By Hannah Silverman
During a recent visit to Southern Italy, a well-travelled Italian friend explained to me that the difference between England and Italy comes down to one universal essential: coffee.
“Here in Italy, we sip espresso slowly seated in the same place,” he says. “But in England, you order a large latte to take away and drink it quickly as you can.” It’s enough to slam your disposable coffee cup on your desk, temporarily stop multi-tasking and shout ‘holy caramel latte, he’s right’. However, this nail-hitting analogy quite simply sums up everything I adore about Italy. It puts into practice the beautiful art of doing nothing and reaping the sweetest of rewards that comes with slowing down and smelling the coffee beans.
Now, I like and need my coffee as much as the next person sardined alongside me on the tube and it’s become somewhat of a given that if Caffè Nero sold intravenous drips, the world would be a calmer place. But without getting my Elizabeth Gilbert on (she penned Eat Pray Love), my recent two-week adventure to Southern Italy showed me the effectiveness of sipping from the cup of life as though it were an espresso, savouring the flavours of something so momentary but so blissfully hedonistic in all its simplicity.
And this is how the Italians do everything, everyday. In fact, I learnt to enjoy my espresso so much that I didn’t even take one single selfie of me enjoying it. The experience became like three-and-a-half-minute yoga for lazy people in more flattering outfits (only few people can pull off wardrobes of Sweaty Betty in downward dog and I’m not one of them). I did sneak this shot of an espresso session in Naples though, just to prove I was on the band wagon.
The Italian phrase for this is la dolce vita, which is basically Hakuna Matata out of Africa. Think of it like Timon and Pumba grooving along the Amalfi Coast instead of the Savannah. It is to the Italian language what Carpe Diem is to Latin and YOLO is to One Direction fans, more or less. Put simply, la dolce vita means the sweet life.
But the term itself both fascinates and strikes me with caution. Can it really be that simple or are the Italians kidding themselves – and us? Is it like the perpetual Tweeter who hashtags their way through 140 characters of smoke and mirror updates to disguise an otherwise shambolic daily grind? Or the magazine editor who sells perfection with an airbrushed celebrity everyone can look like, as long as they buy couture? Is it the same thing to describe all Italians as laid back as it is to say Parisians are chic and by saying we’re living the sweet life are we actually just trying to convince ourselves that we possess an ability to chill out in an otherwise heated society? Is this really just a cultural cop out?
On the other hand, la dolce vita is a beautiful description of something that needn’t be described – or analysed (can someone have a word to the author, please?). It’s about heedless pleasure seeking that, when all of life’s complications are stripped bare, reveals the very essence of how a life could be led if it were untangled from the superficialities and stresses that seem to drown so many cultures. And it’s absolutely nothing to feel guilty about. It’s not as though the Italians are selfishly advocating against world peace in exchange for their own adventures, it’s experiencing what is going on around them and giving themselves permission to enjoy it. Or not giving themselves permission, just enjoying it.
Of course, if you ask an Italian how they’ve come to embrace the simple life, even their responses are devoid of complication. A thorough survey* of about three pure-bred Italians, showed each seemed unsurprised by this phrase, agreeing with a nod of their head and an ambivalent shrug of their shoulders. Apparently, I was stating the obvious about an attitude that comes so naturally to them. So naturally to them in fact, that few would even bother to analyse (except in the company of inquisitive, coffee sipping visitors). They just make like Nike and do it. You see when life throws Italians lemons they crush it up, add some ice and make granita. Just like this, actually:
Beyond delicious citrus cocktails, this concept translates into the fabric of their culture; from the coffee, to the lifestyle, to the attitude, the cooking. There are examples everywhere. Despite western interpretations, Italians don’t cook their pasta with entire vegetable gardens. Their architecture is rustically elegant, though aged enough to have a story and repaired subtly enough to be able to tell it. The history is celebrated and preserved giving those who wander its streets an opportunity to experience its past while appreciating its future. And the people – the people too are honest and like the heritage that is so proudly applauded around them, laid-back and generously open enough to reveal a real-time glimpse into their beautiful way of life. You need only stand in an Italian kitchen as friend’s instinctively fulfil roles that is the performance of food preparation, then feed on it as a collective audience. There are jokes, there is banter, there are smells, there is probably music and there is always plenty of wine – and espresso.
However, I am not Italian. I’m a cultural patchwork of Australia, British and Latvian so even my heritage is convoluted. My way of daily life is not Italian and despite sharing the essentials of western life, my parallel universe is conceivably light years away. I live my dreams while simultaneously designing a new one. To me, more is merrier when it comes to cooking, eating, drinking and shopping. I superficially contemplate weightloss over a cheese board, then diet on guilt and narcissism. I over-analyse everything from text messages to coffee consumption. I don’t live in the moment all the time. Yes, I usually drink my large skinny latte on the way to work.
Last month I visited Southern Italy to experience historic Pompeii, delicious Naples, stunning Amalfi Coast and a world where you have to live it, to believe it, Matera. I climbed volcanoes, walked through ruins that are amongst the oldest in the world, cruised along the Mediterranean, flew across mountains, ate pasta daily and fell in love with pistachio gelato. Proudly, I have never been more relaxed and in the moment than I was this time around in Italy. With a memory card full of photos, above all my greatest souvenir was the message of simplicity, and while there are many stories to tell (and they will be told in good time), for now I want to conclude this travelling story in the most Italian way I can, simply. Here’s hoping the sweet Italian life has brought me a little closer to embracing all of life’s moments, even if it’s just three-and-a-half minutes worth every now and again.
*Survey conducted by yours truly.