Dolce far niente

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There is a scene in the movie Eat, Pray, Love where, in a barber shop somewhere in Italy, Elizabeth Gilbert (played by Julia Roberts) is informed by a local of how bad Americans are at grasping the concept of “La dolce far niente”: the sweetness of doing nothing. Flash forward to a scene of JR lazing on the floor of her Italian flat sometime later, about to dig into a plate of al fresco delights she’s just carefully prepared for herself. That’s the scene, and it seems to be her big plan for the day: lunch on the floor, and not much else. It’s all made to look decadent and delicious in its simplicity, and that’s the point. She was discovering the sweetness of tasting nothing more than the moment at hand (yes, with a side order of a fat book advance from her publisher that enabled her to do so at will).

Gili Air, where I’ve just spent close to two weeks, boasts a local population of less than 2,000 and takes an hour to circumvent on foot. There are no motorized vehicles, no television, only-occasional WiFi, frequent power outages, no places to shop beyond the tiny local market. When it’s discovered how long I’ve spent there, a common set of questions is: “But don’t you get bored? What do you do all day?”

As the barber shop Italian pointed out to Julia, Americans are pretty bad at doing nothing. In our frenzied everyday lives if we want time to do nothing we generally need to schedule it in; so it’s next to impossible to wrap our heads around the notion of having days or weeks on end of just kind of seeing where the day takes us. And I’ll admit that throughout the last five years of my visits to Gili Air there have been more than a few moments when I’ve woken up and wondered, “What am I going to do today?”

Indonesians are masters of la dolce far niente. Though I’m sure there are others, theirs is the only culture I have personally discovered that builds structures specifically to fit the purpose. The structures are called berugaks, and they are little more than raised bamboo platforms with thatched roofs. They’re everywhere, and the locals (more often the men) sit and lie around in them for hours on end, smoking and talking and napping and snacking and watching their tiny world go by. You can find people chilling in berugaks at any time of the day or night, though they’re further encouraged to hang out there by the blistering midday sun, which is literally too hot to do much of anything else under.

It takes me a few days, but I eventually start to sway to the rhythm-less rhythm of the island. I re-discover one grain of sand at a time that not only do I not I need to have a plan for every minute of every day, but that the real value lies in just the opposite. Having time—and opportunity—to hang around with no particular place to be and no specific time to be anywhere is actually pretty liberating, and it leaves one open to endless opportunities for unplanned encounters and adventures. It’s exactly how, on my first morning on the island, my simple sunrise snapshot session turned into a sweaty slog-fest of sandbagging…ah, but let’s save that story for another post.

As a young Swedish friend who lives on Gili Air for six months out of every year so eloquently phrased it, “What a luxury it is to be bored.”

A sweet luxury, indeed.


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