What the Italians Can Teach Us About Living Well

©. K Martinko -- Two old friends wandering the streets of Bologna, with a view of a typical raised sidewalk on the right

After visiting friends in Bologna, I came away with a sense that the Italians have embraced many things that we North Americans would do well to adopt.

This past week, I had the tremendous fortune to spend three days in Bologna, Italy. I went to visit my friend Francesca, whom I met while on a year-long exchange to Sardinia when I was 16. We've kept in touch over the years, but this was my first time visiting her in Bologna. I was eager to see the city for a few reasons. My colleague Lloyd had raved about its famous covered sidewalks (I had no idea what he was talking about before I went, but quickly caught on). I also knew that Bologna is famous for its food, located in the state of Emilia-Romagna, home to ragù, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, tortellini, the prized balsamic vinegar of Modena, and more. Finally, I was eager to get off the beaten track. Although Bologna is a major center, tourists tend to bypass it in favor of Rome, Florence, or Venice.

Bologna city view

© K Martinko -- A view of BolognaWhile traveling, I cannot help but compare everything I observe to my life back home in Canada; this is, arguably, the greatest benefit of travel -- that it forces us to see the world with new eyes -- and seeing Italy through the eyes of an adult, as opposed to the teenage exchange student I used to be, was particularly interesting. I spent hours discussing politics, the struggling economy, urban design, and food with my friends. They are smart, educated thinkers who are accustomed to hosting guests and engaging in debates. I came away from the trip feeling full of experiences, perspective, and interesting facts. But along with that came a sense that, even if the political and economic situation is less than ideal right now, the Italians have figured out many other things that would benefit us North Americas greatly if we could only adopt them.

First, there's the public transit system. You can get anywhere by hopping on a bus or train. They leave on time and cost very little. Because departures are so frequent, I didn't worry about catching a train from Milan to Bologna, but showed up at the station when I was done poking around the Duomo. There was a high-speed train leaving ten minutes later, and it zipped through the countryside at 260 km/hr (160 mph), arriving in Bologna in under an hour, while I enjoyed free WiFi and a beautiful view.

A big reason for the train system's success is that it's almost impossible to find parking. With Bologna's unusual sidewalk design (more on that below), there's literally nowhere to park on most streets. Where there are spots, you need proof of residency on that street.

Bologna's porticos

© K Martinko -- A typical sidewalk view in Bologna

As a result, the streets are highly walkable and pedestrian-friendly. Bologna is famous for its portici, or porticos -- arched walkways with soaring ceilings that are built into the buildings that line the streets. The result is a sidewalk that's protected from rain in winter and shaded in the summer. Storefronts don't require awnings (and presumably less air-conditioning), people stay dry and cool, and (appealing to my anti-consumerist leanings) advertising is far less garish because it's hidden away under the porticos.

Social life in Bologna revolves around the Piazza Maggiore, which is the central city square where "everything happens," according to Francesca and her boyfriend Fabio. Indeed, one of their requirements for a new apartment is that it be no more than a half-hour's walk from the Piazza Maggiore -- a criterion that is difficult to imagine many young North American couples having. Here, sadly, a half-hour walk is perceived more as a workout than a way of life and a two-car garage is a priority.

Speaking of piazzas, they truly are a social hub. It's where people go after work, with friends or children or both, to hang out for several hours. Since Italians are allowed to drink in public, the adults typically drink beer while the kids kick soccer balls and play tag. We sat for hours in the piazza, and my friends had difficulty grasping the idea that we don't have these kinds of grandiose public spaces in small-town Ontario. There are parks, I explained, with playgrounds for kids, but we cannot drink in them and they're usually small and not centrally located.

piazza in Bologna

© K Martinko -- A small piazza in Bologna where families and friends gathered for several hours of relaxation after work.

After the piazza, people head home. My friends live in the attic of a 300-year-old apartment building that's been fully renovated. Fabio, an architect, explained that there is a moratorium on building new structures in the city; residents must restore the old ones that already exist.

At home, dinner revolves around ingredients brought back from visits to my friends' parents' homes in Sardinia and Basilicata (a region in south-central Italy) -- olive oil, wine, tomato sauce, cookies, and chicken. They eat simply, yet deliciously; pasta with zucchini, tomato, and gorgonzola and chicken stewed in spicy tomato sauce (alla cacciatora) were two of the meals we shared. Similar to my own concerns, they avoid industrially-farmed meat, which means they only eat it once every 2-3 weeks, when they get it from family.

One evening we went down into the street for a drink. Their apartment is located in Bologna's best nightlife district, il Pratello, and they weren't going to let me go home without having a taste of it. At the bar, we were served generous portions of amaro in glasses, which we took out into the street to sip while chatting. In Canada, this would be unheard of; my local bar gives out drinks in disposable plastic cups after 11, for fear of breakage. It felt refreshing to be treated like an adult who's capable of handling a glass without smashing it and returning it when finished.

il Pratello, Bologna

© K Martinko -- A view of Il Pratello by daytime

The same reusable rule applies to coffee. As I've written before, Italians don't use single-use takeout cups. Instead, they sit down for a coffee, take their time, savor it. Alternatively, they stand at the bar and down an espresso shot in a minute, getting the buzz they need while generating no waste besides the sugar packet.

I returned to Canada feeling inspired to change a few things in my own life. I want to become more relaxed in my daily schedule, creating time and space for unstructured socializing with friends, and to incorporate my kids into these social events more than I currently do. I will strive to use public spaces more frequently, taking advantage of parks and beaches for picnics and potlucks and (secretive) drinks with friends.

I also want to fall back in love with cooking. I still enjoy it, but I tend to cook at breakneck speed, always with the end goal of filling up my ravenous children most efficiently and healthily. After watching Fabio slowly and masterfully put together a pasta dinner, while proudly describing the origin of every ingredient, it makes me want to go back to cooking like I used to -- when spending an afternoon folding ravioli, making puff pastry from scratch, and stirring a mushroom risotto endlessly was fun.

At one point during our visit, Fabio lamented that he feels Italy has lost its relevance in the world and has little to offer, especially compared to its historic contributions. Indeed, the youth unemployment rate is over 30 percent and the older Millennials and Gen X'ers refer to themselves as the "lost generation," unable to enjoy the economic growth that benefited their parents. He wanted to know what Canadians' perception of Italy is, and laughed when I said we romanticize it tremendously. In the past I have criticized the North American tendency to idealize Italy, but this trip made me reconsider. After these days in Bologna, I've realized that many of the Italian stereotypes are still true to life and, better yet, right on point. Perhaps that is Italy's contribution to the modern world -- a slow, relaxed lifestyle that stands as a model for the rest of us, all of whom would benefit from slowing down, driving less, walking more, and eating better.