After Madrid, I headed to Seville for a week of solo travel and remote work. On the way, I picked up Felt Time by Marc Wittmann.
Nothing elevates your perception of time like a brand-new environment, so it felt like a perfect exploration. On top of that, Seville is a uniquely ambient city. I “felt time” in my stay there unlike I have anywhere else.
To start, I had complete time independence. I stayed in an apartment by myself. I was free from any regular routine, free from being attached to anyone else’s schedule, and free (largely) from work pings, as most of my clients were in an entirely different time zone. I was even somewhat free from the “limited vacation” constraint – when I arrived in Seville, I had no set date for when I needed to leave.
To a great extent, I found this independence incredibly freeing.
I could move slowly in the morning. I’d leisurely wake up without an alarm, go for a morning jog, then have a nice slow breakfast with a book.
On workdays, I wouldn’t sit down to work until around 11:30 am and would work until 8 or so. This was fine, as no one expected me to start earlier or finish later. And dinner in Seville doesn’t start until 10 pm anyway. I would still be getting emails until 11 pm, but at that point, I was usually half a bottle of wine in and didn’t mind the pings.
I felt just as relaxed when I wasn’t working. I had no need to squeeze all of Seville into a weekend. Instead, I did only what I felt like in a given day. I felt my stress levels subside as I spent the week slowly exploring the city.
This was a welcome remedy from my home schedule, which typically involved squeezing output into every square inch of my day. My time in Seville helped me realize that I had crowded out any possible time for reflection, and at times, even crowded out my sense of self.
This is not uncommon. As the philosopher Heidegger (as quoted by Wittmann) states:
“This not having any time is ultimately a greater being lost of the self than that wasting time which leaves itself time”. In other words, you lose more of your identity by being too busy than by being bored.
Heidegger then uses one of those typical great German words:
“Perhaps there lies in this having time a far greater balance and thereby security of Dasein – a being-alongside-oneself [Bei-sich-selbst]”, or simply, determinate being.
In other words, if you have a balanced schedule, you’re more likely to feel your own independence (and therefore existence) in the world. Time independence helps you separate yourself from determinism. In Seville, time independence helped me re-establish my sense of self.
My sense of self extended beyond Dasein into my perception of time as well. I asked myself, is this largely stress-free time passing by quickly or slowly? How should I want it to pass?
Turns out, the “value” of how we perceive time is a well-studied concept, summarized as the Time Paradox. This arises because depending on how we’re spending our time, we use wholly different cognitive processes. An example from Wittman makes it clear:
“While waiting at the doctor’s – when one is paying attention to time (prospective) – half an hour may pass in an intolerably slow fashion.”
When in the moment, we want time to ‘fly by’ fast.
“Under other circumstances – say, half an hour spent talking to an interesting person – we are not even aware of the passing of time; in the end (retrospective), time has gone by far too quickly. But afterwards, we can recall so many stimulating moments that the event seems to have lasted a long time.”
When reflecting, we want time to have felt like a long time.
The is the Time Paradox: the “ideal” experience of time would be to have it fly by in the moment (prospective) and feel like a long time in reflection (retrospective). This has philosophical implications on how we should balance our time.
Wittman provides advice on how to achieve that balance, invoking Stoicism:
“In Seneca’s opinion, life only seems short to us – that is, to pass faster and faster – because we waste time on so many useless activities. ‘Useless’ does not necessarily mean lazy Sunday afternoons on the couch. On the contrary, he wants to demonstrate that many of our pursuits in life – and especially the work we choose – keep us from things that would really prove fulfilling.
In the language of memory psychology, Wittman reiterates: “Live in such a way that your life is varied and emotionally rich; then you will live for a long time.”
Back to Seville. Did my experience fly by in the moment then feel like an eternity upon reflection, like I’d hope for? Well, sometimes.
My day trips to other parts of Spain did indeed fly by in the moment and were long in reflection. I spent one day with two other tourists and a guide visiting Seville’s spectacular Royal Alcazar castle and the Seville Cathedral. Highlights included seeing the Alcazar’s mix of Moorish and Catholic architecture in the castle and learning the strange quirks of my Swedish and Australian tourist counterparts.
I spent another day on a trip visiting the Andalucian countryside, including seeing the iconic bridges of Ronda. We had these great young Spanish tour guides that really made me feel at home (when they weren’t being hit on by the older American practising his Spanish). These days were both varied and emotionally rich as I connected with new people and saw new sights.
Other days, my time often passed extremely slowly.
Ironically, this typically happened I went out at night. In Seville, I found it difficult to put myself in a position to meet other people. I would eat a nice dinner alone, stop at a bar for a drink, and walk around a little bit, but I didn’t have the strong will, social grace, or good luck to really meet people. When I was either younger or single, I would’ve stayed in a hostel and met people over beers. But I didn’t feel compelled to put either myself or Lily (back home) out of our comfort zone by doing so. So although my nights alone were certainly varied, they weren’t emotionally rich. They often felt like they dragged along as a result.
This was a helpful reflection for me on the nature of travel. The varied experience of bouncing around the world can feel exciting, but if it doesn’t also include making deep connections, it will ultimately feel hollow. Influencers, take note.
Seville also drove home a different perspective on time: how old everything is compared to Vancouver. The Seville Cathedral (pictured a couple of galleries above) is a striking example: there has been a cathedral on that site since 830 A.D, and the current one has existed in some form since 1172 A.D as either a mosque or cathedral, depending on the era.
However, I was even more struck by the age of ‘normal’ parts of Seville. It’s hard not to feel the city’s age as you walk through it.
Its sinewy streets splinter and crawl like wrinkles on its face. Coffee shops are built into brick walls that have stood since the 1500s. Modern art thrives here like in the rest of Spain, but it sticks out like a landed spaceship.
The balconies that hang over every street are constant reminders that the city was built around Holy Week, a tradition so old that it features a procession of white-hooded worshippers that easily predates the creation of the Ku Klux Klan.
I can’t help but think this contributes to the temperament of the city. It has the character of a white-haired grandpa who has maintained his vitality well into retirement. People of all ages can be seen out for a drink at all hours, from the middle of the day to 3 in the morning. No one seems to publicly get that drunk, and I actually found it difficult to find a bar that looked at all rowdy, but the restaurants were always full and the mood was always friendly.
Despite my own struggles to meet people, the city carried an air of inclusion where young and old can share a table since they share a temperament for enjoying life.
I can imagine that compared to growing up in Vancouver or San Francisco, cities that are just coming into their teenage years of city-dom, one would move a little slower after growing in Seville. It’s clearly settled into its own existence.
Time independence, time perception, time perspective. By the time I finished in Seville, I had a strong helping of all 3. Although I loved my time there, it was such a strong helping that I actually ended up scheduling my flight home for a little sooner. Part of all that thinking about time made me crave applying it to my ‘regular’ life. The rest of 2020 has turned out to not be that ‘regular’ so far, but my experience of felt time played a large part nonetheless.