In my former life, every day of every week was for many years divided up into discrete parcels of time, each allocated to a specific activity or objective. Doing the VAT return, learning a song for choir, going to the gym, cooking dinner, writing a public art tender, doing some Italian homework, having a shower: each of them strictly measured out and each accompanied by an internal clocking ticking down in the background. Thanks to my attempts to meet my daily clutch of deadlines, my vocabulary was peppered with words like ‘scoot’, ‘dash’, ‘whizz’ and ‘nip’. Constantly clock-watching, constantly hurrying, and constantly avoiding anything that could put me behind schedule, whether this was exchanging pleasantries with an elderly neighbour, playing with the cat, or chatting with a delivery driver. Everything done at full tilt, everything done against the clock. Not for nothing did Mr Blue-Shirt often liken me to a Jack Russell terrier on speed.

Yet while we certainly have fewer commitments now, I have still got deadlines to work to and lots of things to fit into a finite amount of time. My teaching schedule has expanded into almost a full-time job, and Mr Blue-Shirt spends practically every daylight hour improving, repairing, modifying or finishing some aspect of the house or garden – and that’s before we get to all the bureaucracy we are still having to work our way through. So we continue to find ourselves regularly ‘scooting’ here, ‘dashing’ there, ‘whizzing’ in and ‘nipping’ back, even though such concepts have little place in Italian culture, where the response to any evidence of hurrying or impatience is ‘tranquilo, tranquilo…!’ accompanied by a gentle ‘take it easy’-type gesture. Indeed, like with the Inuit and their many words for ‘snow’, the fact that we have so many different ways to express the idea of ‘hurry’ while Italian has one (according to my Collins breeze-block, anyway) says much about our respective attitudes to time.

Take going to the village Post Office (a classic ‘nip to’ location). This is tucked in the ground floor of a medieval palazzo in what is effectively the main street of the historical village centre, its modern blue and yellow livery contrasting sharply with the pinky-brown stonework and slate-grey cobbles. As it is open only in the mornings and has a staff of precisely two, there is always a collection of local residents – bow-legged farmers with shovel-like hands, sleep-starved young mothers jiggling prams, dumpy old women in sensible shoes – waiting to be served. But no matter how long the queue, no matter how quickly each customer’s business can be dealt with, the clerks will still pass the time of day – asking after the customer’s family, complaining about the weather, or discussing the latest political scandal – with every single one of them.  When all I want is to buy a stamp, for goodness’ sake…

It is the same story at the village supermarket, to which we sometimes ‘scoot’ for a bit of ham or bread. It is set just outside the ancient ramparts, and although it is barely any bigger than a Tesco Express or Sainsbury’s Local, it still has fresh bread, fish, meat and deli counters, each with its own roll of pull-off numbered tickets and digital display. This nod to order, however, only speeds things up to the extent that it avoids any confusion over whose turn it is. It simply dispenses with the normally ubiquitous ‘Tocca chi? -Tocca me.’ (Whose turn is it? – It’s my turn) exchange. However, this does not stop the shop assistant still engaging every customer in conversation, once again irrespective of the length of the queue, asking how their kids are getting on at school, whether they had heard what Signor So-and-So had been up to, what they thought of the footie on TV last night. Unlike the Post Office, however, this is then compounded by the lengthy probing into the qualities of whatever item is being bought. Whereas posting a letter or paying a bill is fairly cut and dried, buying ham, for instance, involves a huge range of variables, every one of which needs to discussed before a definitive selection can be made. And then, once the right ham has finally been decided upon, it is sliced, laid out on waxed paper in neat overlapping rows, and finally packaged up, weighed and labelled with a level of care that borders on reverence. When all I want is to buy a loaf of bread, for goodness’ sake…

And there’s no amount of sighing, eye-rolling or watch-checking that will speed things up. Trying to halt these conversations is about as realistic as Canute trying to halt the progress of the tide. It just ain’t going to happen. So we have come to recognise that we need to get our heads round the fact that there is no transaction without interaction, that speed is seldom of the essence, that it is we who need to change. What is required, in fact, is recalibration.

2 thoughts on “Recalibration”

  1. Wonderful writing Fran; just loved it. Interestingly I read your piece just after enjoying a lunch together in the garden under a bright blue sky and blazing sun, whilst sharing some amazing organ music that Mr T-shirt had recorded in Bayeux Cathedral last week. It certainly felt good to take time to enjoy the connection to food, nature, music and each other. Maybe I have a tiny bit of Roman ancestry!


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