Dear USA

The American Inability to Relax

Have you ever watched and/or read Eat Pray Love? There’s a scene in the movie where Luca Spaghetti candidly tells Liz that she doesn’t know how to enjoy herself because she is American. He goes into a somewhat offensive, entirely factual rant about how we, Americans, “know entertainment, but don’t know pleasure”.

That scene is based on the below excerpt from the book:

“. . . Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure. Ours is an entertainment-seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one. Americans spend billions to keep themselves amused with everything from porn to theme parks to wars, but that’s not exactly the same thing as quiet enjoyment. . . Alarming statistics back this observation up, showing that many Americans feel more happy and fulfilled in their offices than they do in their own homes. Of course, we all inevitably work too hard, then we get burned out and have to spend the whole weekend in our pajamas, eating cereal straight out of the box and staring at the TV in a mild coma (which is the opposite of working, yes, but not exactly the same thing as pleasure). Americans don’t really know how to do NOTHING.”

-Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia

I remember reading this part of the book a couple of years ago during my commute, vehemently nodding my head in agreement with every single word.

I also remember many moons ago telling family and friends that I wanted to move to Italy, and promptly being told something along the lines of, “You love Italy now because you’re visiting the south in the summer! Life there, especially in the north, is not a vacation!”

While I categorically confirm that life year-round in northern Italy is, indeed, no vacation, it is much more enjoyable than I remember my American life being. That’s because the notions of pleasure and leisure are embedded into Italian culture, originating from the carefree debauchery and erotic lifestyles of the early Etruscans in what is present-day Tuscany to the worldly interests of Renaissance-era thrill-seekers. (OK, technically Italy didn’t yet exist in both instances since the nation-state of Italy was actually founded in 1861, but you get my drift!)

In fact, Italy’s Constitution guarantees all workers the right to paid annual leave AKA vacation. The government also ratified the International Labor Organization‘s ‘Holidays with Pay Convention’ in 1970, which stipulates that a minimum of three working weeks be granted for one year of service. The U.S. government, on the other hand, guarantees no such thing to workers. Actually, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, only 76% of workers in the private sector are entitled to paid vacation. An employee is entitled to 22 days only after having worked at a company for 20 years. Want to hear something even more absurd? Project Time Off, a movement created to transform American vacation culture, found that half of American workers don’t even take their vacation days! This is unheard of in Italy.

It’s no secret that Italians are passionate, sensual people; but one of the things I love most about them is their ability to derive pleasure from even the smallest of things, transforming inconsequential moments into glorious opportunities to simply…. relax. How? Sitting in the sunshine on a brisk day. Going for a long walk after dinner. Having a mid-day coffee at work. Actually, for most–if not all–Italians, a typical work day goes something like this: coffee break when you get in, work, one-hour lunch break at 1pm sharp (not kidding..), coffee break immediately after lunch, work, 4/5pm break (possibly with coffee), work, leave to go home.

I’ve worked in five different offices back in New York, and I rarely saw colleagues take a non-lunch break for more than ten minutes. I mean, even taking a 30+ minute lunch was frowned upon (makes sense since U.S. law does not require employers to offer meal or lunch breaks!). It’s why eating at your desk is quite common, as is eating on-the-go. It’s quite sad, actually, how we literally can’t afford to take a few minutes to sit and savor our food.

In a way, I understand the American infatuation with our jobs, productivity and even socioeconomic status. Working hard and chasing dreams is in our blood and bones; after all, immigrants who came from and with nothing built our country from the ground up (and remain to this day the backbone of it… just saying!).

On the other hand…. it’s really weird. I will never forget what a high school teacher once told my class during an enlightening discussion about how Europeans differ from Americans. She pointed out that Americans, upon meeting others for the first time, often initiate the conversation by posing a question such as, “So, what do you do?“. Contrarily, most Europeans wouldn’t dare ask a work-related question. Why? Because it’s irrelevant. I won’t speak for all Europeans, but–in my experience–Italians are more interested in where you’re from. Where you’ve lived. What you’ve studied. Where you’ve traveled to. They do not confound their job title with their identity, and that’s really admirable.

I mentioned in a post from November, that–although my American-ness is still very prominent here–I am starting to master the art of ‘dolce far niente‘… but not the spend-all-weekend-in-pajamas-eating-cereal one… it’s more of a long-walk-on-a-lazy-Sunday, coffee-break-at-four-in-the-afternoon kind of thing.


  • maura

    “In fact, Italy’s Constitution guarantees all workers the right to paid annual leave AKA vacation”.

    True, it’s in Italy’s Constitution but ALL Italians do not get the full-time permanent contract that gives paid annual leave. My husband get it, again, because he has a contratto tempo indeterminato. My company forced me to Partita Iva or lose my job. I don’t get any guaranteed paid vacation. Am I an exception? No. Many companies do not give contratto tempo indeterminato thus they do not enjoy the benefit of paid vacation.

    The idyllic “dolce vita” is changing and many companies force or bully their employees to work 9 or more hours a day and skip lunch.

    “Italians are more interested in where you’re from. Where you’ve lived. What you’ve studied. Where you’ve traveled to. They do not confound their job title with their identity, and that’s really admirable.”

    Italians are very concerned with titles. Have you ever noticed how many people introduce themselves as “dottore” based on the basic bachelor’s degree and get upset if you don’t use it (even if it is a somewhat meaningless title thousands of Italians have)? I’ve met people who only frequent people who are at their same socio-economic /educational level.

    I don’t mean to be harsh but I realize that I am being critical and that isn’t what expat bloggers want. I too love my life in Italy but pushing sad myths that Italians pretend to believe and Americans believe blindly just paints an unrealistic picture which is at times, very offensive to people who struggle here.

    • Rosa P.

      Hi Maura! Thanks for your comment. You’re right about the different contracts; should have specified that in the post! As an American, it’s still a bit new to understand the different contracts because in the U.S. there’s full-time, part-time or internship. As for the ‘dolce vita’ lifestyle, it may be changing here, but is still incomparable with that of my country–that was the point. Maybe it’s just been my personal experience, but the first question I’m asked is never about my job. One’s work is simply not one’s life here. In Italy, you work to live; in the U.S., you live to work so your job is everything. These are facts.

      The distinction of ‘dottore’ that Italians like to use for themselves once they graduate is more of a tradition than anything. In fact, many Italians are against it and don’t understand why it even exists (:

      No, don’t worry–I accept all insight and criticism! I’ll just remind you that I, personally, share both the good and bad of living in Italy. Not sure if you’ve looked at my other posts, but you won’t find just ‘la bella vita’ content here. I understand there’s struggle, believe me.. but, as an American from NYC, my life here is much, much calmer and pleasurable. I think a lot of American expats would agree.

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