How's this for irony: I have been wracking my brain for days in an effort to find an appropriate subject for an issue dedicated to enjoying oneself and unwinding in Italy. Easy, right? Not always, in a land where there are options galore. For instance, you can browse the open air produce markets for fruits and vegetables or the flea markets for antiques and other related bric-a-brac. As the whole world recognizes, dining all'italiana at any time of day or night is simply sublime. On weekends you can hop into the car, leave the hustle and bustle of Milan, Rome or Florence far behind, sit back and revel in the glories of the Italian countryside. It was good enough for Perugino, Raphael and Michelangelo, wasn't it? So who are we to balk?
Perhaps the biggest problem in Italy is not finding a way to relax, it's having to forsake those ever beckoning treats and perform one's duties such as, much to my chagrin, I had to do today in order to write this article. As I sat here trying to concentrate and feeling sorry for myself, it suddenly occurred to me that you really don't have to do anything to have a pleasant experience here. Italy is a pleasant experience. Sometimes we let ourselves be overwhelmed by its beauty, culture and character, when all we really ought to do is learn to relax and savor the experience. Even the most routine daily ritual can be a delight in this country. Is there anything better than having a mid-morning cappuccino while reading the newspaper in your favorite sunlit piazza?
Of course even in Paradise (the celestial one), there are probably a few elementary rules for the angels to follow to render each one's existence even more divine, and Italy is no different. There are all sorts of little do's and dont's that only the connoisseurs know, having learned them either by genetic transmission or else the hard way through years of first-hand experience. Obviously, life would still be pleasant even if you were oblivious to these tips, but why not allow yourself to take full advantage of the situation? The following is my own personal list of no-nos. If you follow it scrupulously it is bound to render your Italian experience pleasant, relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable.
Don't go into a restaurant where there are no customers. Granted, the Italians love to congregate more than many other populations. At the sea, for example, they all want to sit on the same two centimeters of sand rather than even consider moving on to the next beach down the way where there is absolutely no one. However, they generally like to congregate in the best spots due to their highly developed aesthetic sense. Nothing confirms this more than their eating habits. If there is no one in the place at the normal dining time, it probably is not good for some reason or other (bad food, cranky staff, lousy atmosphere). The Italians know. Remember, they do not eat dinner at 7 pm, so if the place you have your eye on is empty then, it may just be too early. Go back and check it out at 8 or 8:30.
Don't travel on the following dates:
a. The weekend between July 28th and August 3rd. This is the weekend that almost the entire country goes on vacation. Everyone in the North is going South and vice versa. Trains, highways, airports are teeming. Traveling to Italy in that period is fine, just make sure you do not to plan your transfer from Rome to Florence, for example, on that weekend. Leave before or after and stay put from Friday to Sunday.
b. August 15th. The major national holiday. Anybody who did not travel on the abovementioned weekend is now joining all those people who left two weeks before.
c. The weekend between August 28th and September 3rd. All of the people mentioned in a and b above are going back to wherever they originally departed from.
Don't expect people to observe No Smoking signs. Just because there is a sign up does not mean that anyone is going to observe it. You'll have to relax and think of it as a continental experience. Soak up the atmosphere (and sit at the table nearest the window if smoke really bothers you).
Don't expect everybody to speak English. They really are not obliged to do so and remember, their language was created by the likes of Dante and Petrarch while we were still battling with Beowulf. Dante is still recited today. How many people do you know who can recite (and enjoy) a line from Beowulf? Your average Italian taxi driver, on the other hand, can understand and probably quote, the Divina Commedia. If you cannot get your point across, speak slowly and gesticulate. The Italians are extremely intelligent and intuitive, and they're almost always willing to help someone who makes an effort. A big smile is worth more than a thousand words (especially if they are in a language a person doesn't understand).
Don't decide to wander the shopping streets downtown on Saturday afternoon (especially if you detest crowds). It often gets so packed that one is literally pulled along by the tide of swarming people. That's okay if you have no particular destination in mind, but it's a nightmare if you wish to go in the opposite direction. It is that congregation factor again. Saturday afternoon is the time that absolutely everyone from princesses to teenagers makes a bee-line for il centro (downtown) in order to see and be seen. This habit is most likely the modern equivalent of la passeggiata, a habit acquired through the centuries in small, primarily agricultural societies (which Italy was until the turn of the century) of walking down the main street on Saturday afternoons, after a big lunch and a short siesta, before heading back home for the evening meal.
Don't take any rule literally, including this list.
What you really should do, and this is very Italian, is be flexible. One of the great qualities of the Italians is that they know how to think on their feet and make the most of any situation. Keep the rules in the back of your mind but learn to adapt. The Italians have been doing it for ages and it seems to work. If it were not so, how could they have created a flourishing empire 2000 years ago that influenced all of western civilization, repeated the trick 1400 years later, and now be living in the world's most beautiful country despite all logical odds? They don't worry about those things too much, so be like them. Just relax and enjoy, just be Italian.