Lunchtime in Italy: Work, Time and Civil SocietyRoundup
tags: capitalism, cultural history, Civil Society, work, leisure, Italian history
Jonathan Levy is James Westfall Thompson Professor of U.S. History and Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His latest book is Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States.
Author’s Note: I wrote this essay last summer during the collapse of a “technocratic government” in Italy led by the former president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. After it went to press, Italians went to the polls on September 25 in a snap election. The coalition led by the rightwing Brothers of Italy, led by Georgia Meloni, won the election convincingly, as expected. Meloni assumed office as Prime Minister on October 22. Today she leads the first far-right government in Italy since the fall of Mussolini.
The morning after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, my partner Skyped her parents back home in Italy. I finished my coffee, and they chatted. At some point her mother asked where I was: I had broken my usual pattern of dropping in to say ciao. My partner slid the laptop over to direct the camera’s gaze at my head, slumped onto our dining room table. “What happened?” the voice on the computer asked. “Trump won,” I explained.
It is not that my in-laws did not appreciate the gravity of the event; they were stunned too. Born under Mussolini, they preferred to look fondly upon the United States whenever possible. After all, the U.S. Army helped liberate their country from fascism. Like many outside the United States, and unlike many Americans, they appreciate the power the U.S. government enjoys abroad. After sharing in the dour mood, to console me, my mother-in-law asked, “Well . . . what is there for lunch?”
The question was a nudge back from the brink of political despair. But many questions could have accomplished that end. She asked about lunchtime. Having been visiting Italy regularly for over a decade, I could understand why.
Lunchtime in Italy is not only about what to eat for lunch. It is also about time. The event halts the day. In places like Viterbo, the provincial medieval town of 60,000 outside Rome where my in-laws live, the city nearly completely shuts down. One has little choice but to engage in the ritual. A tablecloth must be spread, a table fully set. Timeworn recipes; the food, even if abundant, should be basic and familiar, not indulgent or creative. Surely, a glass of wine. The sociality of the event is important. Lunchtime must be marked with others, the meal lingered over communally. Whenever American friends or family visit us here, at some point they usually give me the look: “When will this ever end?” It ends when the espresso arrives to even out the wine and to properly launch reentry back into the working day.
True—for many Italians, lunchtime is more a widely shared aspiration than a daily reality. The steady rise of dual-income households has threatened the practice, which long found women in the kitchen, preparing the meal. In cities much larger than Viterbo, the workday does not allow for lunchtime. Even in Viterbo, in recent years outside the medieval wall a rim of big box retail stores popped up that do not close for lunch. Workers take a U.S.-style lunchbreak; they do not enjoy an Italian-style lunchtime. Still, even if not everybody can participate in it every day, the ideal of lunchtime lives on in Italy. It survived the whistles and bells of industrial clock time, the mechanized factory stroke. Very likely, it will survive the threats of today.
My mother-in-law’s question left an impression on me then, which has only continued to resonate since. We left the United States in the summer of 2020, and our family has spent most of the pandemic in Italy, much of it in Viterbo. Living here, I have become passionately invested in lunchtime. I could go on at length about how good the food is. But no less, I have found the unhurried daily rituals of the communal event—especially the demand that the day if at all possible should be organized around it—soothing and anchoring.
Is there anything worth making of this feeling? I have come to believe my suocera’s question reveals something important that has gone very wrong with U.S. life. From abroad these past two years, at times homesick, as I watched the United States experience COVID-19, the election of 2020, January 6, QAnon, the early years of the Biden presidency, thousands of mass shootings, the reversal of Roe v. Wade, talk of a “crisis of democracy” in the United Sates sounds almost willfully euphemistic. More fundamentally, it appears, U.S. society has simply become deranged.