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Living Slow in Italy - Mastering The Time Warp

Valerie Schneider

September arrived with a bang. Literally. I heard the familiar clatter of metal door shutters being noisily rolled upward, signaling officially the end of August. The neighborhood shops were again open for business after the limpid weeks of staring at drab grey gates plastered with ferie signs. And not a moment too soon, either.

August can be brutal. Not because of the heat - July is actually hotter - but because it is The Month of the Screeching Halt. What is one to do when all of one's favorite coffee bars are chiuso and one cannot get a decent espresso? In Italy?! The umbrella-bedecked outdoor tables in the piazza that are so festively inviting do not seem to serve up a cup of caffe quite as well as our beloved baristas can do. My butcher, fruit vendor, pizzaiuolo and herbalist had all likewise deserted me. Even one of the local parish priests had locked up and left town, but then I guess most of his flock had fled for greener pastures so why not? Their September mass re-entry was such a relief I nearly broke out into a rousing rendition of the Halleluiah Chorus.

As anyone who has ever traveled here can attest, Italy operates on a time frame all her own. The unique rhythm that makes up an Italian day was one of the things that drew us in. We quickly adopted the afternoon riposo into our routine and decided that our own frenetically-paced nation could take some lessons from our adopted country. Who doesn't benefit from a little afternoon rest, after all? Rising refreshed and going out into the piazza for a caffe is a treasured ritual. Likewise the late afternoon passeggiata, when the entire town goes out for a stroll and a little face time with their neighbors. It is fascinating to see the day unfold like a tidal movement. Mornings are bustling with activity, but if you happen to walk through the piazza at 3:00pm or 8:30pm you may think you've arrived in a ghost town, so deserted are these public spaces while the residents are tucked away at home eating. After 9:00pm, out they emerge like fireflies to flit around the streets for a post-dinner walk and gelato while the kids run off excess energy. The timeless cadence of these unchanging activities is alluring and comforting, and we love it. But there is more than rhythm to understand and adapt to here.

It has taken a year but I think we may have gotten the hang of Standard Operating Italian Time. Each town has its own personalized variation on the theme but the song goes a little something like this. Museums are closed on Monday. No exceptions. Everything is closed on Sunday except pasticcerias, a handful of bars, and the pasta fresca shops. On Monday the pasta shops are closed to make up for being open on Sunday.

The post office closest to us slams its doors shut for the day at 1:00pm, while the main post office remains open all day, though service is no better even during lunch time when there are no customers. Go figure that one out.

Here in our town, Monday mornings also mark a halt to retail operations; every clothing store, shoe store, phone store, and general store in the centro storico is closed until 4:00 or 4:30pm. This brought no little amount of distress to a tour group from Milano recently, who had unloaded from their bus and then stood in the street dumbfounded and disparaging as I happened by. "Ma, what's up with this? Why are all the shops closed? Is there a holiday?" They grouped like bleating sheep. Well, it's Monday, I responded to the woman who grabbed my arm pleadingly. Ma! What kind of backwater is this? What are we supposed to do here? I suggested a few architectural beauties to view, some characteristic streets to stroll and the historic caffe Meletti for drinks. She was unconvinced that there could possibly be anything at all appealing without retail therapy so I left her to her distress, feeling a little smug that I had mastered the local custom without such angst.

Smugness fades a bit, though, when I am faced with barren cupboards on a Thursday evening merely because I had forgotten it was Thursday. Food shops, you see, are open only in the morning on that particular day of the week. I can't count the number of times I have recalled this fact only after the all-important hour of 1:00pm. when the shutters roll down on my dinner opportunities. (Fortunately there is a very good pizzeria just around the corner to save me on such occasions; more fortuitous is that their weekly closing day is Tuesday.) The Thursday afternoon rule is suspended when there is a holiday falling on Friday, in which case they'll remain open on Thursday, signaling to us that something is amuck that we should find out about. They are then closed on the Friday holiday, instead. Ditto if a holiday falls on a Monday. Grocers that are normally closed on Sunday will open that morning so everyone can procure their meal fixings for the Monday holiday. Simple, see?

Sometimes the hours can be downright quirky, though. For instance, a nearby bank opens from 8:25am until 1:25pm, shuts down for lunch, then reopens from 2:40pm and closes at 4:10pm Now, I ask you ... would knocking it back to nice, half-hour increments really be so bad? A friend in the States who is a banker would love this work schedule.

Quirky can turn to surreal when a holiday is involved, as I discovered this past spring when I tried to visit the Contemporary Art Museum. I lay before you the calendar: Easter was Sunday. In Italy, Monday is also a holiday, and everyone took advantage of it to create a long weekend. Tuesday would be the start of the work week, right? Hold that thought.

On Wednesday I tried to visit our contemporary art museum. The hours are posted on a bronze plaque, and I happen to know from previous trial-and-error that Monday is a normal closure. Now remember, folks, I went on Wednesday. Naturally, the gate was locked. I looked closer at the sign which said, "Closed Mondays and days after holidays." Tuesday wasn't a holiday, but it was the day after a holiday, meaning the museum would have been closed Tuesday. But because so many people take long-weekend mini-vacations to include Monday, they figure Tuesday is their travel-back-home day, and consider that a holiday as well. Still with me?

Monday – holiday. Tuesday – not a true holiday, but everyone counts it to be one. Wednesday, - the day after the non-holiday meant that the museum was closed.

Yeah. The weird thing is, that is starting to make perfect sense to me.

Bureaucracy has its own time zone altogether that is better understood by watching the Twilight Zone. Even Standard Italian Operating Time holds no sway over Bureaucracy Time and no predictability or pattern can ever be attempted to be imposed upon it. The only thing one can do when dealing with Bureaucracy Time is to get down on one's knees and pray for patience. Lots of it.

Then there is the etiquette of timeliness. No one but no one arrives at a party at the stated starting hour. Except, of course, for us punctuality-minded foreigners. We have likewise been "early" for gallery openings, theatre productions, church hours (to view the art; one assumes Mass begins on time), and scheduled appointments. Recently in Basilicata my cousin told us he'd meet us for coffee in the morning before our departure. We'd clearly told him that my American cousin needed to depart the hotel at 10:00 to head to the airport. No problem, he'd be there at 9:00am, he assured us. A few minutes to ten he still had not left his house and didn't understand the hurry to hit the road. We have grown accustomed to such occurrences. My cousin and her airline are not quite so acclimated.

Yes, it took a while but we've distinguished the pattern in all this. It's a right of passage, like learning that preservativi does not mean chemical preservatives, and that stating you like a delicacy or liqueur is a blatant request for more. Maybe it's all about rhythm after all. But look at the time. It's 4:30pm, riposo is over, and there is a barista expecting me.


Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2007

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