Il bel far niente is Italian for “the beauty of doing nothing”, writes Elizabeth Gilbert in her imaginative memoir, EAT PRAY LOVE (Gilbert, 2006, p. 61). According to Gilbert, this is an art most Americans practice poorly. And if you stop and think about it, it does seem as if most of us don’t know how to occupy our time without a computer, cell phone or TV at hand. We’re either working—-and evidently Americans are working more hours now than ever before—or we’re resolutely enjoying ourselves by running, dancing (in clubs or on TV), shopping (all the time, everywhere), twittering or any number of other time consuming activities that sometimes look alarmingly like work.
But what we don’t do is—nothing. And evidently most other cultures do. Many take a siesta after lunch, for instance, but that siesta isn’t always about sleeping. It can be just hanging around a barber shop (such as in the film version of EAT PRAY LOVE), or sitting in a square playing checkers, or even people watching in a café. Of course, some Americans do engage in such activities—we see them in New York, lounging around Washington Square Park; we see them sunning on the beach in Florida (legitimate because it’s vacation), and we see them at—Starbucks.
Starbucks seems to be one place where Americans have decided it is perfectly acceptable to indulge in il bel far niente (doing nothing, beautifully). Of course we don’t necessarily want to look as if we’re doing nothing. We’re studying, or we’re having a Marble Mocha Macchiato and a tiny little vanilla cupcake, or perhaps we’re indulging in the dying art of looking through magazines.
Or maybe we’re doing something totally luxurious, such as reading a book: Santayana, or The Art Spirit, by Robert Henri, or Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Something “extra”, that we don’t really need to get ahead in life.
Or do we?
Maybe what we read, or do, or think in Starbucks is the most important time spent anywhere. The most “us”. I know in my local Starbucks in Daytona Beach, happily situated in a Barnes and Noble bookstore as are many, the amount of time I spend sipping a cappuccino and gazing at the wall murals of Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and Isaac Bashevis Singer is among the most restful of my week.
Why is that? What is it about Starbucks that makes us feel it’s okay to do nothing in its environs? Is it because:
Sure, we open our mouths in amazement as we pay $3.50 for a cup of coffee, but it’s not just the coffee we’re buying. I can go to my favorite oceanfront restaurant and get the same relaxed feeling looking at the waves and eating Mahi Mahi for lunch, but I’ll be spending about $25.
So, $3.50 is cheap.
Yes, they’re everywhere. Thank you for that. If you’re stranded in a strange town and dying to do nothing, you can bet you’ll find a Starbucks waiting to oblige.
We Americans want to relax; we want to indulge in il bel far niente but we want to do it en masse. We need our fellow beings around us as we do nothing because basically we’re a very communal society. The fact that often we can’t find a seat at Starbucks (just try the one at Union Square Barnes and Noble in New York around 4 p.m.) makes it just that much more desirable.
For some unexplained reason, people are extraordinarily courteous at Starbucks. No one usurps your table, and seldom, if ever, are you told by management to move on. At most Starbucks, it seems you can stay all afternoon, if you like, and some people do.
Did we forget to mention the coffee is good? Try a white chocolate mocha with whipped cream and a chocolate drizzle on top. And the holiday drinks are, well…festive.
Julia Cameron, in her international best-seller The Artist’s Way, tells us to get out occasionally and take an Artist’s Date (Cameron, 1992). You don’t have to be a painter or a sculptor or a poet to do this, according to Cameron. Evidently everyone should undertake Artist’s Dates all the time, little excursions that you go on alone, just to spend time with yourself doing nothing.
I wonder how many Artist’s Dates are undertaken at Starbucks?
Cameron, Julia (1992). The Artist’s Way. New York, N.Y.: Tarcher/Putnam.
Gilbert, Elizabeth (2006). EAT PRAY LOVE. New York, N.Y.: Penguin.