The first week in Italy, I lost my watch at (approximately) 12:47 pm. For someone always in control, I now felt powerless without it. I had relied on its safe rigidity, but now I stood in the piazza, worried that I would be too late or too early for something truthfully not too important. In the midst of meandering Italians with no hurry to their stride, I was a fast walker with no place to be and no more time constraints. I sat down on the wet steps of the teeming fountain and looked down at my naked wrist out of habit. And no longer confined by the boundaries of time, I began to live without restriction.
The first lesson I learned in Italy: the public transportation comes when it wants to. After spending countless hours waiting for a bus (in all sorts of weather), I realized that it’s useless to expect anything. It may be supposed to come at 5:30, but it’s more realistic to add ten minutes for traffic, five for a coffee break, five for stopping to let old ladies cross the street, and ten for natural Italian lateness … that is, if it comes at all. And the train will not rush, nor will it wait.
So while waiting, I would head to a café. Lured in with the colorful gelato, inside the warm scents of caffe and cornetti are overwhelming. And it seems like nothing to sit for an entire afternoon, talking with friends and the over-friendly barista. The café is not just a place to wait in line for a frilly, watered-down cappuccino – rather, it is a social place to spend a few hours listening to the latest news and gossip while biting into a fresh melt-in-your-mouth chocolate pastry.
Italians are masters at passing time. Meals sometimes draw on for four hours, elongated by the three courses, dessert, after-dinner drinks, and coffee, all complimented with vigorous hand-waving conversations. If you rush too quickly through a meal, you miss the purity of the flavors, the beauty of the complimentary tastes. It requires lots of time to make a worthwhile meal and appreciate it properly. And Italians aren’t just savoring the food (touch your finger to your cheek and say “buona”), but rather enjoying the company of their friends and family.
My host father, Giuseppe, collects clocks; however, only one of the hundred or so clocks in our house shows the correct time. The faithfully-wound grandfather clock cannot be trusted, and the cuckoo clocks chime at all hours. He likes the disorderly interruptions, believing in the importance of preserving the clocks’ character. He doesn’t care if he knows the time, because everything will eventually get done (besides, he would much rather drink his daily midmorning tea with honey than worry about the hour).
Sometimes it seems that time is collapsed in Italy. But although it lives in the midst of its monumental past and clings with unwavering fidelity to tradition, it is not stuck in time. Time simply does not exist. Italians ignore deadlines and store hours; they show up when they want and leave hours later with numerous chaotic goodbyes. Italians pay no attention to time; instead, they live.
I now find myself returning to the piazza, strolling slowly down the cobblestone, tasting the simplicity and leisure of the cloudless day. I have nowhere more important than this moment. In relinquishing control this year, I discovered pleasure. I listen to the lyrical language course around me and lean against the sturdy fountain edge. The same fountain spouts water, in no rush and never overflowing.
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