We gluttons don’t need GPS. Our noses are the finest technology the universe will ever produce. So I followed mine to the Christmas markets of Berlin, where I had to choose between the seductive kartoffelpuffer and the saucy dampfnudeln, the aromatic lebkuchen and the sugary almonds. Who am I kidding? There was no choosing. I ate them all. It’s Christmas time, and someone else is cooking. Someone who has a PhD in carbs.
I’ve lived in Berlin since the summer, and I’ve been waiting for the Christmas markets every day, like the rapidly aging child I am. There are 2,500 Weihnachtsmarkt across Germany, and dozens in the capital alone. At the LGBTQ market in Nollendorfplatz, I listened to the MC wish everyone “peace, love and rhythm” for 2020. At the historic market in Friedrichshain, I threw an axe at a plywood bear, watched the axe thud dully to the ground and took it as proof (as if any were needed) that I should never leave the city.
At the giant market surrounding Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, I watched the crowd stream through heavy-duty bollards placed there after a terrorist drove a truck into the crowd in 2016, killing 12. The attack happened on Dec. 19 and three days later, the market was open again, because this is Europe, and more specifically Berlin. The city has been through worse. And, as I’d come to understand, you don’t mess with the Christmas markets.
Mainly, though, I watched people doing very little of anything. They came, maybe they bought an ornament or a balloon for their kids, and then they stood around eating sausages and drinking gluehwein (I’m sorry, I don’t come up with the stereotypes, I just observe them). They stared into the fire, or chatted with friends. Almost no one had their phones out. It felt like there was a life lesson on display: Here was a way to be quiet, communal and generally purposeless, even in the middle of the most frenzied season of the most frenzied year at the end of a truly bonkers decade. Not good bonkers either, like Iggy Pop dancing, but bad, dangerous, sanity-ravaging bonkers. “The age of perpetual crisis,” the Guardian called it, and it’s hard to disagree.
What do you do when stillness is impossible to find, when your attention is being shredded like a constantly flapping flag in a gale-force wind? Well, you could take a page from one of the most useful books I read this year, Jenny Odell’s How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. “Nothing is harder to do than nothing,” writes Ms. Odell, an artist and teacher in Oakland, Calif. “In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily.”
What she proposes is not a “digital detox,” which merely presses a person’s reset button before sending her back into the rat race, but something much more radical and resonant. We should instead question our very ideas of productivity, and wonder on whose behalf we are being productive (and who is profiting from our attention). She argues for an intense focus on the people and animals and landscape right under our noses, a concept she calls “placefulness.” Above all, she’s not talking about running away from the world and its problems, but marshalling our limited attention and energy in order to fight more productively for what matters – as opposed to feeling like a flag at the mercy of the storm.
It helped me to be in a different place to understand placefulness – especially one that is comfortable with doing nothing. I had no idea before moving here, but Germans – Berliners in particular – relax very hard. It is perfectly acceptable, my German teacher said, to use “ich faulenze” (essentially, I’m loafing) as an excuse for not going out. Germany’s productivity is famously high, and yet the country falls at the lowest end of the OECD in terms of hours actually worked. You work, and then you stop, and then you might have a beer. Servers at a restaurant will not bring the bill to your table until you ask for it, often more than once, because nobody’s in a particular hurry (they also don’t live on tips, which helps).
If you’d told me that Germany would teach me to relax, I would have asked what kind of mushrooms were in your omelette. But it is, in fact, true. This country has entire days set aside for proper rest: Sunday shopping, for example, is limited to a few days a year. And heaven help you if you break the peace of the ruhezeit, or rest time. There is no leaf-blowing allowed on Sundays, no boisterous barbecuing. In our apartment building, even putting bottles in the communal recycling on Sunday earns serious stink-eye from the neighbours. Poor savage, they seem to be thinking, she does not understand the rules of calm.
Doing nothing is particularly hard at this time of year, when it feels like there are more demands on your time than Quality Streets in the tin. You’re not meant to be working, and yet find yourself working harder, and often more pointlessly, than ever. Busyness becomes its own reward, a refuge of sorts from having to confront your thoughts. Doing nothing is not for sissies, to paraphrase someone wise on the subject of old age. It is hard. It is a radical divergence from the pack. And it just might be the best gift you can give yourself.
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