Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

The Benefits of…Lunch

Over the last decade American workers have increased their productivity by something like 16%. Most of us aren’t getting paid any more for all that increased output, but we can take pride in the fact that we show up early, stay late and skip lunch to get the work done.

Americans, by most accounts, consider themselves the hardest working people in the world. Well, maybe. But, at what cost and at what benefit?

On Thursday in Casteillina in Chianti, a delightful little place in the rocky Tuscan hills, a restaurant favored by the locals was packed at one o’clock in the afternoon. Many shops, even those catering to the always-in-a-hurry American tourists, closed for a couple of hours for the midday meal. (The tagliatelle in wild boar sauce was superb, by the way.) I doubt whether the local Chamber of Commerce measures productivity in Chianti, unless it’s a measure of grape production. And the grape harvest was underway with what appeared to be great precision, but with a certain sense of pace and an appreciation of just what could be done in a day, given the necessity of stopping for lunch.

Lunch in Chianti is a little like a slow, old fashioned family holiday dinner in the United States, but without the football game on the television in the other room. You can sit down for lunch at your leisure, but the cook will tell you when you eat. Mom never served the Thanksgiving turkey, after all, until SHE was ready. In Italy, lunch is a little glass of wine, a bit of bread, some conversation, a laugh and always some waiting. The soup or salad arrives and time stops. The spinning world slows down. Lunch is both a ritual and a restorative. Take your time, the Italians seem to say, life is too precious to rush. You have work to do, you say, or places to go and people to see – relax. All things in time. Have a little more wine. La dolce vita.

There is no ritual associated with the American lunch. Hit the food court near your office. Grab a sandwich and snarf it down at your desk, while checking the email and reading the Twitter feed. Relax? No way. Have a casual conversation with a co-worker? Hardly. Eat and run. Work, work, work. Life is too short to relax over lunch. You have 113 emails to get through before that meeting at one o’clock.

Many Americans traveling in Europe seem exasperated that they have to catch the waiter’s attention and ask for the bill at the end of the meal. We expect the dirty dishes to be removed immediately upon the last bite of food clearing the plate. In Italy the meal is all about the lingering. The espresso arrives. The waiter disappears. You talk and think and relax. A charming waiter gently corrected an American visitor who requested a cappuccino after lunch. Not a good idea, the waiter said. It will not help your digestion. Espresso is better. Indeed. So, too, is taking time to enjoy the espresso.

It is also better to have a little more time to consider that maybe – just maybe – the pace of modern life is just too hectic and demanding; unhealthy, in fact. Maybe we can slow down just a bit. Have a little more ritual in our lives. Relax while waiting for the waiter to return. Notice the charming family at the next table. Enjoy the setting of the ritual. Linger over the espresso.

Maybe we can take time to just – live. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll live longer and grow old enjoying the fact that few things in life should interfere with lunch.

 

 

Exceptionalism

It’s fashion week in Paris. The skinny models are parading around with stern expressions and too high heels. What, they can’t smile while wearing the latest weird creation? Maybe their feet hurt.

More importantly, every week is fashion week in Siena; a city that is to style what Boston is to baseball meltdowns. The old city, sitting atop a Tuscan hill and, considering its age, a remarkably well preserved place, was once a rival to better known and more visited Florence. But for my Euros, Siena is the classier place. Walking back to the car after a day spent wandering Siena’s cobbled streets (wide paths in many places) we overtook an elegantly dressed, elderly Italian woman who seemed to be heading home from her shopping. She was dressed for the opera – tailored blue suit, stylish blouse and handsome and very correct Italian shoes. Just what most Americans wear to do the weekly marketing at Winco.

Rome’s bureaucrats were on strike – or perhaps just taking a long lunch – last week to protest government austerity measures, the central bankers struggle still with the debt of many European countries and unemployment in the 17-nation EU countries is over 11% – yet, the cafes are jammed, the hotels are booked and life goes on, while sophisticated Italians walk home from the market.

One story line his opponents have advanced against Barack Obama this election year has been the ominous threat that the United States, in a second Obama term, will slip farther in the direction of “the European socialist model.” Even if I believed, and I don’t, that Barack Obama harbors some real or determined socialist agenda, the American drift toward socialism on the European model just isn’t going to happen. Americans are fundamentally resistant to change and the elements of the European model we would have to embrace are so foreign – pardon the pun – that it just can’t happen here.

Two examples make the point. Virtually every automobile on Italy’s highways is a high gas mileage, high performance vehicle. You can drive the Renaults or the Opels for days while passing every petrol station you see. When you need to refill the tank the gas is, of course, much most costly in Europe than in the U.S., but you can go so much farther on a tank, or in most places you can walk or ride efficient public transport. Americans have been fighting over fuel efficiency in our automobiles ever since Mitt Romney’s dad made the American Motors Rambler, a fuel efficient alternative to Detroit’s gas guzzlers. The cars in Europe are smaller, lighter and extraordinarily fuel efficient. Obviously a socialist model we reject.

Or consider public transportation. The intercity train from Rome to Florence, as comfortable as any living room (except for the noisy and overly opinionated Canadian up the aisle), zoomed through the Tuscan countryside and deposited us, one hour and 27 minutes later, in the heart of city where automobiles are more trouble than they are worth. We couldn’t have driven or flown as fast, as comfortably or as cheaply. One can go almost anywhere in Europe on a train, often in great comfort and at high speed. Back home, we continue to debate the disinvestment in such infrastructure with governors in Wisconsin and Florida actually putting an end to spending on just the type of high speed rail Europeans take for granted.  Public investment in transportation – other than the car and the airplane – have taken on the stench of socialism in the U.S. American addiction to the automobile will never allow us to embrace the public option and, besides, the private sector should undertake such investment just as it did when Eisenhower built the interstate highway system. OK, not a good example.

Europeans, as a rule, are skinnier, eat better, live longer, have better health care outcomes, lower poverty and infant mortality rates and – I have to say it – dress better than Americans. Further proof for radio talk show hosts, no doubt, that the European socialist model threatens the very existence of America’s manifest destiny to lead the world with half of our citizens overweight, many lacking health care coverage and more living in poverty than a decade ago.

Europe with all its troubles is neither a socialist mecca or a government-centric basket case. The United States with all its troubles is still the world’s economic engine – an engine that could be even more powerful if we could see our way clear to pick and chose from among the best of the rest of the world. Call it socialism lite.

Republicans Living Abroad ran an ad in the International Herald Tribune this week urging their countrymen and women living in Europe to vote for president. The message was simple and so American – “No Apologizes for American Exceptionalism – VOTE.” The United States is a truly blessed place, divinely inspired some suggest, but true exceptionalism might also mean that we take a break from telling ourselves how great we are and focus on what the rest of the world is doing that we might learn from.

The elegant Italian woman we saw heading home from shopping would, I suspect like most Italians, be very reserved, but also very generous to any American visitor. More and more Italians speak English very well and most tolerate a a level of American self assurance that we would find off putting in them if they were visiting our side of the world. I also doubt whether my elegant Italian woman has ever spent a minute, even while passing by the Burger King, reflecting on either American or Italian exceptionalism. The next time I head for Winco, I will remember her blue suit and elegant shoes and reflect on what she – exceptional as she is – might teach us about living well.