Sunday Edit: The Italian flair for everyday enjoyment

For the Italians, sensuousness and joie de vivre are a cornerstone of life. If they run into a friend or acquaintance, they stop and chat – even if it makes them late for another appointment. Older people are always treated with respect and eating fresh vegetables and good pasta is not a luxury, but an everyday occurrence. Correspondent Eva Ravnbøl has lived in Italy for more than 30 years and is the author of the book God is an Italian.

Here she talks about what rational, efficient Danes can learn from the Italian approach to la dolce vita.

“Italy has always had many outrageously incompetent generals, presidents, tyrants, professors, bureaucrats, journalists and captains of industry, but the Italians would never accept incompetent opera singers, conductors, ballerinas, actors, film directors, tailors or chefs. In a world full of disorder, catastrophe and deceit, beauty is sometimes the only thing you can rely on. Only artistic greatness is incorruptible. Pleasure cannot be haggled over. And sometimes the meal is the only genuine currency.”

– Luigi Barzini in Gli Italiani.

Il Bel Paese

"The nickname for Italy is Il Bel Paese, the beautiful country, with its hills, mountains, sea and cities that are famed far beyond the borders of Italy itself. Italy is the country with the most cultural heritage on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Italians are surrounded by historical buildings, art and culture, and it is something they value and treasure. On their 18th birthday, all Italian citizens are given EUR 500 by the government – money that is earmarked for books, theatres, concerts, cinemas and language courses. It is part of the Italians’ self-perception that they know – despite their 60 million inhabitants – that they are not a great European power, but they are a great cultural power, and they are very proud of their culture, cuisine, nature and families."

"Italy is also a country with problems and is characterized by political and economic unrest. Often, Italians are seen as temperamental, slightly undisciplined, bad at long-term planning. They rarely arrive on time and seem slapdash. But they really do not compromise on anything that is about tasting good or looking good."

"The Italians are the people in Europe who live the longest. Research has long since shown that the recipe for a long life is fresh fish, home-grown vegetables, sea air, love, a village atmosphere and plenty of time. And in ‘Italy they eat well and take it easy’ as an older married couple aged 95 and 102 explained when I interviewed them while their lunch – polpo in tomato sauce – simmered away on the hob."

"Older people in society are always treated with respect. You hold the door, greet them politely and help them with their shopping bags. At family restaurants, it may be the older generation who takes delivery of goods from suppliers in the morning, bake bread and cakes or sort out the menus. At my local perfumery, the owner was an elderly lady who had been a shop assistant all her life, but as she grew older, she had problems both seeing and hearing. Instead of putting her in a home, her children employed a young girl who assisted la signora by operating the till and entering everything correctly. Customers needed to be very patient because service was slow, but la signora was part of things and felt useful."

Bella and brutta figura

"When it comes to etiquette, the Italians are very conservative. Cutting a bella figura – a good figure – is vital to everyone. It is about how you look, dress, express yourself and behave. Being polite and using words like scusi (sorry), permesso (may I) and prego (you are welcome) is crucial when approaching anyone. If you do not follow these unwritten rules, you cut a brutta figura, a bad figure."

"For example, breaking rules related to food is brutta figura. The Italians may have a slapdash relationship with both traffic and the criminal code, but not with the rules of pasta – and they will not hesitate to correct anyone who has not understood this. If you are sitting in a restaurant and ask for parmesan on your fish or mussel pasta, this is brutta figura."

"Where foreigners tend to put their feet wrong is using pasta as a side dish. That is, not mixing the sugo with the pasta. They should not be served in two different bowls. Many foreigners also believe that sitting and dipping bread in oil is very Italian, but the Italians never do that. Neither would they ever think of cutting the pasta with a knife or breaking up the spaghetti before placing it in the pan. This is extremely frowned upon. They stick to their traditions."

"Recently NYT Cooking, the New York Times’ famous food supplement, made Italians go through the roof because one of their food writers published a recipe for spaghetti carbonara that included tomato. As if that were not enough – guanciale had been replaced by bacon and pecorino by parmesan. The Italians can forgive many things, but not that kind of crime."

"As one of my friends said: ‘They don’t understand. Carbonara has to taste of what we associate with long evenings at home with the family. The smell that penetrates every room where we are sitting together. It won’t do that if it has been cooked incorrectly.’ "

Eating in good company

"In Italy, eating well every day is not considered to be a luxury, but a human right. Italians eat a great deal of fresh fruit and lots of vegetables, and many go to the market every day to shop. Even in the supermarkets, it is striking how delicious the departments for fish, meat, vegetables and charcuterie are compared to in Denmark, where almost half of the goods are sweets and chips. For the Italians, shopping is part of cooking. Getting the right ingredients, going home and cooking together. It is not just about satisfying hunger."

"The Danes spend about 11 percent and the Italians 20 percent of their disposable income on food. According to a survey published by Madkulturens Madindeks, Danes spend an average of 28 minutes cooking whereas Italians on average spend three times as long on shopping, cooking and eating a good meal together."

"All Italians can cook. It’s something they have grown up with – and they do it haphazardly. Cookbooks are not something they use and no one bothers about milliliters, no one counts teaspoonfuls or weighs ingredients. It is all second nature to them."

"Spending time together and having a good time is always associated with great food. ‘What did you have to eat?’ is always the first thing anyone asks after a big party. The word compagniacompany in English – that is, a group of people or ‘being together’ really comes from con pane, which means ‘with bread’. Good company is associated with eating."

"The Italians insist that meals are a focal point for all generations although competition from other activities and temptations is great. This is in sharp contrast to Danish culture which is so focused on getting a lot done and being efficient and thorough and planning ahead. This makes it difficult to let go, just to be present and enjoy the food."

"I’ve been told that this may have something to do with religion – whether you’re a Catholic or a Protestant. Productivity before pleasure is deeply embedded in Protestant culture. We have to deserve a break. In Denmark, religion no longer plays such an important role. Instead, we have elevated work to a kind of religion. We have a very strong sense of duty, and we rarely allow ourselves to relax because we have a lot of things that we need to get done."

"That is where it might be useful to take some inspiration from the Italians. They do not just lie around eating pizza and drinking wine, but they are good at incorporating short breaks into their day. If they meet someone they know, they stop for a chat – even if it means being 15 minutes late for something else."

Read more in Eva Ravnbøl's relationship with Italy in the book 'God is Italian - stories from my other homeland', Forlaget 28B