Updated: Sep 27, 2020
by Agita Wijaya
To the locals who happened to pass by, we must have looked like clowns. Huge suitcases (some stark neon pink with Victoria’s Secret written all over it), expensive and clunky professional cameras around our necks, money belts around our hips, and cases of guitars and ukuleles in our grips. We were dressed in tie dyed t-shirts, bandanas, sunglasses, and short jeans. Squinty-eyed, restless, loud, unaware, and…… foreign. Oh so foreign.
That was how my Summer Abroad program in Tuscany started back in 2012 on a hot and sticky July afternoon. Little did I know that those 5 weeks in Tuscany were all I needed to want to leave the North American way of life and to become a sworn Italian (..ok, a sworn wannabe Italian). I learned to live like Italians, in Italian time (+/- 15-20 minutes… or sometimes an hour), with that famous easy-going Italian attitude, and my oh my, it was simply the best summer of my life by far.
Going back home to Toronto, I found myself having a hard time to reset my way of thinking to the way it was before; I had been changed forever. And though life goes on, there were 3 simple lessons from the land of la dolce vita that I held onto and continue to celebrate today.
1. Doing Nothing
As simple as it sounds, doing nothing is actually one of the hardest things for busy, business-focused North Americans to do. Exhibit A: Before Italy opened my eyes to a different way of living, I had religiously planned to the second and missed no beat. I thought about what I wanted to do in 5 years, in the next month, in the next day. I checked off my to-do list, took one 25-minute break during my work day, and forced myself to go to spin class after work because I wanted to prove to myself that I was not lazy. The only time I was “allowed” to be lazy was after a long day of work, which almost always involved a combination of drinking alcohol, watching Netflix, and binge eating chips.
Almost immediately upon arriving in Tuscany, I noticed Italians do it differently. There was a sense of disorder and it made me uncomfortable at first, but once I got used to the art of “doing nothing”, or dolce far niente, I couldn’t look back. I love the way Italians take long lunches to appreciate the meal or how they stop to chat with a vegetable vendor on their way to a meeting. And who can deny the beauty of going home for a nap in the middle of the day, or just sitting in front of an outdoor cafe, doing nothing in particular as the day comes to a close.
As whimsical as it sounds, they let their instinct be their guide. I remember sitting in a piazza with a cold, creamy gelato, taking in what went on around me. I was inspired, I was reflecting, day-dreaming, imagining, all relaxed and happy. At first, it was so painful to not do anything that yields a quick result (like sending a quick email so I can cross that off my list). But after a bit of reflection (why do I feel like I have to be doing something all the time? What if I allow myself to just “be”?), I began to understand that relaxing is not only achieved by taking a one-week all-inclusive vacation to Mexico. It can be achieved simply by letting myself be, by breathing deeply, and letting my mind wander as freely as a child.
How I bring the art of doing nothing into my North American life:
I work in the tech industry so it’s always go, go, go. I realized that I can’t afford to take extra long lunches when the rest of my team is trying to deploy a fix for a client issue. I can, however, allow myself a 45-minute break to let myself do anything I like. Some days it’s going to the library to stumble upon interesting books or sitting at a nearby park and enjoying my lunch in a beautiful place. Other days ways I incorporate la dolce far niente is by visiting a museum, new coffee shop, or simply letting myself skip spin class (without feeling guilty) just because I don’t feel like it. On weekends, I join random Meetup events in the area or go to a free writing class I randomly discovered just 2 hours prior.
2. Cooking and Eating Together
During my stay in Siena, I noticed that families tend to not only cook together, but they’ve made cooking and eating into a religious activity. Their kitchen becomes the center of all the action: from making pasta to grilling meat, picking herbs, and washing fresh vegetables. Mix in the recipe that’s passed on from one generation to another, the laughter, the loud, expressive banter, and random guests coming each night to join, and voila! You’ve got yourself a 4-course meal with homemade wine that goes on for anywhere between 2-4 hours or more. It’s a grand affair compared to my typical meals in Toronto: sad sandwiches, cold salad, cereal, and 3-day old pasta, consumed in a hurry or alone- you know what I’m talking about!
Italy opened my eyes to just how much I’d missed out on in the realm of meal enjoyment- YES, sitting down and actually experiencing food with all our senses for true nourishment through fresh ingredients.
How I bring Italian-style meals into my North American life:
While my meals in Toronto aren’t nearly as elaborate, I’ve at least learned to cook most of my meals at home; no more frozen pizza, cereal for dinner, or boxed mac-and-cheese. I also try to take my time with each meal,no phone in hand or on the table. E-mails and Slack messages can wait 45 minutes while I’m refueling and enjoying the process. On weekends, my boyfriend and I try to cook something new and invite our friends over to enjoy a long dinner with us. It’s a total win-win: spending time with our friends while saving some $$$ by not going out to a bar or a restaurant!
3. One Gelato per Day
I first heard about this from my Italian professor. He said there’s nothing better than eating a cup of gelato per day while walking around town in the evening, post-dinner. It’s a nice way to unwind at the tail end of the day and, in its purest form, a way to let yourself indulge every now and then. I happily practiced this “one gelato per day” mantra when I was in Siena, and it even became a daily goal for my friends and I. We were never worried about gaining weight because the size of a gelato in Italy is much smaller, plus, we walked everywhere in hilly Siena which helped us earn our treat each day.
How I practice guilt-free indulgence in my North American life:
In North American culture, there seems to be this notion that you need to look your best. Part of looking your best is by eating healthy and going to the gym religiously. My one cup of gelato per day didn’t stand a chance of surviving. At times, I’ve needed to remind myself to let go of the health-conscious and weight-conscious mindset. It’s okay to not go to the gym every single day and it’s definitely okay (and delicious!) to eat gelato, chocolate croissants, and cookies every once in a while.
While most have a “when in Rome” attitude, I believe that a large portion of our lifestyle and habits can be created by us to reflect a way of life we truly value, rather than one predetermined by our culture and societal expectations. So, while I haven’t (yet) found a way to move myself permanently to those dreamy Sienese hills, you’ll find me here in Toronto- enjoying la dolce far niente, long meals, and a gelato every damn day.
What habits do you carry around with you and where did you pick them up? Share your experiences below!
Haven’t yet experienced la dolce vita of Italy? Our trips will have you dining with locals and laughing with new friends in no time! See our Upcoming Trips for drool-worthy itineraries and details on your next chance to experience authentic Italy!