Time, Italian Style

The numbers we use to understand time might be universal, but as a concept it’s culturally malleable.  For example, in Germany, a place where things are precise, an appointment for 2pm means you are expected there at 2pm.

In the US, a culture of eagerness and over-achievement, for that same appointment, one would expect someone to show up between 1:45 pm and 2 pm if they were serious about it. Maybe 2:05 pm if they weren’t.

In Italy, an appointment for 2pm really means anywhere from, say, 2:30pm to…  never.  

Being late in Italy doesn’t warrant an apology, nor does it have to actually be acknowledged.  One can even exercise their right to not show up at all and offer no explanation.

The concept of time is flexible and changes based on where you go, and in Italy it’s incredibly flexible.  There’s a whole vocabulary in Italian of vague terms that refer to how long things will take:  un’ oretta (a small hour), una decina di giorni (10-ish days), and there’s the different ways to interpret time too, such as “90 days” which could mean literally, 90 days from today, or it could mean 90 “working days” which can take 7 months or more.

It’s basically all meaningless unless, of course, we’re talking about food, in which case time is not so flexible.  

In many countries, we eat when we feel like it.  Breakfast for dinner, 24 hour restaurants, etc.  But in Italy, one doesn’t eat lunch at 11:30.  Ever.  Dinner at 5:00pm?  An Italian would think, “what the hell is that?”.  It makes no sense here to eat dinner that early.

Time in Italy revolves around food.  Think of the clock like this:

Generally speaking, the morning lasts until 12pm, when lunch time (pranzo) begins, lasting until 3pm.  Morning is also the only time one would have breakfast, which in itself is optional – although lunch is not!

Between those times you can have a merenda (a snack) or getting closer to dinner you can go for an aperitivo.  Coffee you can have anytime, but milky coffee drinks only in the morning – while a cappuccino is frowned upon in the afternoon, a caffè latte is tolerated.  And a milky coffee drink is not an apertivo or dessert.

Aperitivo time (what we call wine-o’clock) can be 6:00, maybe 6:30pm, and goes on either until dinner, or can even substitute for dinner depending where you have your aperitivo.

Dinner (cena) begins around 7, 7:30pm when restaurants re-open.  But if an Italian invites you to dinner at their home, they probably expect you there between 8 and 9pm.

All those other numbers that mark the non-food related times of the day?  When in Italy, don’t worry about them.
The moral here is twofold: when traveling in Italy, don’t stress too much about being late.  Go with the flow. Unless it comes to meal times, in which case plan exactly where you’ll be and when so you don’t get caught in that dead zone between 3pm and 7pm.

And remember, l’ora di pranzo è sacra (the lunch hour is sacred).


Understanding Italian Strikes

Another general strike in Italy has been announced for this Friday, November 14th, that will affect almost all forms of travel and public transport throughout the country.  Such a strike seems like a crippling affair when reported by English news sources, one with the potential to ruin plans and strand travelers.  However, as with everything else in the Bel Paese, strikes are not the same as they are “back home” and the amount of fear and panic they induce is mostly unnecessary.

So how do strikes really work here?  Well, strikes work pretty much the way other stuff works here – that is to say, not very well.  In the US, a strike means the negotiations have failed and the result is a total shutdown until an accord can be reached.  The threat of a strike is powerful because if a strike comes there’s guaranteed to be serious losses.  It’s the end of the line.  And if the strike was ultimately carried out half-assed, then it would undermine the threat of future strikes.

Here that’s not the case.  Here, they are optional.  They’re flexible.  It means, maybe the bus will run, and maybe it won’t.

To understand strikes you have to understand Italian unions.  They operate with or without the support of the people they are calling to strike.  They are essentially independent entities who lobby government for laws that govern workers rights and will affect different categories of employment, but they don’t require employees to join the union in certain sectors to lobby for them.

When you see news about strikes, what you’re seeing is not a notice from organized workers themselves, whose collective voice is being expressed by a union official.  Instead, it’s the union which is calling the workers of that sector to strike – and whether they do or not is up to them.

I get up and I go on strike

A few important things to note, to get a better grasp of how severe a strike can be:

- the trains to the airport from Termini station, such as the Leonardo Express, cannot be affected by strikes.  This is guaranteed by law.

- often, the Freccie, or high speed trains, cannot be affected by strikes – only the regional ones.

- for public transportation, the buses and metro are obligated to run for a few hours that are crucial to get people to and from work – around 8-9am and from 5-6pm.

- workers don’t have to notify employers that they intend to strike, and can’t be reprimanded legally for participating, so companies have to operate in the grey area of not knowing how much a strike will affect them either.

To sum up: a transport strike doesn’t mean that there won’t be buses or that you won’t be able to get where you’re going. It means there will be delays and you can expect to waste some time and have to be a bit flexible and easy going about it.

But, wait, that’s what it’s always like here, isn’t it?

Updated news about the actual hours and the companies/unions involved can be found at this Italian website which is fairly easy to decipher and updated regularly:  http://www.mit.gov.it/mit/site.php?p=scioperi

What will the future hold for Italy’s artisans?

by Steven Brenner

One of the things I love about Italy, and especially living in a small town in Italy, is interacting with small, traditional  businesses on a daily basis.  Maybe it’s part of my own family legacy – I grew up in a small town and I can remember riding my bicycle at 8 years old to my parent’s grocery store, which had been my grandfathers.  I remember learning math by counting back the customers’ change (this was before the cash register did the work for you and you had to actually use math!) and I remember playing downstairs in the spooky stock room on the conveyor belts.  I also remember when the big supermarkets came to town and my parents struggled, eventually having to sell out altogether.

A few years ago I asked my mother what that was like – to witness that change.  I wanted to know if they’d seen it coming, and what they’d done to hold it at bay.  At that time my wife and I had been in business for a while and it had been almost 30 years since the family store had been sold.

My mother answered that the hardest part wasn’t selling the store, nor was it the worries about money.  It was the lifestyle change.  It was knowing that their whole way of living was coming to an end.  My father had been the butcher in the store.  My mother worked at the cash register.  They had employees that were like family and an apartment above the store where sometimes these employees lived.  They knew their customers well and their customers knew them.  It was hard to accept that people preferred shopping at a big, impersonal store just to save a few bucks, but now, 3 decades later, it’s pretty clear that this way of life is not only here to stay, but it leaves no room for anything else.

I’ve seen this change almost everywhere in the world I’ve visited.  Everything seems to be falling into the hands of very few big businesses.  Italy has resisted somewhat, thanks to having such a strong tradition of small business, and perhaps from having such a bloated bureaucracy, making it hard for any business to strive here.  But slowly, slowly each and every town in Italy has been infiltrated by a large grocery store chain (Despar, Sidis, Coop, etc.) and the Eatalys will sadly shoulder out the same shops that created the romance of local products.  Eventually I’m sure even Starbucks will conquer the Bel Paese as well.

A few years ago I wrote about a tour I’d been on in Florence that focused on the artisans of the Oltrarno and how their trades were dying out.  It’s a subject that fascinates and saddens me in equal measures, a subject I wish I could do more to expose.  Maybe I’m just romanticizing the quaintness of daily Italian life, but those who visit Italy, and love it, certainly share the love for the old-fashioned.

I can’t be the only one who mourns the loss of Main Street.

Here in Orvieto, we buy our vegetables from Franco, the farmer who comes to town twice a week and sells his produce in the Piazza along with the cheese guys and the honey guy.  When a locket we’d bought our daughter didn’t close correctly, we stopped at the jewelry shop below our apartment and Massimo graciously fixed it – refusing any money.  And when I’ve needed belts adjusted or shoes fixed, I’ve gone to see Federico, the cobbler, who also insists that it’s such a small thing to do, that there’s no reason to pay.

Federico is a unique case.  He’s young – 26 years old, and not from Orvieto.  He didn’t grow up the son of a cobbler.  Instead, he got interested in shoe making and working with leather, and looked on-line for a school where he could learn the trade.  Having struck out, he went door to door around Rome, asking each artisan if they’d take him on as an apprentice.  They all refused, from a combination of not having the volume to justify the expense, but perhaps also because they felt their work was a secret that shouldn’t be shared with just anyone.

In the end, he found someone who was open to sharing his craft and Federico worked for free for a few years, learning how to work the leather, a bit like Daniel in The Karate Kid – with small, repetitive jobs.  Now he owns his own “bottega” in Orvieto where his American wife and his mother both work.  He handcrafts beautiful shoes, bags, belts, wallets, and whatever else sparks his creativity.

The fact that this young guy is reviving an old trade that’s literally at risk of extinction in the next few decades, is already worth supporting.  That he’s also been successful at it – in a town where other artisans are sadly closing shop only to be replaced by chain lingerie stores – is indeed the cherry on top.

I consider Federico a friend – the same way I consider many of the shopkeepers friends.  They’re the people who make up the backdrop of my life, and we’re connected, of course by commerce, but also by something more than that.  If you’re in Orvieto, you should swing by Federico’s shop on Via Garibaldi.  He’d be happy to show you what he does, whether you’re buying or not.  To him, it’s an art, and his customers are friends.

Tips for Enjoying London in the Wintertime

November through February can be pretty bleak in London, but also an invitation to enjoy London at its coziest.  There’s no shortage of inviting pubs, tea-houses and coffee shops to keep you dry and happy. Try the Builders Arms in Chelsea for a glam version of the enduring squishy sofas/giant fireplace combo. Or if you fancy lingering over your hot beverage, LJ’s on Soho’s Winnet street has classic board games like Scrabble and Wit’s End to while away some time over. Just around the corner, Dean Street Townhouse instead offers the slightly more grownup enticement of international newspapers.

Either way, one can’t have Ying without Yang- so after some happy and aimless coffee housing, it’s all but compulsory to search out a bit of higher Culture. Look no further than the river’s South Bank, London’s hub for all things “The Arts”, with its cluster of behemoths housing national venues for Theatre, Music and Cinema (National Theatre, Royal Festival Hall, British Film Institute).  Make the BFI your first stop, with its free and fascinating Mediateque Film Jukebox – you can drop in and explore the national archive of vintage film on literally any subject under the sun. Be warned, it’s compulsive.

England’s notorious weather (rain much?) is very possibly what prompted ministers to maintain entrance to our biggest national museum collections free. Head directly to South Kensington tube station and dive right in to the biggest three – Science, Natural History and of course the V&A. But for something less obvious, Somerset House in Mayfair – only free on Mondays – will allow you to enjoy your Manet without the throngs. And the Hunterian museum, a small enclave within the Royal College of Surgeons, allows silent and riveting access to the dissected animals, insects and yes – babies. Not for the faint hearted.

Short days require neon refuges after five, and they don’t come much brighter than the Westfield shopping centre near Shepherd’s Bush. From high end designer (Versace, Louis Vuitton) to ordinary high street chains, there isn’t a purchase that can’t be made in this mecca to consumerism. Go with an appetite, the restaurant selection is pretty broad too. If that seems far too modern an escape, travel through time and play spot-the-academic at the British Library, home to almost three hundred years and eight million volumes of books. When you’re done with the dusty tomes, enjoy some underground Bands, Bowling and Karaoke just five minutes walk away at the old-school Bloomsbury Lanes. Adored by the university students, guilty pleasure to large swathes of thirty-somethings too.

Green spaces lose their focus in these darker months, but do remember how romantic the cafe on Hyde Park’s Serpentine lake can be when the rain is lashing down outside. Definite contender for a Valentine’s moment, and with February also being LGBT history month, it’s the perfect time to search out some cut-price accommodation. Check our London apartments and B&B’s for last minute deals and rates.

Things I love about summer in Lisbon

by Mandy de Azevedo Coutinho

1.  The light

Anyone arriving in Lisbon for the first time is always surprised by the singular crystalline quality of the city’s light.  Similar to Paris, the capital of Portugal has many white buildings, but it also benefits from a silvery light reflecting off the Tagus River just like Venice and its lagoon. Particularly in the summer, and from dawn to dusk, Lisbon has a very special aura.

2.  Sunsets on the riverside

So with all the shimmers reflecting off the river, it is hardly surprising that I love sunsets by the riverside. There are many places to choose from, starting east of the city at Parque das Nações, to Cais do Sodré in the centre, or anywhere else along the riverside road that links Lisbon to the resort village of Cascais on the west, where the Tagus meets the ocean. The Marginal, as this road is called, passes some quaint and charming beaches along the way, that can also be reached by train from Cais do Sodré.

3.  Wearing flip-flops from May to October

Yes, the weather is that good! I have never quite mastered the art of wearing high heels and walking on the Portuguese “calçada” (cobblestone pavements) as glamorous Portuguese girls do; so a great Brazilian import comes to the rescue – it’s a huge hit in Portugal – “havaianas” (flip flops) come in an array of colours as well as in flat or platform styles, they can be found in shops all over the city and prices start at around €20 a pair, depending of course on the style one chooses.  Then I paint my toenails and I’m good to go!

4.  Free culture on Sundays

The Berardo Collection of Modern Art does not charge for entry and features a world-class collection of modern art. Many other museums in Lisbon are free on Sunday mornings including:

Chiado Museum - Portuguese contemporary art

City Museum - the history of the city

Ancient Art Museum - fascinating Oriental and European art and charming gardens over the river

Coach Museum - the world’s largest collection of royal coaches

The Tile Museum - an ancient art form in a lavish old convent

5.  June is a month-long party

As well as there being a wide choice of free and inexpensive live music concerts through the summer months, June in Lisbon is a month-long party! Throughout the month you’ll be able to participate in the annual “Festas de Lisboa” (Lisbon’s festivities) which involves much eating, drinking and dancing in just about every corner of the city’s historic neighbourhoods. It’s as if Lisbon becomes one big village with the main event being on the eve of the 13th June, Santo Antonio’s day (patron saint of Lisbon).  There is a yearly competition for the best sardine design (the symbol for these celebrations) with the winning entry becoming the official logo and Lisbon is then decorated accordingly.

6.  July Tall Ships 

The Tall Ship Races (promoting sailing for youngsters around the world) gather about 100 Tall Ships and a crew of more than 3,000 youngsters from every corner of the globe. In 1956, Lisbon welcomed the first edition these races and the Tall Ships will be back again in 2012, due to be docked between Santa Apolonia and Terreiro do Paço (Lisbon’s riverside) between 19-22 July for all to view, including the beautiful “Sagres”, a Portuguese tall ship built in 1937.

7.  August is OH so quiet!

Most locals go on vacation in August (many heading south to Algarve), so I do the opposite and stay in the city. And what do I do when I get hot under the collar? I spend a day at the beach or escape from the heat to the refreshing hills of Sintra to explore some its fairytale palaces – beaches and hills are both located within a short drive or train ride (20-30 minutes) from the city centre. Park life being another essential part of summer in the city, I also very much enjoy sitting under a shady tree, reading a book or listening to some music. Even better is an evening picnic with friends (tablecloth, glasses and tea lights included), as parks are open till late.

8.  Great value for money

Where else in Europe can you spend the summer with plenty of sun and nearby beaches, music and culture, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Sintra) at your doorstep, plus all the urban attractions of a capital city without spending a fortune and without travelling huge distances?

Eating out in Lisbon is pretty reasonable too: my local “tasca” (cheap eating place) in the neighbourhood of Estrela serves lunch for just €6.50 (main course, drink and coffee) and it’s not the only one! A local delicacy in the summertime, and one of my favourite cheap and cheerful snacks as I come off the beach, is a nice cold “imperial” (draft beer) or two, with some “caracois” (snails) for approximately €15 shared between two.

But there are also world-class restaurants and Michelin-starred eateries to choose from, yet still at a fraction of the prices you pay in London, Paris or New York! You do the maths and work it out for yourself…