So, how did this riposo thing get started in Italy (and other Mediterranean countries)? Many attribute it to the heat in the middle of the day--which can get extreme in summer--combined with the typically heavy meals eaten as lunch in the Mediterranean diet. Simply put, people get drowsy after a big meal. Italians supposedly are embracing this biological fact as part of their natural clock... napping when their body says to nap, whereas Americans are out of tune with their natural rhythms. I say, nonsense!
When you speak to Italians and understand their lifestyle you get a clearer picture of what is going on. First of all, most have a colazione (breakfast) at a bar on the way to work that burns off any energy gain within an hour. Espresso and sweet cakes. Sugar and caffeine. And yes, they do have coffee breaks too. The typical worker will go out to a "bar" for his coffee break--it's a social thing that Italians can't live without. One worker was heard saying “I am very efficient at work. In fact, I have never once missed a coffee break.” Chart all this lack of fuel with spikes of intense espresso and sugar, and see how their crash looks like the 2008 stock market crash! Of course they need a nap around lunchtime.
One of the most surprising and frustrating things we discovered in Italy was the midday siesta, or riposo, as most Italians call it. Riposo means to rest. Shopkeepers go home to rest. No, they don't rotate their staff during lunch hour (more like 3 hours), they ALL go home and close the shop. Good business logic would mean leaving one employee in the shop while another takes his riposo (rotating their shifts)... but no, this isn't even considered. Good will toward potential customers? No, worry about yourself first. To hell with making a few extra dollars--even if the Italian economy is in the crapper. "Hey, I came in at 9am! At 12 noon I lock up... I gotta get home, take off my pants and shoes, eat some pasta Mom made, have some wine, watch a little TV, snooze a bit... Only then will I go back to work (around 3:30 or 4pm) and work until about 7pm. Mama Mia, what a long day!" Poor, poor people... working a whole 5 or six hour day. How do they put up with it all? It's really much more complex to figure this all out...
Even places you'd think wouldn't--or shouldn't--close up tight for a few hours, like car rental offices and banks. (Car rental offices in Italy are merely brokers, who pay a fee to use the logos of larger companies. They are mostly local and very independent). In small towns you'll even see the local Polizia station closed for riposa. I experienced siestas when I lived and traveled in France years ago, but even the French don't do it to the extreme the way Italians do. I mean, what sense does it make to be promoting your town like crazy to tourists, and then when the tourists get there they can't get anything to eat at lunchtime because everyone who works in the restaurants are at home having their own lunches??
Oh, and forget shopping on Sundays or Monday mornings. Even supermarkets are closed. Now you think you could get around this problem by going to the local green market early in the morning so you're sure you have food for a lunchtime picnic. Well, that would work IF you happen to be in the town that's actually having a market day on that morning. Market days are different from town to town. it's rare to find a food market that is open each and every morning of the week. During our travels in Italy we didn't come upon a single open air market! When I was in France, just about every town you pull into has a daily morning market. In Italy, the vendors move from town to town depending on the day of the week. As for alimentari (small grocery stores), even they close up tight at lunch time, and in my experience, in most small villages, they don't even open at all until later in the afternoon. Yes, that's the way to do business.
Now some travel experts on the Internet say that we should embrace all this and plan to visit churches during lunchtime and look at frescoes and mosaic floors. Really? How about telling travelers how to find food for our American stomachs? It's even worse when you're traveling with an 11 year old starting to turn into a grumpy, hungry beast at midday.
We got into the habit of making sure we always had fixings for an impromptu lunch in our car. We also found that for some reason or other, gelaterias are almost always open during lunchtime--Lord knows why. So, gelato and cold drinks became our early lunches on some days, picnics were the norm on most others. Of course, in a large city like Rome this wasn't a problem... after all, there are so many tourists there... Roman shopkeepers aren't that stupid after all. But in the rest of Italy I can't tell you how many times we came out of a morning's visit to a museum or other tourist site and couldn't find any place to sit and have lunch.
One thing we had no idea about is that every place labeled "bar" in Italy is actually a place to get a sort of lunch. They are used by locals to buy espresso and sweet breads or cakes in the morning, but at lunchtime they offer snacks, sandwiches, focaccia and other things that will satisfy anyone for lunch. Duh... how'd this little fact get past us? Perhaps because we were traveling with an 11 year old and like most Americans, have an adversion of dragging our kid into a "bar".
Mind you, it's not like they have a menu and prepare a lunch for you, instead you select whatever they have in their showcases. Now, it would be prudent for "bars" in Italy to promote the fact that they aren't a dark, seedy place for people chug-a-lugging beer, whiskey and wine, they way a typical traveler normally thinks of a "bar" (our reason why we didn't think of going into "bars"... traveling with an 11 year old boy). Why doesn't the Italian Tourist Board offer signs to bars all across Italy saying "Lunch"? No... this isn't the way Italians think. Tourists should adjust to OUR way of life... Si? No... not when there's one huge fact against that attitude: Two-thirds of Italy's Gross Domestic Product (approximately 69%) was represented by the services sector, whose strong point is tourism.
So, when lunchtime comes, they can't stand to wait until 12:30 or 1pm as many Americans do... they're starving! They NEED a big meal for lunch because they never had a decent breakfast. To stay healthy, most health experts say, "Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper and you'll stay healthy." The Italians do the reverse. They could have a bigger breakfast that includes some protein (ham, eggs, etc.) some fat (butter, olive oil) and perhaps have a nice salad for lunch. But no... that's right. Italians aren't really into salads--and when they do have an insalata they don't use salad dressings... only oil and vinegar, and of course, they would never think of adding chicken or ham or cheese to an insalata. Perhaps they should, I'd argue... for the sake of offering yet another type of meal a traveler might be looking for.
Instead of a big lunch, Italians should try having a big breakfast that will carry them all the way to lunchtime. They wouldn't get so sleepy afterwards. Why do they get sleepy? Traditionally, lunch (pranzo) is considered the main meal of the day (dinners are lighter). Pranzo starts with antipasti (appetizers), followed by a primo (first dish) which is normally pasta or risotto, and a secondo (second dish) which is normally a meat dish. These dishes are accompanied by one or more contorni, which are either a salad or a vegetable dish such as cooked spinach sautéed in olive oil, peppers and garlic. The whole meal is often washed down by a bottle of wine. Lunch normally lasts for a few hours and is enjoyed by the whole family in small towns across Italy. And mind you, young men--unless they work in a big city away from their family-- live with Mama until they get married. Mama does all the cooking for them.
Hey, Italian shopkeepers... Instead of letting your staff go to riposo all at the same time, stagger them. And instead of sitting on park benches eating our picnic lunches, we visitors to Italy would be helping heal their economic woes by spending 30-40 Euros on lunch and shopping in your shops and boutiques.
Oh of course, this brings us to dinner time... Don't get me started. Don't even think of looking for a restaurant open and ready to serve dinner before 7:30 - 8pm. and the further south you travel in Italy, the later people eat dinner. No wonder we lost so much weight while in Italy.
As for shops, this is very loosey-goosey. If a shop lists its hours as 8-7 pm, that doesn't account for the fact that the shop keeper might have gotten into a long drawn out conversation at the bar during breakfast... maybe he'll open around 9 or even 10am. Or maybe after 11 if he was out very late last night having a multi-course dinner, wine and lots of long conversations. Of course, he'll still close up tight for riposo, but he'll be back and be open until 7... er... that is, if he doesn't have a date, need to wash his car, have a friend to meet for drinks or have to drive a friend on an errand.
Here are some words that you might see on signs posting operational hours:
giorni feriali Weekdays (literally, working days)
ogni ora Hourly
By the way, if you see a logo that looks like a crossed hammer and sickle, it's not a symbol for communism, it simply refers to "workdays", meaning Monday through Saturday. If you see giorni festivi, simply festivi, or a tiny cross, that means Sundays and religious holidays (there are many that Italians close for... remember, it's a Catholic country... all religious holidays are National holidays even though less and less young Italians describe themselves as practicing Catholics). If you see a sign saying chiuso per ferie, it means closed for the holidays. The "holiday" in August means 4 weeks--for most of Italian workers. Shops close up and whole families go to beach resorts or camping. If you see chiuso per lutto, this means they are closed for mourning. People die in Italy too. Most shops are closed on Sundays whether they go to church or stay at home watching the soccer matches.
I do understand the culture. Really I do. I understand how time is thought of as a flowing river in Italy and not a commodity to spend. I understand about the midday heat--it's a very hot and humid country. In the past when agriculture was the major part of most Italians lives, it was respectful of nature and biological rhythms to rest in the middle of the day rather than waste a body's resources to the heat of the day.
But this is a modern Italy. There is (or should be) air conditioning--that actually works! You have the beauty and history of Italy to grow the Italian economy--through tourism. As Italians, you can't expect tourists (or expats) to just bend to the ways of your grandparents. There are lost jobs, and lost income in your riposa. There is a way to embrace your culture while growing your nation and moving forward to the benefit of all Italians. World Travel & Tourism Council says that tourism brings in over $203 billion a year for Italy, its impact is larger than that of the communication services, chemicals manufacturing, automotive manufacturing, higher education, and mining industries.
My advice to Italians: Keep your shops and restaurants open during the day. Embrace the idea of employees taking turns with their lunch breaks. Find ways to truly serve the tourists that are bringing so much wealth to your country without expecting them to just put up with lack of comfort or proper services just because that's the status quo. Install public rest room facilities with fixtures that are as functional and beautiful as your homes and the apartments we rented. Make certain they are stocked with toilet paper--and toilet seats. As for restaurants, we want to experience your cuisine--not fast food chains. Support the Slow Food efforts in your country and your local restaurateurs by helping them realize that by staying open during hours when visitors to Italy are used to eating, that will only help your economy. I'm not saying to change your entire way of life... just adapt to your main market--tourists.
And maybe try to eat a little protein and fat with your espresso in the morning... it'll surely help fuel your body all the way until your lunch break... and beyond.
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