This past summer, I spent a few weeks working on the Amalfi Coast and in Tuscany and was struck by how healthy Italian living feels with its slower, more relaxed pace. Italians approach life much differently than we do: They are not concerned with how quickly they can get through a meal, but are instead interested in savoring each bite. Sure, fast food is making inroads there, but most Italians love food too much to succumb to the siren song of junk food.
I am in awe of how truly Italians live “la dolce vita.” In our fast-paced lives, it seems to me that we live to work. Italians work just enough to enjoy great meals with the people they love, believing that the rest of life will take care of itself. They place little focus on accumulating things and embrace life for all it’s worth. They don’t see what they don’t have; they see their lives as rich and full—because they are—in the most important ways. They are compassionate, social, passionate and joyful. I always say that, while Italians surely have their problems, they will never die from stress!
This perspective on life is on my mind as we move into the crazy holiday season. In Italy, life moves at a languid, luscious, seductive pace. As we struggle with stress, Italy moves more slowly, joyfully, with an appreciation of what the holiday season really means. Worry is not in their vocabulary. Unlike Americans, my Italian friends and family members eat and drink normally rather than think of the holiday season as an excuse for excess. Financial woes don’t keep them up at night (they don’t buy what they can’t afford), and time spent with family and friends is never stressful. (They seem to enjoy their families, warts and all.) The holiday season isn’t hectic like we experience in America.
We seem to have lost sight of the joy that the “season of giving” can bring to our lives. We guiltily over-indulge at every occasion, sleep too little, fret over “the perfect gift,” skip the gym and face January feeling like we need a holiday to recover from the holidays. We avoid our families because they may not like the choices we have made in our lives, whatever they may be. Instead of showing them how wonderfully we live and how wondrous they are, we argue, lecture and preach.
Joy to the world, right?
In Italy, the holidays are just another reason to live passionately and well. They still take their daily evening passagiatto just before dinner (and sometimes after), as walking before the evening meal aids digestion. The holidays provide other reasons to walk: to socialize, to admire the decorations of the season, to breathe in the cool evening air and to get exercise. There, Christmas is not about big gift boxes, rushing around shopping or outdoing the neighbors’ lights. It’s an opportunity to slow down, linger at the table, indulge in friends and family, laugh and love. It’s a time to savor culinary traditions reserved only for this special time of year.
Feasting is a way of life in Italy, but Italians are champions of fresh and local food, cooked from scratch. They don’t need a special occasion to cook dinner. It is the way that they live day to day: shopping for produce, creating sumptuous meals from the most simple, wonderful ingredients—vegetables, whole grains, beans, herbs and olive oil—and savoring each mouthful of what we now know to be the healthy ‘Mediterranean Diet.” While many Italians eat meat, it plays such a small role with veggies, grains and beans in the starring roles. It’s so easy to live and eat as a vegan there!
We admire the health (and bodies!) that most Italians enjoy, but they’re so easy to have; it’s silly. First, they do not stress over each bite, but savor tastes and textures, letting their bodies tell them when they are full. And while they enjoy dessert daily (seriously, daily), they live by the “three-bite rule:” after three bites, you no longer taste the sugar, so they savor their three bites and move on. How yummy! And the holidays are no different. While there is an abundance of special occasion treats made just at this time of year, their three-bite rule still stands. They can relax and enjoy the indulgences of the season without busting out of their Armani slacks.
It’s not just legend, either. According to research at Leicester University in Britain, Italians stay healthier longer than their European neighbors (not to mention us Yanks)—Italian men by ten years and women by a staggering fourteen years.
First, they skip junk food and go home for lunch every single day. Eating home cooking is one of the most important facts of life there, and the holidays don’t change that. The daily riposta or pennichella (little rest) after lunch helps Italians to keep stress levels manageable, and eating at home keeps their intake more normale.
Next, all the pasta feasts that are common during the holidays (and every day) don’t seem to land as heavily on Italian hips as they do here. They eat a sensible portion of pasta; they do not drown it in oil or butter or cheese; but most important, they cook their pasta ‘al dente,’ slightly undercooked so it is not an insulin trigger that sends them off on a carb binge.
Finally, they exercise. While they aren’t gym rats, straining in the weight room (one-third do not participate in any sporting activities), more than 28% of Italians make their way through their days on foot. We are at a woeful 12%. So, as most of us are settling down in front of the television after dinner, many Italians are walking—again.
We would be wise to take a page from the lives most Italians live. Walking daily, eating just enough and indulging reasonably through the holiday season will result in us actually enjoying the holidays for what they are: a time to gather loved ones around our table, cook gorgeous dinners from fresh ingredients, sit back and count our blessings. We can live, even for just this short time, la dolce vita.
Tante Auguri, as we say. Wishing you joy and abundance!
P.S. An important part of the Italian culture is to keep things in perspective. They do it through action and lifestyle, but it’s also reflected in the kinds of expressions they use to help address stress. I confess to having many of these posted around my office for those moments when I lose perspective:
“A correre e cagare ci si immerda i garretti."
Doing two things at the same time will result in a mess.
“La calma è la virtù dei forti."
The calm is the virtue of the strong.
“Chi mangia solo crepa solo.”
He who eats alone dies alone.
“Chi troppo vuole, nulla stringe."
He who wants too much doesn't catch anything.
“Chi pò, non vò; chi vò, non pò; chi sà, non fà; chi fà, non sà; e così, male il mondo va."
Who can, doesn't want to; who wants to, can't; who knows how, doesn't do it; who does it, doesn't know how; like this the world goes badly. (This is my personal favorite.)
“La rabbia della sera - riponela per la mattina.”
The evening rage - put it away for the morning.
“Tempo al tempo."
All in good time.