Italians run late; they just do. In my nine months here, I have been trying to figure out if this is due to a relaxed nature — not living by appointments and PalmPilots and the rigid schedules of the American lifestyle I am used to — or if, in fact, their perception of time is skewed. I would be prone to answer with the latter, although I may be on the verge of discovering a method to this seeming neglect for tempo.
Take school, for example. At the University of Florence, classes are run on what was explained to me as the “University quarter-hour schedule,” meaning if your class is supposed to be from 5 to 7 p.m., you have 15 minutes of leeway on either end of the class — the professor will arrive anywhere up to 15 minutes late and will dismiss class anytime within the last 15 minutes. This scheduled tardiness exists within the realm of school, but in other realms it is less regimented — waiters may take half an hour to bring you your check, a friend might show up 20 minutes late to an appointment without a word of excuse, and buses, trains, and planes have no real use for such things as schedules.
It is not only quarters of hours here and there that Italians dismiss as unimportant but this lackadaisical nature bleeds into months and years. Their entire university system, for example, is based on modules of semesters that make up “three years” of study. You take approximately seven classes a year and then will have a month, sometimes two, to “study” before you take your exams between modules. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand what happens when a college student is given two months off of school to follow a self-regimented study plan; the result is that hardly anyone passes their first time around. But they then are able to continue taking the exam during every exam period during their time at university, which somehow seems to stretch mysteriously from three years to five, seven, sometimes more.
The Italian vocabulary is telling of this strange vortex of time. Bambini, or babies, are considered anywhere from newborn children to teenagers, while ragazzi, or children, are mostly college-age students or anyone under 30. Looking at the maturation process of Italian culture, these terms seem intuitive; when people live at home through their college years, don’t get married until their mid 30s, and hardly ever have children anymore, not only are they referred to by a younger-sounding word, they just are younger. I came to Italy as a 20-year-old, self-sufficient, American college student. I live in my own apartment, hold down a job, and am considered an adult in most arenas of life. The moment I arrived in Italy, I was immediately struck by the tendency for baristas or shopkeepers to refer to me as a bambina. “Who are they kidding?” I would think, offended to not be referred to formally as an adult. But as time has passed, I have begun to internalize the Italian culture and clock, realizing that their perceptions of me may not be so wrong — they just reflect a different set of priorities.
Earlier in the year we had an appointment with the police chief to get fingerprinted and registered as foreigners living in Italy for our visas. We arrived to the appointment over a half hour late and were then told to wait another 15 minutes for the chief to be ready for us. On the other hand, I went to my second Fiorentina soccer game today and left my house at noon to make it to the three o’clock match hours early with the rest of the Florentine population in order to ensure good seats. Most people don’t marry until much later in life, but the common term to use instead of boyfriend or girlfriend to refer to your significant other is fidanzato, or fiancé. Apparently, an Italian’s love, like soccer, is serious enough to speed up time for. Certain things are worthy of their time; others aren’t. Time to them is a precious thing, not to be wasted sitting in line at the police station, but to be spent cheering your home team on to victory during their warm-ups, or over a five-hour Sunday lunch with your family and “fiancé” that you met two weeks ago.
The Italian retardation of time applies not only to everyday living but to the entire life process, which may make me a bambina for a while longer, but it also seems to draw out adulthood and old age into something that is lasting, something to look forward to as a phase of life instead of the end of all. Just walk into any café in Florence and count the number of people over the age of 70 who aren’t locked away in nursing homes or shunned out of society; they’re still actively discussing politics with their waiter, taking afternoon walks around the city, and enjoying an evening glass of wine and aperitif before heading home for a 9 p.m. dinner.
It may be nice to get a coffee in under five minutes and have an appointment with a teacher who actually shows up on time when I make it back to America, but for now, I’ll enjoy my newfound 21-year-old infancy and hope the rest can last just as long.