One summer, I had the privilege of staying in a small Italian village, Gaeta.
It was a stunning, hot, magical place that felt like it had been frozen in a time long forgotten. Smooth stone pillars hold up ancient buildings that date back to Roman times. Twisted cobblestone streets. There were no horse-drawn carriages, only tourists on scooters buzzing past.
While I was there, I was immersed in the town’s unique culture and way of living. Probably no other culture embraces community like the Italians, and it’s clear why when you’re there. Their homes are often stacked right up on top of the other. It brings the idea of being neighbourly to a whole new level.
As much as our society seems to avoid human interaction at all costs, this close dwelling can manifest itself into friendly open communities. The entire two-story house we were staying in had another two-story house pasted on top. It was absurd. The architecture looked like it came from a Dr. Suess book, and I loved it. Every house and almost every window faced the ocean. Houses were placed anywhere for no apparent reason, the street widths changed at every intersection.
It wasn’t just the odd building design but the roads and alleys also seemed devoid of order, and most were overrun by these flocks of wild alley cats.
Drunken alleyways snaked the hills and that’s how we got around the town. The alleyways were carved into and under homes, and there were so many stairs. It took a while to get to know how to get around. And we didn’t want to get lost in the 35 Celsius heat, mindlessly wandering up and down the flights of stairs looking for a familiar archway or cat.
It felt like chaos at first. But we adapted to the chaos and took refuge in the small enjoyments of life, the enjoyment of company, of food, and leisure. We would stop on the stairs and laugh with others coming down, about the absurdity of the stairs.
At the villa we were staying, there was a deck looking out onto the ocean, and this deck was the roof of the lower neighbour’s house, and somehow there were a few large citrus trees growing on this deck. Rotten oranges and peels littered the brick floor. Vines and flowers were taking over the rest. It was hard to tell if the house had been built on the mountainside or if it has slowly grown out of it. The orange trees reached all the way up to our neighbour’s window, his house being stacked directly on top of this house (somehow).
The old man who lived above us was named Massimo and he was in his 80s but you could not tell. He would head out midday sporting a thong, some goggles, flippers in one hand and a spear in the other, and then return in a couple of hours with dinner caught. He dove almost every day for some fresh seafood. That should tell you how much these Italians cared about the quality of their food.
It was common to discuss which mozzarella was the finest at the time. They were apparently famous for their fresh buffalo milk mozzarella, which was heavenly and served as a meal at a restaurant. A plate with two or three softball-size pieces of mozzarella, some cracked pepper and olive oil, maybe some basil.
Four things we can learn from Italians about slowing down and savouring the moment:
1. Midday siesta.
The whole village shut down at noon, for four hours—everywhere.
Every single store, even the grocery store. Their attitude was that it was far too hot to work and everyone was at the beach anyway. So everyone shut down and headed to the beach. The stores would reopen at about four and stay open until about eight in the evening. After that, they would begin making dinner.
This brings me to the main point of this article. The life-changing magic of the Italian dinner. Italians make their meals about spending time with loved ones instead of only a means of survival. They gather as many at a table as they can and fill it with freshly cooked dishes. There was a lot of eggplant and fresh seafood, olives, pasta, and clams.
2. The Italian way of eating.
The family I was staying with would invite the neighbours over, family members, or friends they ran into that day. Dinner was always an event, not to be rushed. Why rush? We experienced a whole day on this mind-boggling blue sphere in the universe. Why not share what we learn? We deserve this meal to rejuvenate us; savour it. Taste each bite for it is a gift.
Now I live on the West Coast of Canada. I am blessed to have access to many local farmer’s markets with fresh local produce that wasn’t shipped around the world. Stuff that’s grown in the dirt with as many nutrients as nature intended. There’s still fresh seafood to be found, but it’s caught by local fishing boats, not Massimo and his free-diving gear.
And unfortunately, the dinner table seems harder to fill here than in Italy, perhaps because the homes are so far away and not precariously stacked on top of one another. However, I’m grateful all the same for the friendly wonderful folks I have around me.
3. The health benefits of eating slowly.
Personally, I have always been one to rush through a meal, scarfing it down trying to fuel my body quickly and efficiently, pack as much in as it can take. This can do more harm than good. It takes up to 20 minutes for our stomach to send the message to our brain that it’s full. By pacing ourselves, we prevent overeating and aid our digestive system. If we eat slower, we’ll chew our food better, which leads to better digestion. This all starts in our mouth, so the more work we do up there, the less we’ll have to do in our stomach.
As a general rule, a meal should take longer to eat than it did to make.
4. A lesson for life.
Savour life with as much intention. Don’t waste away time on meaningless endeavours. Show more love for yourself and if you hate your sh*tty job then quit. Stay hungry. Find what feeds your internal fire. Choose to live your life with intentional actions. Care about where your food comes from and how it is prepared.
Do not be too hard on yourself about what you are accomplishing, but rather if you are enjoying it. Create some art; go for a walk. Eat your food slower and savour the flavours. Enjoy it with some company to compare the tasting notes.
Eat like an Italian.
It seems common in our rushed society that mealtime is no exception to that hurriedness.
Always somewhere to go, somewhere to be. But why? And when should we slow down from the constant buzz of activity and chatter that surrounds us?
We need to slow down more and savour what is in front of us, eat our meals more slowly, enjoy our life more slowly—savour each bite.