Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2012/37 posted by hidden europe on

Have we lost the ability to wait, to keep vigil, to be patient? This weekend, much of Europe marks the start of Advent. In many countries this is still a season defined by quiet reflection in anticipation of Christmas. For some, these weeks in the run-up to Christmas are intimately associated with a modest level of asceticism - not as harsh as Lent, but inclining that way. Many of Europe's Orthodox Churches started their Nativity Fast last Wednesday, with all the complex culinary habits that the fast entails: fish reserved for weekends; no use of wine or oil on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. These are hardly onerous burdens, but abstinence brings a little virtue. Feasts taste better when preceded by a fast.

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Have we lost the ability to wait, to keep vigil, to be patient? This weekend, much of Europe marks the start of Advent. In many countries this is still a season defined by quiet reflection in anticipation of Christmas.

For some, these weeks in the run-up to Christmas are intimately associated with a modest level of asceticism - not as harsh as Lent, but inclining that way. Many of Europe's Orthodox Churches started their Nativity Fast last Wednesday, with all the complex culinary habits that the fast entails: fish reserved for weekends; no use of wine or oil on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. These are hardly onerous burdens, but abstinence brings a little virtue. Feasts taste better when preceded by a fast.

One thing we like about this month of December, whether we are travelling in an area that favours the western liturgical tradition or in a region of more eastern demeanour, is that in many parts of Europe it is still possible to cut away from the crowds and find a retreat into calm anticipation of coming Christmas. Glühwein, cinnamon and candles are not compulsory but they all help. Advent is above all a state of mind. This notion of Advent as a time of retreat from the world, as an opportunity for patient vigil, does not come so easily in those countries where preparation for Christmas is all haste and hurry.

Waiting can be nervous (to wit, Gogol's The Government Inspector), frustrating and absurd (Godot springs to mind), but it can also breed serenity. It is a chance for our souls to catch up with us. Try telling that to busy commuters waiting for a long-overdue train! But some of our most memorable journeys have been characterised by long waits. Travellers of yesteryear accepted that timetables were vague statements of intent, rather than contractual promises. Prior to the advent of modern roads and railways, the month of December was especially difficult for travel in the forests of northern Europe. Autumn rains rendered routes muddy and impassable, and traffic would only start moving more easily again when the ground and waterways froze. Advent was a good time of year to hunker down, watch a candle slowly burn, and be patient.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.