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Emily in Italy: Slow Life

Eight months after moving to Italy, Emily reflects on how the pace and quality of her life has slowed and changed.

18 October 2010

I knew we were coming to Italy to learn more about Slow Food, but I didn’t realize we would be learning so much in general about a slower life. This doesn’t mean we are less busy here, we have just been doing things in a slower way, or should I say a more classic way, and spending more of our time on all things domestic and our lives outside of our work.

This picture seems to sum up what I am talking about. Here are our cleaning rags hanging on our clothesline to dry:

Like many Italians, we don’t have a dryer, so we hang everything outside the window. Not only that, but we made a decision not to use many paper products, so we have all cloth napkins and rags, no paper towels, so there is more to wash. The problem is that it doesn’t all fit on the line, so it is often also hanging in random places in the house too. Plus, we are always cleaning, so these rags seem to be constantly dirty.

I read that of all of the women in the world, Italian women spend the most time cleaning. I’m not sure if that is really true, but I do know that Paul and I both spend way more time cleaning here than we ever have – we sweep/vacuum about every other day and mop once a week.

I’m not sure if it is because the tile floors we have seem to show the dirt more, we spend more time at home since we often work here (so we make more of a mess and are here to notice it), we’re naturally assuming the cultural norm, or we simply have more time for cleaning so we clean. On top of the cleaning, add in the grocery shopping, which we do daily, plus the cooking, and the dishes. It is entirely possible to spend a whole day of just grocery shopping, making three meals, and cleaning up.

Plus, add in the other things that are a requirement here, like drying your hair and ironing. Don’t laugh, this is actually new for me. These may seem basic but I didn’t regularly do either of these in the States. I didn’t even regularly blow dry my hair when I lived in Ithaca, NY and it was 30 below in the winter. Here, in Italy, even in the summer, I never see anyone out with wet hair (except at the beach). Also, it is common to iron everything, down to your sheets (and for some even towels). Italians are very well put-together, and don’t leave the house looking messy or wrinkled. I don’t see people looking like they rolled out of bed, in their sweats or athletic clothes, doing errands or getting coffee like I see at home. So we don’t do this here either.

Here in Italy, in addition to spending more time on domestic matters and making ourselves presentable, we are taking more time to enjoy our life in general by actually spending time in the park or in the piazza, rather than always working like we did in L.A. It took me months to wind down from my L.A. lifestyle when we arrived here in March. It wasn’t until June that I was relaxed enough to sit in the park with a book for an afternoon. Here we are having a picnic at the park when our friends Jai and Renzo were visiting.

I wonder if I had a normal full time job here in Italy if I would be able to stay less stressed than I was at home. This kind of lifestyle is nice – who doesn’t want to live in a clean house, have home-cooked food, have nicely done hair and neatly pressed clothes, and find time to walk in the park in the evenings? You feel more civilized, like you are really living. But let me clarify, it is nice if you have time to do it. Otherwise it’s too big of a chore. Given our current situation, we have the time to keep most of this up. I do have to confess though that I am still can’t get myself to iron much. I’m terrible at it so it is frustrating. Paul learned in the military, so he will even iron something for me if I am extra nice.

The problem is, how do you maintain all of this when you live in a household where you and your significant other both work full time? And on top of that, what if you have kids, too? I’ve been asking around here in Italy and many people our age in this situation still rely on their moms or families for help. In fact, if they are not married, even if they are in a serious relationship, people our age often still live at home. They work full time and their mom, who often stays home, does the cooking, and even most of the cleaning, laundry, and ironing. Or if they don’t live at home, then they may still rely on their mom to give them some homemade food cooked in batches or even help with ironing. A friend of mine told me that she recently went over to her mom’s on a Friday night, brought all of her shirts, and they spent the evening watching TV and taking turns ironing them. Other friends of ours, a married couple in their late thirties, share a house in the country with his brother and his brother’s wife. The house is entirely divided, but the two couples often have dinner together and take turns cooking.

Once again, we face the classic dilemma of not having enough time to live well. I want a slow life, but I don’t know how to sustain it along with a meaningful career. Also, as a health researcher, I want to be able to recommend frequent grocery shopping for seasonal produce and home-cooking, along with sufficient sleep and time for relaxing. After all, stress has been shown to have terrible effects on the body. But even health researchers like me work long hours and seem constantly stressed about publishing and finding funding for their research.

I’m not sure what the answers could be to this classic problem of not having enough time to live well, but I do think that living an isolated life in a nuclear family, apart from close friends and family, makes sustaining “la bella vita” nearly impossible. I think we need to rely on friends and family to share the duties of cooking at the very least. For example, while we were doing our doctoral research, my friend and coworker, Claudia, and I would take turns cooking and making each other lunch and even dinner. It helped that she and her husband Pete conveniently lived in our same complex and we shared an office at work, too. As another example, cooking clubs are becoming popular in cities like NYC, where families cooking a big batch of food once a week and distribute it to other families in the group. Or maybe another part of the solution is to find a way to not let yourself get so stressed, even in the midst of a hectic schedule. Exercising helps reduce the stress, but then again you have to find the time.

Though I’m not sure I am any closer to understanding how to balance work and family, living here in Italy has given us a chance to think a lot more about it, and to try out a slower lifestyle.

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