When I was a new traveler, my first instinct was to see as much as I could. I’d be disappointed in myself if I didn’t make an effort to see everything. After all, when I went to Europe for the first time, I didn’t know when (or if) I’d be back.
But after my first Euro-tour, visiting Nice, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne, Frankfurt, and Berlin in just two weeks, I couldn’t tell you my favorite neighborhoods or restaurants. I couldn’t tell you about the locals I met and the stories they shared with me. I could hardly remember the places I saw, because I was too busy checking places off a list. Although I can tell you I’ve been to each of these cities—having stepped foot on their soil and taken pictures at popular landmarks—I can’t say I’ve experienced them.
The concept of slow travel isn’t new, but when we think of our instant-gratification-driven world, it’s often forgotten. We rush from place to place because we want to see it all. But slow travel is the opposite: it’s choosing one place and giving yourself time to make it a new home. To develop a routine, get to know locals, understand the pace and culture in a way that isn’t possible when you’re rushing from postcard view to Instagram pic.
With the understanding that the ability to travel for extended periods is a real privilege, I’ve been fortunate to slow travel in a few ways that were still accessible to me despite my limited budget. Since slow travel is about everyday experiences rather than chasing bucket list items, daily costs were comparable to what I’d spend at home, if not less.
When you ask me about Florence, where I studied abroad and lived for three months, I’ll tell you about the mornings waking up to church bells, the scenic routes I’d take on my way to school, and my favorite spots to picnic during lunch. Whereas my Euro-tour was motivated by an imaginary bucket list, my time in Florence was an intimate immersion in which the pace and local way of life marked how I’d later remember the city. Having had this Florence experience right before my seven-cities-in-two-weeks trip, the contrast was striking. I didn’t have time to replicate the everyday moments I loved from Florence. We rushed from place to place, so I was always tired and never got to take my time appreciating wherever we were. At the end of the seven cities, I knew I never wanted to travel that way again.
Finding a way to study abroad is particularly great for rookie travelers, as it usually involves a good balance of support and community alongside an immersive experience. Many programs offer placement with a local host family, so you can really get a feel for life there—and of course there are the home-cooked meals. Study abroad programs can also offer a unique learning experience where students often visit the sites they study, or the historic locations serve as the classrooms themselves. Although I was fortunate that my university offered study abroad at no cost above regular tuition, scholarships are often available directly from your university or the program itself.
After graduating, I still craved immersive experiences. I eventually found that there are a lot of volunteer/work exchange programs that make slow travel accessible on a limited budget. Through vetted websites such as Workaway, WWOOF, and HelpX, work exchanges typically cover room and board. They also encourage volunteers to spend extended time in one place to get to know their neighbors and new temporary home.
I’ve au pair-ed in the south of France and worked on a farm and restaurant in Scotland. In my case, my two experiences in France and Scotland were on opposite ends of the spectrum. For my au pair exchange, I was so eager to find anyone who would host me that I didn’t do my due diligence to understand the workload and didn’t have the right conversations to see if we were a good personality fit. I had 10-hour workdays and the occasional day off every other week. Although I asked many questions prior to arriving, I was still unprepared for our differing expectations. I was looking to have the same immersive experience as my time studying abroad with my host family in Florence, but instead I felt like their hired help.
During my time in Scotland four years later, I set clear expectations and kept an open mind upon arrival. When I found the work exchange on Workaway, I read reviews from past volunteers and asked the hosts questions before arriving. When I finally got to the site, I knew that in exchange for room and board, I would be helping with the farm animals in the mornings and evenings, on top of waitressing in their restaurant during the day. My workdays were long, but because I knew what I was getting into, I was happy to have the experience and appreciated my days off even more.
Be sure to read reviews and speak to people who’ve participated in these exchanges to get a realistic idea of what their experience was like, such as this guide on Frolic! Be clear about what you’re looking for when you inquire about an exchange, ask questions to understand what they’re looking for in a volunteer, and be open to the work ahead of you.
No matter the medium, artist residencies are great options for creatives looking to slow travel. Each program is different, but they all provide creatives the opportunity to focus on their artwork over a good chunk of time—weeks, months, and sometimes even years. The intention is to inspire creativity in a new place, often in collaboration with the host organization.
Be sure to read the fine print when applying to residencies: some residencies include a stipend for travel, materials, accommodations, an artist studio, and living costs. Other times, a residency will offer only a work space in a new place, leaving the artist responsible for their own travel costs. In looking for a residency that’s right for you, be sure to consider the space and time needed for your art.
As the 2017 Wigtown Artist in Residence, I worked on a photo series documenting bookshops, libraries, and private collections throughout Scotland. Although I received some support for this project, I needed to fund and organize the bulk of the photo series on my own. Not only was it challenging to find work to supplement my costs, it was also difficult to execute my project because I was based in a remote, rural area without regular access to a car. I was eventually able to manage, but I spent more time coordinating my photo series than actually working on my photography. This was fine with me because I got to pursue a project I cared about, but added complications like these are something to consider when applying for residencies yourself.
With enough planning, slow travel can be both the end and the means to practicing your art. Residencies vary and the most well-known programs can be very competitive, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get into the first few programs you apply for. The more you apply, the more refined your application will become, bringing you closer to the residency of your dreams.