“Italians really know how to live” is a phrase I’ve heard multiple times from people who visit Italy, even for a short time.
And it’s no surprise.
Life in Italy isn’t focused around having a career and earning a lot of money, at least not the way it is in the U.S.
Life here is about family, friends, and community. Having enough time to spend with the important people in your life is the Italian ideal of luxury.
The Roman statesman, politician, and philosopher Cicero said it best: “A man is not free if he does not idle from time to time.”
In Latin the word for this is “otium.” In English this word translates to “leisure.”
The Italians today have a phrase which is “La dolce far Niente.” It literally translates to “the sweetness of doing nothing.”
But the meaning is much more than collapsing on the couch in front of the tube, unplugging the brain, and drinking a beer.
The Romans used the word otium to mean actively pursuing subjects that develop your intellect and soothe your soul. It was considered a noble quest.
The sweetness of leisure meant one had time to read and learn about history, philosophy, architecture, or anything one was interested in.
Romans invited friends and acquaintances to pursue otium together, enjoying themselves, discussing life, and the events of the day. It meant taking a walk, or maybe a swim together.
Italians today still love being outdoors surrounded by nature, and outdoor living spaces in the home are essential.
The focus now, as was true in Roman times, is on beauty, conversation and experiences. Everything that nourishes body, mind, and soul.
There are other ways Italian life today is highly influenced by the ancient Romans.
For instance, the Romans lounged on cushioned couches both inside and out in the gardens and ate outdoors, propped up on one elbow, while visiting with friends.
This is reflected in the Italian style of eating many courses with smaller proportions, and taking hours to enjoy your meal.
Many Italians prefer a cold plate of assorted meats and cheeses and other appetizers, such as bruschetta, which are served “al fresco” or in the open air with friends after a long day.
Recently, my wife and I attended Sunday lunch at the home of a friend’s mother. She is a wonderful cook and has a small terrace in front of her apartment, where she grows beautiful flowering plants and seven-foot tomato vines.
On the terrace, she had erected an open-sided tent over a large table to seat 12, with several chaise lounges. After a round of Aperol spritzes and an al fresco lunch, we were invited to find a comfortable pose on the chaises, in which we lay about, dozing, conversing, and enjoying the cool breeze on a hot day.
Otium in every sense of the word.
This way of living gives the whole country a slower pace of life.
In Italy, the butcher takes an extra five minutes to visit with his client… There is no worry of being chased from your table after four hours dining at a restaurant… You take a late night passeggiata or walk after dinner to find the plaza full of friends, and while away some hours with conversation.
After living here, you begin to understand how the history of otium or a “pleasant idleness” has been passed down over 2,000 years.
It’s a lifestyle I don’t think I could ever give up.