By BYULSAM AHM
Il dolce far niente. The sweetness of doing nothing. Delicious idleness. I first read the phrase in the memoir Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. It is an Italian expression praising free time, hanging around, just relaxing and enjoying life. I can see it around me. People gossiping and bantering over coffee. An old Italian man sitting on a bench, licking chocolate gelato in front of a gelateria. People talking incessantly, whether they are Atac metro workers or shop keepers or advertisers. People wandering by the fountains and the monuments of Rome.
I wanted to wash out this work-obsessed Korean blood and soak in the Italian culture of dolce far niente. I wanted to taste the sweetness of doing nothing. I wanted to feel relevant without doing anything.
I woke up one morning. I didn’t feel like going to school. What a lame excuse to tell the professor. But I was spiritless and lethargic. Every move I made was sluggish. ‘Oh, the hell with my life,’ I thought. I managed to get myself to my first class, but on my way to the next class, I stopped at a pasticceria on Via del Moro, with no other purpose than to stuff my stomach.
That was when I saw a pizza I had never seen before. I saw carciofi glistening with olive oil, shredded pieces of prosciutto cotto, green olives, mozzarella di bufala – all scattered artfully over the pizza. What a delicious-looking harmony! Knowing I was taking a risk tasting this pizza, I courageously asked the staff to give me a slice. The waiter asked “Caldo?” I shouted exuberantly, “Sì!”
I took my tray to a table on the other side of the bar, and sat on a high chair. Next to the bar, I could see the kitchen through the glass. The cooks sprinkled mushrooms on the flattened dough of an unbaked round pizza. A few people stopped by for their daily bread.
I looked at my pizza. The dough had turned crispy and the cheese had melted over the garnishes. I took a bite.
As I savored every bit of it, all the worries disappeared. Everything is okay, I thought, and everything will be okay.
I picked up the extra olives and stuffed them in my mouth, clearing the tray.
I was neither working nor studying. I was just sitting in a pasticceria satisfying my hunger. There I was, doing nothing more than composing a clumsy little poem about a piece of pizza.
Increasingly I found myself enjoying the sweetness of doing nothing. I walked around Rome, looking for the pretty artifacts that I like to collect, and stopping at bars to take a rest.
To better understand the notion of dolce far niente, I asked one of my Italian classmates if he knew something about it, and if he himself enjoyed it. He is a senior, still struggling with a math class he needs to pass in order to graduate.
“Basically, in Italy you live your life. You don’t put work first so that work becomes your life. That is why there are so many strikes and days off.”
“Do you take part in this dolce far niente?”
“Unfortunately, I do. But I am not happy about this.”
“Oh, but why?” I was surprised. I’d heard Alessandro liked to ride motor boats along the Amalfi coast in the summer, so I was hoping he enjoyed dolce far niente and would elaborate on the wonderful things one can do to pass the time.
“Because it is counter-productive. Since everybody is easy-going it takes very long to get a thing done here.”
I mused over the word ‘counter-productive’. What is being productive? Produce something that can be consumed? Is writing an amateur poem in a pizzeria counter-productive?
Dolce far niente is slowing me down but it seems to be taking me in the right direction.
My last step in my quest to understand dolce far niente is Maria, the concierge in my building. She is always chatting with the tenants. I often see her sitting on the edge of the staircase, engaged in deep conversation with whoever is passing by. When she goes out she often stops by a shoe shop to take a look at the leather shoes.
With hope, I wrote down some questions. “What is your idea of dolce far niente?” “What do Italians do to enjoy dolce far niente?” “Do you like dolce far niente?” “Would you recommend it?” I took my voice-recorder, since I was not very good at understanding Italian, and I thought my friend could help me translate. I was very proud to be 100 percent ready with my journal and my voice-recorder.
It took quite some time to ask her for an interview since there were people chatting with her as usual. I finally approached her. However, my plan to record the conversation collapsed. She didn’t trust voice-recordings. Another middle-aged woman next to her said I might as well just write the interview down in my note pad. They took a look at my written questions, and said things to each other in Italian. I could sense that it was nothing good. “Stupide!” Maria said, and she went off to put the mail in the mail-boxes. Just like that.
I was dumbfounded. Millions of thoughts came into my head. ‘I would have stayed in my comfort zone if I had known that I was going to get hurt like this. See! Italians just hate me! Oh, why can’t things go smoothly like the interviews in the newspapers or in the memoir Eat Pray Love! Oh miserable me. Woe is me!’ After torturing myself for a while, I came to the conclusion that she was offended because I thought of her as a perfect example of dolce far niente—a lazy person.
On my way back to my apartment, I saw her and shouted “Scusami!” She stepped up to me and said. “No! No! La domanda è stupida!”
As my Italian is poor, I got a sense of what she was saying from her furious gestures.
“Do you seriously think that Italians sleep all day, eat a lot, and go to bars all the time because they carry large bellies? No! No! How do you think they pay taxes? How do you think they buy houses?” She pointed to her apartment.
“The questiona are stupid!”
“Oh,” I said, still dumbfounded.
On the other hand, I was glad that I was free from emotional agonies.
I shouted “Grazie!” with sincere gratitude, and she shouted back “Prego!”
Maybe dolce far niente is the creation of the haves, the bourgeois and the aristocrats, reinforced by American tourists who come to Italy to seek pleasure and relax. I don’t know.
“Sayings often contradict themselves,” one of my professors once said to me.
My ideals about Italy were crashed, but I felt one step further to the truth. I was again, lost.