. While I was laying motionless, my eyes were running across the room and the mellow music additionally relaxed me and nearly put to sleep. But, my mind was busy thinking of a long time the mud actually requires to ripe and become suitable for medicinal purposes. I spent a good twenty minutes wrapped in mud, smelling mud and thinking about mud. After a nice scrub and shower, I had a long thermo-mineral bubbly bath in the authentic bathtub. Then I dipped myself in the outdoor pool before the full-body anti-stress massage, and a fruit punch to finish off the programme. The mud was still occupying my mind.

Getting cosy and creative

I discovered nice eateries in the area, however without really searching for them. I flâneured in the rain along the main pedestrian street in Loznica, named after Jovan Cvijić, the founder of Serbian geography, who was born in this city. I was peeking into alleyways which very much reminded me of those in Novi Sad opening up into small squares full of cafes and restaurants and craft shops and people. One of these passages seemed particularly cosy. It was covered in lush greenery, the instrumental music was playing, the birds and parrots were chirping in the corner and it was empty of people. The air smelled of rain and leaves in the forest, combined with the smell of burned woods and pizza just getting crispy in the oven. I ordered fresh orange juice and some food and took the notebook out of my bag. It was just then when I started thinking about what free time actually means and what not doing much actually does to us. Having no plans or social commitments, having no direction of movement, doing things as they come, and as I please. It was also then when I remembered my conversations with a friend around concepts such as German Muße or Latin otium, or Serbian natenane. In essence, they all mean being idle – a qualitative and meaningful way of being. And this is exactly what I was doing, thus I wrote down: “Savouring idleness on holiday”. And this is how the writing unravelled around the idea of doing nothing as a creative, restorative and recuperative holiday activity. 

Restaurant ‘Cyrano’

Towards otium places

When you think about it, the frenetic digital era and capitalist society in which we live teach us to be relentlessly fast, networked and productive. At the same time, it makes us feel guilty if we are idle, slothful or unproductive. In such world, being bored is not considered a virtue, but rather as something that may get us into trouble or else, we could be excluded from certain social circles as no one wants useless time-wasters around. However, our fast and furious society keeps forgetting that idleness is, in fact, a noble activity. We forgot how to stop and rest, relax and recuperate by doing nothing. In the past, people of higher standing would often relocate to the countryside as it allowed space for boredom and idleness as part of quality leisure time. Doing nothing was considered beneficial not only for mental and physical health but also for boosting creativity and imagination. My short escapade into the spa town as an ideal otium place taught me how to stop to pause in the world where the construction site is the metaphor for constant busyness; how to appreciate stillness and idleness; and how to think of boredom and laziness in a totally different way.

Stay at home, return to self

Stay at home, return to self

New beginnings are always tricky. For most of us, undergoing a change is the major challenge. For me, settling into new environment is never that easy, and, coupled with complexities of bureaucracy and permeating fear from disease, additionally added to the uneasiness and unpleasantness of being elsewhere.

Whilst the process of coming here may sound like a real ordeal, I am trying to give value to its other dimension with its qualities such as hospitality, comfort, security and slowness. These are the concepts which I think lots about anyway, and now, in these strange times, they sound ever more relevant.

I have begun to appreciate this period in between jobs and all the good things it allows for, despite the moments in which I think I am stuck or that I am making no obvious progress. There is progress, but it is slow. It is not instantaneous, but takes time to occur. This situation is a great teacher. It shows us how things don’t really need to be done immediately. We should unlearn to be impatient, and learn to wait and embrace the process of waiting.

I am now sitting in a sofa, sipping mint tea and stroking a very lazy calico cat. I am wearing old but comfy clothes, my hair is messy and I have not put any make up for days. The sun is shining onto the books and furniture in the living room, the smell of food is coming from the kitchen, the distant chatter is making me feel secure as I am now within a family. I don’t have to rush anywhere and I have no deadlines to meet. But wait a second – isn’t this a luxury!?

Cotswolds hills, halfway between Chipping Norton and Churchill

This made me reflect on my first week of being in a place that I had never planned to occupy, and in which I ended up rather spontaneously. I realised that I have done things that I would otherwise struggle to find time for. I have read three books, written several letters and two blogs, completed two online teaching courses, updated my academic portfolio, cooked fine meals, slept long, experimented with honey, ginger and celery sticks mixture, exercised, ran and walked and simply enjoyed the peripatetic pleasures in the rural areas of Cotswold. I have been very patchy in reading the news and paid very little attention to the statistics that are here only to add to our anxieties and amplify fear.

I contrasted these days to the ones only several weeks ago when I was still at home. I would wake up at the crack of dawn to find peace and quiet to write before heading to work. I would struggle to read more than couple of pages of book before sleep because I would be too shattered to focus on anything, I would write zero letters and thousands of work-related emails. My phone would constantly buzz and flash and ring, I would eat take-away food or out in restaurants and would see none to very little of nature or my family. I would be ticking things off long to-do lists, sitting in meetings, discussing new or ongoing projects. And this was making me tired… mentally, emotionally and physically tired. It may be wrong to think this way, but I badly needed this break as it appears to be an ideal space to recuperate and consolidate.

True, in the rush and crush of modern life, fast speed is a norm. We rarely find time for boredom and idleness. We simply don’t give ourselves a break. The rarities are what makes us truly happy and, perhaps, ontologically free. In my case, these are space, quiet and time. A space to breathe, a quiet to relax, a time to dream. They allow for breaking away from our busy calendars. Doing things slowly and as they come help us forget the chronological time managed by the clock and embrace the time to do things meaningfully. The time I have spent here, in countryside, has totally slowed me down. It has reduced my heart beat, it slowed down my brain activity, it allowed me to get out for an amble in the fields with pen and paper and leave my phone behind.

And this is where I think that the newly coined phrase ‘Stay at home’, used to convey the message that we should be responsible, social distance and self-isolate indoors, has a broader meaning. It may represent an additional challenge in a culture of deadlines and expeditious achievement. Temporary staying at home can be an ideal restorative in compensating for the fast pace of modern urban life through offering great scope for the return to self through idleness, slowness, patience, security and, what is most important, familial and communal belonging. This situation is putting us on a test and showing us that we are not almighty machines, but only frail humans.

Making life choices amid coronavirus outbreak

Making life choices amid coronavirus outbreak

My packing was half done. The suitcase was wide open in the middle of the room as if I expected it to suck in all of my vital stuff at once and rid me of that eternal problem – what to pack? The suitcase was laying on the floor for days. I just couldn’t be bothered to pack. The feeling of being torn apart was distracting, overwhelming and more palpable than the excitement of going on a long journey. My usual pattern of everyday life was disrupted in favour of making a big, long-awaited change: I quit my job, moved out of my flat, searched for a new tenant. In parallel, I was sorting paperwork for my new job, searching for a new place to live, arranging a way of getting there.

Things were rapidly changing over the course of a single week. This time the circumstances were not working in my favour. My UK visa was delayed and I had to miss my flight, which meant I missed my first day at work; which meant my contract needed to be revised; which meant a number of additional emails needed to be sent. Alongside making new arrangements with work, accommodation and flights, I was following the news. Things were getting serious. The deadly virus started raging across Europe. In Serbia the state of emergency was announced. More new cases were being confirmed every day. Schools and universities were shut down. The movement of old people was limited. The hard borders were closed. Most flights were suspended. And I had a ticket to go.

The night before my scheduled departure, I had spent some time thinking of the reasons of my leaving. In the back of my mind there was this rosy picture of me starting a new post at the University and re-joining academia after many months of continuous trial and failure. Of all the hard work, time and devotion I had put in what is emotionally and intellectually fulfilling me. Of me eventually succeeding and being chosen. Of me disentangling, not entirely though, from my life in Novi Sad, and embracing something new. Of me fulfilling my childhood dream to live in London. Now this picture, instead of being completely clear as new life was supposed to be just around the corner, was somewhat dim, distorted, broken into pieces if you like. I could no more get excited about it, knowing, or envisaging, what awaits.

I remember the times when we were in war. I reminisced of the feeling of not being able to distinguish between a good decision and a bad decision. Should I go for a walk when the sirens could any minute announce the start of an air strike, or should I stay at home, sheltered. I shivered as the familar feeling creeped deep into my bones. Should I leave home and family and set off to the emerging viral destination, not knowing what awaits once I am there? Or should I delay the start of my new post for when everything is behind us? I didn’t know the answer. I simply didn’t know. The imagined siren was howling in my head. I was sitting on the sofa, staring at the suitcase, deliberating whether to empty it, or keep packing. I allowed all sorts of thoughts to twist and bend my mind, picturing potential scenarios in front of my eyes, each of which was descending upon me like the gloomiest nightmare, pressing me even harder onto the sofa, and suggesting not to go.

At that one particular moment, I felt as if someone injected a giant jab of optimism straight into my flesh. I made my decision. I swiftly layered in the suitcase a mix of vital and necessary things: a small selection of clothes, jackets, two pairs of Oxford shoes, trainers, various gadgets and chargers, medication and medical reports (as an evidence of being a high risk individual daring enough to keep packing!), jewellery, thermos, umbrella, make up, notebook, pens and couple of books (one of which was 1984, the classic of dystopian literature and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia). In haste, I forgot to pack my favourite Highland mug, my photo camera and my new Van Gogh sunflower notebook for scribbling my thoughts. I zipped the bag, put the travel documents on pile and exhaled in relief.  The decision was made. I was packed. So that’s it done. Being aware of what this might bring with itself, I felt both liberating contentment and existential fear. But there was no turning back.

The following morning of March the 18th I was checking departures every hour. Most flights were cancelled. The airport building was frequently shown in the news and looked spooky with no travellers around. On top of everything, there was a high probability that Belgrade airport would completely close for international travel. I waited in uncertainty. The last update from the airport came suggesting that the flight was still active, but could be cancelled by the time I arrive at the airport. I still took my chance.

My brother and my daughter lifted me to Belgrade. En route to the airport we stopped at parents to hug them goodbye. Instead of fruit, sandwiches or chocolate, this time they prepared some disinfectants, hygienic gloves and a couple of masks for me to take along. We heard these new accessories were mandatory at the airports and on flights. It will be as they please. The goodbye (that I would normally try to avoid) was interrupted by the sight of a neighbour walking towards us in full anti-viral gear: gloves covering his hands, mask filtering his breath and the motorbike helmet protecting his head! From what, we wondered, an asteroid? While laughing, we greeted him, he greeted us, we waved at parents, parents waved back, and we set off.

I was impatient to arrive at the airport, as I knew that a massive burden would come off my back only by checking the scheduled flights. Whilst rushing to the departure lounge, I was fitting the mask on my face and searching for the board. I fixed my eyes on the screen and waited. Cancelled, cancelled, cancelled… on time, cancelled. Air Serbia’s flight to London showed as cancelled. Wizz Air was still on! I ran to the check-in desk and parked myself in the surprisingly long line. I was unusually calm as this was now certain – I fly in an hour.

Mandatory #maskselfie

Whilst queuing I was looking around through the glasses that were fogging from my breath. Only then, I guess, I came to grips with the reality. The whole place was pulsating in a strange rhythm. Something was very obviously not right. The building was nearly free of people, and seemed much larger than it normally is. The scenes from all these apocalyptic TV series and movies were equal to the sight around me, neither more, nor less. Only a few souls were walking past our line. A woman with a stripy bag was asking if anyone could take some herbal mixture for her ill brother who lives in London, for this may be her last chance as the next flight to London may be cancelled. I was constantly making sure I was keeping at least the prescribed one metre distance from everybody and was as alert as if something cataclysmic was going to happen. Everything looked surreal and reminded of Gilead street scenes in Handmaid’s tale. The police were patrolling and the ladies at check in desks were wearing masks with vents. When checking in people had to remove their masks to be identified. Finally it was my turn. I was issued a boarding card, had my passport stamped, and joined a long line for security check at gate A2.

The passengers assembled in a confined room. We were sitting together, waiting together, breathing together. It was strange to look at people and hear their voices but not see their faces. We were now turning away from each other, some of us very obviously avoiding contact and keeping the distance by trying to occupy space close to windows and in corners. It was weird to see how the new situation changed the ways we behave and how we think and express concern about our existence. So many strange thoughts appeared in my mind, but I was too distracted to keep any of them in focus for too long. I knew I would leave the big burden on the Serbian grounds however I was not entirely convinced it would be that smooth once I arrive in the UK. I became impatient to whizz through the airspace and, upon touch down, face new challenges.

I finally landed in Luton. The officer stamped my passport and I manically rushed through the empty corridors as if I urgently needed oxygen. Low hanging rainy clouds, wind and drizzle, as well as the familiar view of the buses lined up ready to depart to Oxford and London, reminded me – there I was, officially within the UK as a Tier 2 immigrant.

A (card-only) Starbucks coffee, thorough hand wash and several deep inhale-exhales were very much needed to briefly consolidate before I heard more not-so-exciting news.

The Wizzair flight number W94001 which brought me to the UK was the last flight to London just before the Serbian border closed the following day, so there is no way of returning home. University staff had just started working remotely, so there was no need for me to go to University in person. London was to be locked down in the following few days, so there was no point in going to my rented room in Greenwich. My only question was – now what?

Brace! Brace! 

The position in which I found myself needed immediate rethinking. In situations like these, when we feel we are losing grounds and our world seems to be falling apart, I guess there is nothing else to do but take a few deep breaths, count to ten and try to distill the good in all the evil. In the world which has suddenly become overwhelmed by panic, hysteria and all sorts of anxieties caused by the deadly virus spread, social distancing may be the word. London simply needed to be put on hold and rural England seemed like the only reasonable and responsible solution. It would be a good space for escape from madness as well as keeping myself away from the masses. Having made that decision, a new saga started…