It’s funny. I’ve written fairly often about how work pressure and to-do lists make it harder for me to be curious. Now I’m on vacation and I find I’m almost too relaxed to be curious. I am re-reading one of my favorite books, ate something for dinner I know I like, swam at a place I’ve swum countless times. It’s all great, but none of it is new, and I find I’m not even moved to practice curiosity by comparison. Perhaps tomorrow …
I hardly ever have occasion to go into Vienna’s First District during the week. Most of my clients have moved their offices to other parts of town, where the property costs less and people–employees and customers–can park. This means my experience is limited to the weekend.
What is different during the week? This morning I had cause to go into the Graben to meet a client and had a chance to explore. First of all, there is a lot more traffic–cars, trucks, and busses. (The bicycles and scooters are always around.) Not only are the streets different, but the sidewalk cafés and restaurants are filled with a different clientele. Depending on the price range, they are either formally suited office workers or workers in blue or orange uniforms. The feel is different, too. Instead of people sipping coffee over the newspaper the customers are clearly in something of a hurry. In other words, a perfectly normal scene for a workday.
This time of year–at least in Vienna–is a good time to practice day-to-day curiosity. By that I mean curiosity about what has changed from one day to the next. Spring is coming here. The snow is gone. The temperatures have been over freezing consistently for a couple of weeks and things are starting to bud. Sometimes I even see a difference in the bushes, trees, and flowers from one dog walk to the next. This makes it easy to practice the kind of curiosity that says “I wonder what those bushes will look like today.”
Yesterday was the first day back at work for many people in Vienna. In fact, many residents were gone over the Christmas holidays, which start here on December 24 and go through January 6 (Three Kings) so this year went through January 9 because the 6th was a Friday.
I had gotten quite used to empty streets, seats available on the tram, limited lines as the supermarket, the peace and quiet, and so on. Actually, I had not only gotten used to it, I really enjoyed it!
To help with the transition to a busier environment, I decided just to try to notice what was different, using comparison as an aid to curiosity. This is something I’ve explored before here, here, and here.
Yes, navigating the street to the park this morning was more challenging. There were simply more people, and some of them looked stunned to be back to everyday life. Some even looked dismayed. Once we got to the park there were suddenly more dogs and people to greet and more activity in general. There was some sense of purpose, at least in those people who did not look stunned or dismayed. And there was a realization that everything would be back to normal opening hours, for example, which in Vienna can be a big deal. (No more excuses for closing your doors on a Friday!)
I find myself questioning the value of this exercise: How was it better to go into this situation with awareness, seeking to compare without judging on-vacation Vienna with no-longer-on-vacation Vienna? And I keep coming back to the answer: It helps me notice more and be calmer about changes I wouldn’t otherwise necessarily find pleasurable. I’m simply exploring.
I mentioned that I might use comparison to channel my curiosity this trip. One thing makes that easy. The course is being held in a new hotel–new for us and new itself. I don’t know what was here before, but all the buildings in this corner of Amsterdam are very recent. The new location means my route into the center of town is different so I can experience new canals, a Lebanese restaurant I had never seen before, two mueums with only Dutch names (as far as I could tell), and the Volksuniversiteit Amsterdam in the same building as the public library. So many things to explore and just one hindrance: the pressures of work. Ah, well, nothing is perfect. 😉
Amsterdam here I come! I am running a course this coming week in Amsterdam, where I ran a similar course the last two Decembers. Travel and work—two natural opportunities for curiosity. 🙂 And I can always compare to my previous experiences as a basis for my curiosity. What a lucky woman!
I was quite pleased yesterday when I found the expression “starting point,” as in the phrase “comparison as a starting point for exploring an experience.” At first I was thinking of words like “structure” or “framework,” but those all seemed too formal and stiff—and, in some ways, almost antithetical to the very idea of curiosity. “Starting point” also says more precisely what I wanted to say. That is, that we can start examining an experience by comparing it to something we already know and then move on to exploring the unique nature of the experience itself.
This morning when I stepped out into the semi-darkness of dawn I noticed first of all the chill in the air. What immediately struck me after that is that this chill is different from what I am used to in Vienna, and I started to explore the difference. The word that came to me was “acrid” and, after that, “harsh”. That is, the early morning air in Vienna as one slowly moves into winter can take on an almost metallic quality that isn’t entirely comfortable. It can taste and smell a little bitter and suggests to me pollution. What I experienced this morning in the country was a deeper chill but with a softness about it. The air smelt fresh and of (softer) organic matter—mainly leaves and wood.
The next trick, I think, is to see if I can genuinely use such a comparison to go deeper in my (curious ;-)) exploration of an experience.