During my second week in Sorrento I came across an Italian saying that I soon realized was central to the way of life in southern Italy: “il dolce far niente”. A rough translation of this could be “the sweetness of doing nothing”, which at first may sound like the anthem of the lazy, but I’ve discovered that it has a different meaning altogether. The way of life in my new town happens at a much slower pace than life in the United States. It’s not about doing nothing, it’s about living slowly so as to realize what’s happening around you. Every day as I walk to school I can see it: friends sitting outside of cafés laughing, old men sitting together on benches talking, friends stopping to chat when they run into each other on the street, and the daily “siesta” time during which many shops close for a few hours in the afternoon to rest and have a home-cooked meal.
The most obvious example of this exists in Italian food culture. Before arriving in Italy I knew, as most people do, that food is central to the Italian way of life. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to be eating a lot and it’s going to all be delicious.” This turned out to be very true, however, I didn’t realize that it’s not just about the food; it’s about building relationships, whether it be with family or friends, and spending time together. This is essentially the opposite of fast food culture in the United States; in Sorrento there are no fast food restaurants, as far as I know.
Every night, my roommate and I get to eat dinner with our host family. The food is always great, but the best part is feeling included in the family. Long after the eating has ended, we sit and talk about anything from new Italian/English vocabulary to the appropriate way to eat an orange (this was a real conversation). Even though we struggle through language barriers on a daily basis, our host family is always patient and involves us in the conversations. A few weeks ago, we celebrated my host mom’s birthday with a four hour dinner that ended after midnight! In local restaurants this food culture is also visible. Nothing is ever rushed. In order to leave, you are never brought the bill by a waiter subtly suggesting that it is time for you to leave, instead you could sit for hours until asking for “il conto”.
In addition to food culture, “il dolce far niente” also applies to other daily activities. Sorrento is on the coast, so naturally during the summer many residents enjoy spending time on the beach. Since I arrived in late August, at the peak of summer, I was fooled into thinking that all southern Italians were naturally tan. I soon found out that although some are, many of them are not and completely change colors during the summer because of countless days spent lazing on the beach. My roommate, Courtney, was one day asked by her Italian co-worker if she had gone to the beach that morning. Much to his shock, she responded “no,” to which he replied that she will wish she had gone to the beach everyday once the cold comes.
In the United States, many of us are guilty of eating on the go, being workaholics, and just in general rushing through things. I feel as though Italians, at least the ones in Sorrento, have managed to achieve something that we all should strive for: a slower pace of life.
Anna is a current student at the University of South Carolina studying at Sant’Anna Institute in Italy during the Fall 2014 term.