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.