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Then they shared with me, “We need to get to the restaurant before it closes.” “What the hell?” I asked. “It’s only seven.”

“Yes, and the restaurant we’re going to stops seating people after eight.”

Words: Patrick Brady
Image: Chris Henry

That struck me as highly inconvenient. I’d go on to learn that breakfast didn’t start until 7:00, or occasionally later. Lunch had a finite window. And that meant to eat a proper lunch following a 150-km ride and grabbing a shower we had to head out for our ride before breakfast was served.

This whole Italy thing needed some reworking. I was a tourist. My idea of a vacation meant that there should be some flexibility in schedules so that I could enjoy a schedule based on my personal whims. That we had to negotiate a pauper’s breakfast of day-old bread, jam, juice and coffee at each of our hotels, just so we could do long rides, struck me as unnecessarily awkward. And it became frustrating when I encountered the attitude of the hotel staff forced to accommodate our exception.

Then there was the fact that shops closed for lunch and no retail establishment I could find stayed open past 6:00 in the evening. I struggled to understand how anyone got any work done, or conducted enough transactions in shops to stay in business.

Everywhere I went people seemed relaxed, at ease. Urgency? I began to think that word didn’t translate into Italian, but didn’t it have a Latin root? Don’t these people get it?

I’d encountered relaxed attitudes before, when I was in France. As much as I loved the country, my sense was that the French didn’t give a damn what you thought. They’d do whatever they did to their own internal set of standards and then that, as they say, was that. Waiting tables happened at a certain pace. Preparing a meal happened at a certain pace. Wrapping a gift for the girlfriend back home happened at a certain pace. If you didn’t like it there was always a flight at the nearest airport heading to JFK.

But Italy was different. Everyone seemed to care about your experience. How was my meal? Did I have a good ride? Where did I go? How did I like my Italian bicycle? Did I enjoy the museum?

International travel has a way of broadening horizons, of recalibrating your definition of how the world does work or, better yet, should work.

I probably didn’t learn the lesson I needed to in that first trip. It took a second trip to get at the essential truth of Italy.

There’s a truism that Italians are passionate. It’s easy to think that means they are fiery, irrational, prone to outbursts equal parts genius and crazy. But that’s a cartoon portrait, a caricature. What I began to appreciate about Italians was that they really did care—about everything.

They cared about doing more than just what was sufficient or garden-variety good. They wanted my experience, and the experience of everyone else around me, to be stellar. But they also wanted to enjoy their own lives. Which is why they closed up the office or shop for lunch. And why dinner service didn’t continue until all hours. They went home to be with their families.

Finally, I began to connect the dots. If you’re driven to do things well, when should that drive take a break? Why not let it spread to every corner of your life? Sure, you do your job well. But then you bring that same passion to your family, to your hobbies, to how you divide your time. 

What I was backing into was an understanding of the Italian sense of balance. A passion for life is a desire to have a life well-lived. It means after making a stunning lunch for your patrons, saving some energy for when you get home.

It has made me look at my own life differently. While I had always tried to carve out time from my various duties just for me, I came to appreciate that I’d been attempting to live an Italian life. I’ve long been aware that if I don’t take that time for myself, to recharge, to hang out with my wife and son, to sleep in once in a while, I’m less at everything else I do. Less good, less sharp, less useful—less me.

One day, while standing in the lobby of a swanky hotel on the outskirts of Rome I caught myself wondering just what the hell the hotel staff was doing. It seemed like stuff needed doing, but one of the front desk attendants was standing outside the front door having a cigarette. That’s when I suddenly remembered something a talented mason said to me. He told me how his staff would be daunted by the prospect of starting a new building and would be overwhelmed by the stacks upon stacks of bricks before them. 

He’d remind them, “All we have to do is a day’s work in a day.”

It meant that there wasn’t a need to rush, that a job well done is a job done right, not a job done incessantly.

The Italians figured this out many, many generations ago.

From Issue 11. Buy it here.