Sociologists, anthropologists, and philosophers have long debated constructs of time. If there’s one thing that’s certain, though; it’s the level of variation between perceptions of time among the species. Some cultures approximate time with hours and days, others decades and centuries, while others slice time into precise minutes and seconds. With that variation on the concept of time, punctuality can be of the greatest importance—or of none at all.
In a collection of literary sketches, Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman examines how different constructs of time might affect the way people live. For example, in one sketch he describes a world where society has discovered that the farther one lives from the earth’s surface, the slower time passes and thus, the slower one ages. The consequence being that all inhabitants of this place eventually build their houses on stilts which, with time, are raised higher and higher in an attempt to remove themselves from the aging force of gravity. The side effect is that the inhabitants of these houses disconnect themselves from their neighbors, and therefore limit their ability to really ‘live’, even though they live long.
In another world, the people operate on “body time” and only do things when they feel ready: no official clocks exist. In this world, only things people have a great passion get done, but at least everything that is accomplished is done with great thought and intention. And in yet another world, time has a physical ‘center’ and the closer one gets to it, the faster people move, and the faster time passes, while on the periphery, people move so slowly as to appear almost completely frozen. And in still another world, everyone knows the time and date of their deaths, and this affects people in many ways; some live with great vigor and urgency while others develop a certain apathy or helplessness.
If Lightman had included a sketch of the movement of time in Italy, it would appear like this: this is a world where time moves in fits and starts. At some points its inhabitants move with great vigor that actually accomplishes little, while at other times they moved more deliberately, almost languidly, and in fact accomplish much. There would be moments in this world when time seems to stop completely, or simply slips by languidly in complete irrelevance.
Italian time management is the source of much eye-rolling and mockery on the part of both foreigners and Italians alike. Everyone has heard the anecdotes about Italians who arrive hours or even days late for an occasion. But as with most jokes, there is kernel of truth to be found within. A group of UK language and culture specialists note on their site, Kwinessential, that in Italy, “punctuality is not mandatory. You may arrive between 15 minutes late if invited to dinner and up to 30 minutes late if invited to a party.” And this is being conservative. In dinner parties that I’ve held since living in Italy, rarely did anyone arrive less than 30 minutes late. Its not that they intend to be so late—it just happens, perhaps as a result of not watching the clock all the time.
However, it’s important to note that frequent lateness does not always equate to a slower pace of life. Many Italians can run around like a proverbial chicken with its head cut off, excitable and agitated, just as well as any New Yorker. But the perpetual tardiness of Italians has less to do with a general disregard of time, and more with what can best be described as a quaint disorganization that pervades many sectors of society: particularly in the government and the public transportation system. Try standing in line at the immigration office for three hours only to have the window closed before you approach. Or try arriving at the train station in Rome on time only to find that your scheduled train will depart two and a half hours later.
And then there are the three sacred periods of time in Italy when things . . . just . . . stop. Completely. They are: the early afternoon (roughly from 12:30 to 3:30 in the north and 1:00 to 4:00 in the south), all day on Sunday, and most noticeably, in August (beginning at 12:01am on the 1st and ending at 11:59pm on the 31st of the month, or thereabouts).
Traditionally during the average weekday, Italians return home for a midday meal with their families. Most shops (such as bakeries and bookstores) and government offices (i.e., libraries, post offices) close between roughly 12:30 and 3:30 daily. The shopkeeper or clerk needs a break and so customers will simply have to come back later. Full stop. However, as more and more people commute longer distances to work and businesses are pressured by international partners to operate all day, this tradition is fading, particularly in larger cities. And more and more often in large department stores an “orario continuato” sign, meaning the store does not close for the mid-day interval, is clearly posted.
In the same vein, the majority of businesses are also closed on Sunday, even though an increasing percentage of Italians do not profess to being Catholic or any variety of Christian, and therefore their leisure time is not inhibited by a weekly commitment to attending church, for example between 10 and 11 every Sunday. Nonetheless, this day of rest is carefully guarded by society. No doubt store owners have realized that they could make more money being open on Sundays. Yet with the exception of the busy Christmas season, they persevere with the tradition of closing on Sundays.
For many foreigners used to a 24/7 culture, the Sunday closures takes some getting used to. And so a little thing called planning ahead comes into the picture. In Busto Arsizio, for example, the suburb of Milan where I lived for about eight months, one could easily go hungry on a Sunday for lack of planning.
Photo from BugBog.com
And then there’s the entire month of August, when the whole of the inland-dwelling population, it seems, goes on holiday. In the cities especially, nothing moves in August, for nearly everyone has already migrated south, east, or west to the seaside (take your pick, there’s no shortage of Italian beaches). This mass migration is in part due to a need to escape the oncoming summer heat, yes, but also because everyone simply feels they need a break from their busy lives.
The August standstill, like the Sunday closings, is not something to be lightly dismissed, lest one risk personal endangerment. Factories close for weeks at a time, tradesmen like plumbers and electricians head for the beaches, even medical services are pared down. Those few poor souls left in the cities in August try to go out as little as possible, hunkering down and conserving energy during the long, hot month. In that sense, albeit in an inverse climate, they’re rather much like the male penguins that huddle for the long, harsh winter, patiently awaiting their mates’ return. If not for the resilient tourists (begrudgingly serviced by those few left behind), even the giant cities of Milan and Rome begin to resemble ghost towns during August.
Another element of the Italian construct of time, as alluded above, is the ability to wait . . . .patiently. Over the last eight months, I’ve been simultaneously frustrated by this ability (when someone assumed I, too, possess such an ability), yet I also developed a begrudging respect for such patience. I don’t know if its nature or nurture, but the majority of society seems to be aware that some things simply take longer to get done than others.
For example, I waited at the airport for approximately four hours with a group of Italians after we learned that our Alitalia flight to Budapest had been cancelled. Even though Alitalia appeared to being doing absolutely nothing to resolve the situation, nary a person in the line became impatient. I tried to envision a group of my fellow, uptight countrymen in the same situation.
A month later I stood in line at a train station. Even though the line to buy international tickets took only about an hour to get through (one hour—that’s not so bad), the man in front of me, with whom I was embarrassed to share a nationality, threw an absolute tantrum. I was relieved that not one of the Italians among us turned to stare at this man’s audible swearing and slurs against Milan. It seems they merely shrugged, as Italians are inclined to do, and dismissed him as an ugly tourist.
I’ve been moving about at various paces, in various parts of Europe for a year, now, and I’ve come to believe that as frustrating as the slower Italian pace may be to a foreigner such as myself from the faster-paced parts of the US, there’s also something reassuring to be found in a culture where there are other things that are considered more important than time: conversation with a friend or acquaintance in the same line, for example; a bit more time to enjoy that cup of espresso, that glass of Chianti. This is a place where people refuse to be hurried and hold strongly to the notion that certain times of the day, week, and year are simply not intended for work. It’s so . . . restful. Ah, I just remembered— I’d better stock up on groceries before Sunday.