Admitting to a love of anything Italian these days tends to lead to accusations of being 'Congi', 'sickular', 'paid media', but I am going to stick my neck out anyway and fess up to just that. I love Italy. The small villages, dotted like shining gems all around the gleaming countryside. The tiny towns, with their amazing piazzas and dazzling duomos. The big cities, heaving with life, and drowning you in unexpected beauty around every corner. The seaside with its deep azure waters, the mountains with their verdant landscape, every corner of the country has something stunning to offer.
And then, of course, there are the Italians themselves. Okay, I am prepared to concede that they may not be the most organised or even the most industrious people on the planet. But what they lack in terms of a work ethic they more than make up with their sense of style, their natural elegance, and their love of bellazza (beauty) be it in their clothing, their houses, or even their food and drink.
Brunch Column: Use herbs, beat stress
There is something magical about sitting at a roadside cafe in Italy and watching the world go by. Both the men and the women - no matter what their age, shape, size or social status - have a certain individual flair to their dressing, a je ne sais quoi (sorry, can't think of a suitable Italian equivalent) that makes them look both stylish and elegant. (If you do find the odd graceless creature trotting by, you can rest assured that he or she is - like me! - a tourist.) I could spend entire days just feasting my eyes on the pictures of everyday life they conjure up as they rush to work, take their dog for a walk, play with their kids in the park, or simply enjoy an al fresco meal with their friends.
And what is even more magical is that the Italians have a special phrase to describe all this sitting around and watching the world go by. They call it dolce far niente. Or, loosely translated into the far more mundane English, the sweetness of doing nothing.
Over the years that I have spent studying Italian and travelling through Italy, this has become my favourite phrase. It perfectly sums up my state of mind when I am on holiday. I want to experience the sweetness of doing nothing. Of just wandering around and soaking in the atmosphere. No taking pictures. No obsessive checking of phone messages or emails. No dipping into social media to check what's happening in the world (or to tell the world what is happening with me). No peeking into guide books to check what are the must-dos and must-sees for every city.
No, I simply revel in the sweetness of doing nothing. Dolce far niente. What an absolutely marvellous way of flushing your mind of all the toxins that the stresses of day-to-day life produce and recharging your batteries for the time when you must inevitably return to the day job.
Last week, as I sat around in an Italian coastal town thinking about ideas for this column after days of doing absolutely nothing at all, I couldn't help but wonder why we have lost the ability of switching off and losing ourselves in the moment. One reason, of course, is the hyper-connectedness of the world we live in. The office is always an email away; social media means you can never really get away from it all. And thanks to the way our brains have been rewired by the Internet, our attention spans have been shot to hell. So, not only can we not concentrate on anything for too long, we cannot focus on nothing for any length of time at all!
But that's only part of the story, I suspect. There's also the fear of missing out that impels us to never stand still, to keep moving, to look out for more, to snatch the most out of any experience. We want it all, we want it now, and we fear that we will miss out if we don't keep striving for more every moment of our lives.
So deep is our fear of missing out that we have even infected our children with it. No longer are they allowed to just relax and enjoy themselves during their vacations (or even during term time for that matter). Instead, we schedule swimming lessons, tennis camp, science tuition, guitar classes, and God alone knows what else, to make sure that they never experience a single moment of delicious idleness (the kind we revelled in when we were kids).
But you know what? It's okay to stand still some time. It's okay to slow down and watch the world go by. It's okay to lose yourself in the moment. And it's okay to indulge in a bit of dolce far niente. The sweetness of doing nothing: you really should try it some time.
From HT Brunch, June 15
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