The Italian Distraction – living life the Italian way

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In this article writer and lecturer, Danny Bernardi contrasts the main differences between the way of life in Italy and the UK.

The Children’s Society is to set up an independent inquiry to look at all aspects of childhood amid growing concerns over the health and quality of childrens’ lives within the UK. Complex family structures and an overwhelming number of exams and assessments means that they’re filling their faces with junk food, spending hours alone in front of computer screens and suffering from stress. Their poor parents, meanwhile, seem oblivious to all this as they rush around trying to cram as much as possible into already overcrowded schedules. It would seem our lives are now lived at breakneck pace with little time for some of the simpler pleasures. Being idle is a sin and slowing down practically unthinkable! The importance of paid work and the primacy of economic competitiveness, whatever the personal costs, is almost accepted wisdom.

Having just returned from an extended writing trip to Italy it has become obvious to me that the contrast in lifestyles between the two countries could not be greater. Sure, the Italians have their own problems and their fair share of stress but they do seem to have their priorities better thought out. The Italian government doesn’t need to trumpet family friendly policies or work life balance initiatives because the society instinctively values leisure time and knows what is important.

In Italy the extent to which the different generations mix with ease is also striking. The older members of the community sit around chatting whilst keeping a watchful eye on children playing in the square. At first glance these children seem to be running amok in a very unstructured manner. In reality their play is simple and unhurried while our own children seem stuck in their rooms, glued to shoot ‘em up games or else they are being frantically ferried around from one organised activity to another.

The importance of taking a few moments out of the day to sit down for a break is also important for Italians. A coffee stop is considered a virtual human right and there appears to be a national commitment to living life at an even pace. Meals can take hours to consume and lunch is a non-negotiable part of the Italian working day. The typical British schedule, however, leaves us guilt-ridden if we’re still for more than a few moments. Sadly, frantic activity and full diaries have become the norm.

Visitors to Italy should also be aware of a social phenomenon which I have dubbed ‘The Italian Distraction’. Far from being unpleasant this social technique is, in fact, designed to force you to relax. I suspect it may even be some covert government initiative to preserve the quality of Italian life. The Italian Distraction invariably involves two people meeting by chance. There then follows a lengthy conversation about nothing in particular. A third or even a fourth person may join in. After a respectable amount of time a joint decision is invariably taken to continue the discussion over coffee, a glass of wine or perhaps a meal. Thus, a five minute trip out for a pint of milk could take all morning. Italians do not seem to consider such time wasted – far from it – the Italian Distraction is an important part of daily life.

Ultimately, any way of life is all about choices. Here in the UK we’d rather spend our spare time at home engrossed in DIY or consuming in huge shopping malls. The Italians would rather just wander out and about to see what emerges.
Obviously, I am generalising and there are exceptions to the rule. I spoke to a number of young Italians who were educated and frustrated, seemingly unable to capitalise on their skills and academic qualifications. Some of these young people told me they wanted to come to the UK where they had heard there were rich pickings. ‘Was it true?’ they asked me. ‘Yes, it’s true. You will probably find a job and earn some decent money,’ I told them. I felt it only fair to point out the downside. ‘Rents and mortgages are high and the food is not only bad but also expensive. More importantly,’ I continued, ‘everything is incredibly hectic and you will probably be so busy commuting and working that you won’t have a life! There will also be less time for your friends and you can forget lunch! The leisurely evening passeggiata with it’s slow stop for gelato or coffee will be replaced by the Great British Pub Crawl which involves liver numbing quantities of alcohol consumed within a staggeringly short time span.

My anecdotal observations of British life seemed to be enough to discourage most I spoke to. Sure, Italy has an underperforming economy, their fair share of corrupt politicians and the world’s most frustrating bureaucracy but it still possesses a great quality of life and there are some things money just can’t buy. What’s the point working crazy hours, sacrificing your family and social life if you’re going to die before your time of a stress related disease due to over work? It is no accident the Italians stay healthier for longer than we do . Maybe it is because they view their existence as a joyful jog rather than some crazy lone sprint where profits and short term efficiency gains are placed above anything else.

Danny Bernardi is the author of ‘Under the Rotunda’, a novel which deals, in part, with the work life balance.

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