il dolce far niente

Throughout the ages, all across the world, humans have found the right language to describe their life experiences.   The existence (or absence) of a word or expression in a certain language signifies something about that culture.

In the book Eat, Pray, Love, I was introduced to the Italian expression “il dolce far niente”, for which there is no English equivalent.  Even when translated to mean “the sweetness of doing nothing”, we require further explanation to understand the concept.

In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert admits to friends she meets in Italy that she is embarrassed about the amount of food she has eaten since arriving there.   Her friends point out that this is the difference between Americans and Italians: “Americans don’t know much about pleasure”.

Let’s be honest.   We North Americans have acquired a bad reputation around the world for working too hard and having no life.   Of course it’s not fair to paint everybody with the same brush so I must apologize in advance for the generalizations I’m about to make here.

In general, we – especially those of us living in the big cities – do tend to pencil in small doses of fun and pleasure into our chaotic schedules.   Consider a typical week.   We divide our time into the work week vs. the weekend; whereas the distinction is not so defined in other parts of the world.  Our social plans tend to be concentrated on 2 days of a 7 day week; while this is not the case everywhere.   We have even found a way to take fun things, such as kids’ extracurricular activities, and turn them into chores by squeezing them into a particular time in our jam packed schedules.   There is no room in our days for spontaneity.   We rush from one appointment to another and forget that sometimes it’s a good thing to just do nothing.

I haven’t been to Italy myself (these photos belong to a friend).   But I have certainly encountered cultures that have a more relaxed approach to life than we do.   When my luggage was lost en route to Lebanon several years ago, the officials at the Beirut airport insisted I join them for breakfast before they investigated the problem.   In India, the bus I was taking from one town to another broke down and we had to sit in the middle of nowhere for 8 hours.  I was amazed that no one complained about the delay.  Can you imagine that happening here?

This cultural difference is well captured in the following Malibu Rum commercials:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmlJWXPeLrc 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OC4sef9964

Of course these commercials are funny, because there’s an element of truth to them.  They point to the silliness of some of the things we do.

Perhaps, in general, we do take life more seriously than some other cultures.  Maybe we could learn a thing or two from those who have a more balanced lifestyle.    We may never become as laid back as Italians – the founders of the slow movement – but there’s nothing stopping us from enjoying “il dolce far niente” once in a while.   Whatever that translates to in English!

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