In Fangorn Forest

One thing I have learned from the Italians is the importance of planning work and similar responsibilities around home, family, and other beautiful things in life, rather than the other way around. We enjoy running our business, but it doesn’t hold a candle to our children, or our relationship with each other and with God, or even a good cheese course (well maybe the cheese).

In San Diego, I was convinced that the whole world suffered from overscheduling. Nobody seemed to have time for anything except work (adults) or school and extracurricular activities (children). Oh, and going to the gym. The typical way for a conversation to end was, “well, I know you’re busy, so I’ll let you go,” or “well, I have to go.” Both were simply a rueful acknowledgment of the valuable time we’re both wasting by happening to bump into one another.

Not so here in Italy. I’ve rushed out the door with not a minute to spare and met three neighbors on the way down, each of whom required at least five to ten minutes of conversation to avoid inexcusable rudeness. And they probably all shook their heads over the hasty American after I finally extracted myself from our (admittedly quite pleasant) conversation. Sometimes I feel like I live among Ents. The funny thing is, in San Diego, I was the one shaking my head.

However, they do have a good point. What is, after all, more important than those human encounters? And when am I going to plan time into my busy schedule to connect with my neighbors and build our relationship? I suppose we could have a block party once a year. But Italians demand more. Several of our neighbors have regular dinners together (two or three times a week!), just because one happens to pass through the garden while the other is eating, and receives an impromptu invitation.

And nothing is more important than a family meal here. Businesses here are open in the morning, then close for a three-hour lunch break. They open for a few more hours in the evening (if you’re lucky, and it’s not a Monday, Thursday, or Saturday, all sort of unofficial half-holidays during which hours for nonessential businesses–sometimes including things like grocery stores–are hit and miss). If you meet people on the street between 12:30 and 13:00, they are invariably on their way home. The proper greeting or leave-taking phrase at this time is bon appetito. What else would one be thinking about besides lunch?

While I may put it in practice a little differently, I applaud the Italians’ priority system. We’ve had a chance to re-start our whole life here. For a couple of months we had no cell-phones. I miss my dishwasher a bit, but not the microwave, since we tossed that out years ago for health and epicurean reasons. While we can’t get everywhere without a car, we have discovered the pleasures of bicycling. And no, the customer is rarely right here, nor do they have exactly what you’re seeking at this store, but possibly around the corner, or down the street, or maybe in the next town. And yes, it will cost twice as much as you intended to pay. But it’s probably made in Europe, and the construction is clever, elegant, and precise, and it will never break. It’s all a different way of thinking, based less on speed and convenience and more on enjoying life. As a trade-off, I can live with that.

While discovering what we can live without, we’ve also discovered some things we cannot live without. A few months without phones was a novelty, and it helped us to slow down our life. Some things got a little too slow, though. My Blackberry really did help me to keep in touch with people better. Emails tend to pile up for days without it. And though a laptop is portable, a phone is more portable still, and less interruptive of daily life. That’s important when you’re trying to get in those 4-6 hours of outside play each day while staying on top of the shopping, the business, and the cheese-making.

What do you think?