The sign on the door clearly said the store should have reopened at three. According to my watch, and confirmed by my cellphone, it was now 3:12. I’d been waiting a full 3 minutes.
The place where I was waiting wouldn’t really qualify as a “store” as we would understand the term. It was really a ground level room of a three-storey home on the main street of the small Sicilian village I was visiting for my niece’s wedding. It was attached to rows of similar buildings that lined the narrow main street where most of the other ground level
rooms had been similarly converted to a variety of businesses – grocery stores, flower shops, bakeries, espresso bars, and other purposes I couldn’t discern based on outward appearances.
This particular “store”, I was assured, was the only place I might obtain a media card, the object that was apparently preventing my cellphone from being able to store more pictures. Fabrizio, who operated the store, would know what to do.
Looking through the glass, I became dubious that I’d find any solutions among the apparently random collection of items in the small, cluttered space. It seemed more like a workshop than a place of business. In fact, I wasn’t sure how more than one person would even fit inside.
I turned to my niece who had come along to help me find the store. As the central figure in the aforementioned wedding, which promised to be the social event of the season, she certainly had better things to do. But here she was, remarkably calm despite the circumstances and lateness.
“Where is he?” I asked, with righteous agitation.
With an expression one might reserve for calming a hyperactive child, she turned her big brown eyes to me and said with barely disguised condescension:
“But Zio, he lives upstairs. He’s having lunch with his family”.
And there it was. Crystallized in those few words, expressed by this young and vibrant woman, all the differences between her world and mine came into sharp focus.
In her world, people were simply not ruled by any clock or regulation.
In her world, people choose to spend their time doing what is valuable to them, and are unapologetic in doing so.
In her world, people not only take time for lunch, but truly value that time despite what we might regard as greater priorities.
In her world, the choice to value private time over work is not simply tolerated, but understood and respected.
Her world has trust and comfort in its way of life, and regards our work-obsession with a combination of amusement and pity. It’s a world that says, without rancor, but in no uncertain terms, “you’re here now – chill out, because we’re not changing.”
This is not a new realization for me. The contrast between the lifestyles of my ancestral and birth homes becomes apparent whenever I visit, but my understanding has changed, perhaps matured, over the years. What I previously regarded as a quaint, anachronistic way of life out of keeping with the modern world, I now see as an explicit and insightful choice, particularly when made by bright young people like my niece and her fiancé (now husband) who are choosing to remain and begin their lives there.
There is, of course, a price to be paid for this less-than-compulsive approach to productivity. The Italian economy is a continual source of concern to both its leadership and the international community.
Despite this glum outlook, Italian health indices, life expectancy, quality of life and “happiness index” rank among the highest in the world. There appears to be a dichotomy between the collective economic health of the nation, and individual contentment of its people.
Surely there are lessons there. Our two worlds, it would seem, have much to learn from each other. On a personal level, I love being Canadian and am grateful for the choice my father made to immigrate to this country, as was he. I also recognize that the Italian diaspora resulted a certain natural selection process whereby the ambitious and driven were more likely to leave their familiar surroundings, and so these differences are not surprising. Nonetheless, I very much appreciate the values and family focus of my ancestral home and have come to realize that occasional inoculations of “la dolce vita” provide much needed perspective.
When Fabrizio arrived and opened, I found that the door actually rolled up so that the store completely opened to the street. It became an open-air kiosk where he did his business on the sidewalk. In fact, all the stores were similar so that the street became sort of an open- air market where proprietors, passers-by, street residents and, occasionally, customers like myself, mingled as business was conducted. It was crowded, noisy, confusing, but welcoming and very engaging. There was none of the structure and process we associate with the consumer experience but things seemed to get done. Fabrizio, once we finished introductions and after he had enquired about every detail of the upcoming wedding, was able to find exactly what I needed from among the debris that was his workplace and install it in my cellphone. He had to stop a couple of times as his children wandered down to the store with some domestic issue that always, immediately, took precedence.
The wedding, by the way, was wonderful but started a half hour after the scheduled time due to the bride’s late arrival. No one seemed surprised. No one minded – least of all me.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education