December 21, 2014

Little Details: Lessons from a traveler’s notebook

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By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

August 29th, 2013

As Americans, we are encouraged to “live large.”  Large houses, large cars, large servings at restaurants represent the “good life.” Slick marketers encourage us to supersize every aspect of our being. In my view, we are sold a false bill of goods, implying that, somehow, expansive living is a demonstration of success.

My family gets sucked into many of America’s excessive consumption patterns.  A nice home, two cars parked in the garage and a plot of grass to call our own places us on the higher end of the world’s real estate market.

I sometimes wonder if we, as a nation, are consuming more than our share of the communal pie. Others live with far less.

Travel—armchair or otherwise—remains a wonderful teacher. Whether reading a travel memoir or adventuring in real time, I love to play anthropologist in faraway places. Lessons can be learned from witnessing how others live their lives.

Whether visiting relatives in their small Socialist Realist apartments in Silesia, cautiously navigating Montreal’s St. Catherine Street after dark, or buying groceries at a farmers’ market in Arles, I realize how skewed my perspective has become. Living large can sometimes feel empty despite being crammed with stuff.

Here are a few observations from my traveler’s notebook:

Living large often creates debt which can impede true financial independence.

Supersized diets produce supersized people with increased risks of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Cooking from scratch facilitates more economic, more healthful eating.

Longer recesses and lunch periods for school children enhance fitness and health.

Well-designed public transportation systems promote healthier, slender commuters who walk more and drive less.

Universal health care means that everyone—from the richest to the poorest—has access.

Family time is sacred.

Friend time—with positive people who support your dreams—is also sacred.

Alone time and down time are staples of an emotionally healthy diet.

Free museums are rarely empty.

Reading stretches your brain.

Nature, quiet and peacefulness sooth your soul.

Travel—armchair or with backpack in tow—broadens your perspective.

Screens—too much screen time, that is—is the new opiate of the people.

Walks in your neighborhood promote community.

Untreated lawns mean more butterflies.

Geographical awareness is a good thing.

Geopolitical awareness is an even better thing.

Experience shapes a person; baubles do not.

Fewer guns translate into fewer deaths by gunfire.

Smaller houses require less furniture.

Smaller closets require fewer clothes.

Smaller yards require less mowing.

Smaller mortgages require less time spent working.

Less work yields more time.

Time is a rare and precious commodity, more valuable than jewels.

America is a great country with enormous natural and human resources. It’s this bountiful power and wealth that sometimes nags at me. Are we doing all we can domestically and abroad to promote justice?

Travel teaches me that even smaller, less powerful countries deserve a place at the international table. They have lessons to teach. If everyone in the world lived as largely as we do by mimicking typical American consumption patterns, the oil, water and air conditioning might run our far sooner than we expect.

The invitation to downsize our lives has been issued. Will I be among those who accept? What about you?

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston.  Reader comments are welcome at [email protected]

 
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