One thing that baffled me when I first moved to Milan was the midday breaks. These days, it’s become normal for the boutiques, grocery stores, and government offices in central Milan to stay open from morning until evening without a midday break, so if you need to take a quick breather or buy some essentials you can make good use of your spare moments during work hours to do it. Italy has such a laid-back image, so it was a rude awakening at first to see how different everyday life was from that reputation.
If you want to get your errands done, you’ve got to come out of the gate fighting during the morning hours. If you don’t, it will suddenly be lunch break and doors will start closing. The signs will say that the place opens again at 3:00 or 3:30 PM, but when you check your watch, it’ll only be 12:30. Not wanting to hang around killing time for two and a half hours, you’ll have no choice but head back home. And since you failed to take care of your errands in the morning, you find yourself dragging your feet in the afternoon and getting out of the house late. Then you’re stuck in traffic or run into long lines, and by the time your turn finally comes around your face has soured with the dissatisfaction of having to wait so long. Often, the salesgirl or the person at the counter will suggest that you come first thing in the morning when the place is empty—using a tone that leaves you wondering whether they’re saying it out of kindness or if they’re warning you not to make the same mistake again.
Another thing I can’t get my mind around is the way Italians decide on business holidays. Mondays are particularly risky. Confectioners and grocery stores are notorious for being closed on Monday mornings—and I, being unable to accept such nonsense, have found myself wandering around to cake shop after cake shop trying to find one that’s open.
My older sister lives in Norway, and one thing that surprised me when I visited her was how difficult it was to find an empty seat if you go into a café during afternoon teatime! The places are overflowing—not with tourists, but with what seems like everybody in Norway. In that country, even the men are able to take generous paternity leave, so during the relaxing hours on weekday afternoons, you see Norwegian couples with baby carriages coming out in droves. They look so relaxed sipping their coffee in those packed cafés that you’d swear it was Sunday instead. Norway doesn’t have a big population to begin with, so I remember worrying about whether the economy was going to hold together with everyone doing this. Of course, for us workaholic Japanese, the breaks and closures in Italian businesses set us on edge as well.
I get bent out of shape at my office as well. When I first started, I was confused by the fact that break times weren’t clearly defined. Once I had to take care of an unexpected personal problem, so I ran out of the office when break time started and rushed back covered in sweat and out of breath, thinking I had overshot the end time. But my coworkers kept cooing about how great it was that they didn’t actually know when the afternoon break officially ended, totally deflating my sense of accomplishment at having resolved my problem within the time limit. I felt like I had been running around like crazy for nothing. It’s like they have some technique for looking like they’re enjoying their break so much that nobody wants to make them end it. OK, I’m jealous. They’re so mellow that they would just keep on extending their break time forever—telling jokes and having joke contests—if the boss didn’t get on their case, that is…