After waiting for the bus for a half hour, I leaned back against the Vatican wall to ease my aching feet. With no car and no home appliance store within walking distance of my apartment, I was on a quest to Rome’s city center in search of the store that - as legend had it - sold space heaters.
The bus arrived twenty minutes later. I gave the driver an aggravated look. I already rearranged the list of to dos in my head to accommodate for the slow transportation.
I got off at the Via Crescenzio stop and was elated to see the store sign ahead. But as I approached, my smile faded. The doors were sealed shut; it was closed. I let out a cry of exasperation and with my sub-par Italian read the sign on the door. Translated, it read “Back at 4:30.” Right away I knew what it meant. I rolled my eyes and checked my watch. Yes, it was siesta.
Siesta is the period between 1 and 4 p.m. when most things shut down in Rome. People leave their jobs to engage in leisure. They sleep, they eat, they spend time with family and friends; whatever strikes their fancy.
But siesta is more than a random practice in Italy. It’s a cultural symbol that makes a statement about the Italian way of life. It says work is part of life but by no means should consume life. Work is a means to live and do those pleasurable things with the people you love - those things that make life enjoyable.
This isn’t just an idealistic mission statement for the country. It’s clear in almost every facet of Italian life.
Italian government mandates that all citizens take 20 paid-vacation days per year. An additional 16 days are allotted for holidays and another three-and-a-half days are taken for miscellaneous time off. But this is unheard of in the United States. According to a recent study by the Harvard Institute of Economic Research, Americans take 20 fewer days of vacation than Italians. On the job, the study says Italians work on average 16.7 hours per week compared to 25.1 hours per week for the average American worker.
Italians take advantage of their vacation time usually in August, where for the entire month many travel abroad or take trips to the mountains and the beautiful Mediterranean beaches. While some argue that high taxes and strong unions are behind these federally mandated days off, I believe the underlying factor is the Italians’ effortless allegiance to living “la dolce vita,” the sweet life.
Also, a lot of energy has been put into making places of leisure beautiful in Italy. Apart from Italy’s picturesque vacation spots, even big cities like Rome show a reverence for the art of relaxation. Roman parks are breathtaking and a far cry from the tree and seesaw parks many Americans are familiar with. Villa Borghese in the Flaminio area goes on for miles and its statues, ponds and gardens are cared for meticulously. Several piazzas - large, open areas with fountains, statues and cobblestone - are scattered around the city and seemingly meant for friendly gatherings and camaraderie between residents.
At restaurants, eating is a ceremonious, time-consuming event. You’re expected to order two courses, each brought out slowly with time to reflect in between. Wine is freely poured throughout lunch or dinner. “Caf??” This is almost a rhetorical question asked by your server at the end, as it’s assumed you will want a cup of espresso to finish your meal. Bellies full and plates cleaned, if you’d like the check you usually have to track your server down, especially if you’ve sat for fewer than two hours. After all, meals are leisure time for Italians, not to be rushed but to be celebrated and savored.
Bummed by the closed store, I took a walk and found a little caf? on the corner. Inside people were gathered at tables, munching on paninis and sharing stories with wide eyes and big smiles. I ordered a cappuccino and sat solo with my thoughts and a book I never quite had the time to get started. It was an unexpected pleasure. This would be the start of what would become a new lifestyle for me. One marked by slow living and deep thinking. One that marveled in the leisurely moments and pastimes created by my new Roman setting.
My apartment was cold, I needed the space heater and the store was too far out of the way to come back. Yes, I had other stuff to do, but the fact was those have-to-dos would have to wait until after 4:30 p.m. The Italian appliance storeowner was in the midst of his siesta, and actually, so was I.