The first time I went to Italy, I was a young musician participating in an opera and classical music festival sponsored by University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.  Since this was a program run by Americans and attended by mostly Americans, we were in an American time bubble.  Meaning, all of our internal events, such as rehearsals and classes, started right on time.  If you were hurrying to your seat after the orchestra had already tuned, you could bet that the conductor would stare holes through you.

We learned that we were in this American bubble - and that a start time was merely a suggestion to most Italians - when the orchestra did a runout concert at the Caruso Villa.  We arrived for the concert early (of course), and spent some time exploring the grounds.  Then, our hosts announced that we would have a little something to eat before the concert.  Musicians don’t generally like to eat before performing, but hey, we were in Italy.  A light snack probably wouldn’t hurt.

It turns out that by “a little to eat,” they meant a 20-course meal with wine.

The sun went down, and the concert’s arranged start time came and went.  Meanwhile, we students went after the food like locusts and took advantage of the free wine that had been presented to us.  It wasn’t long before our teeth felt a little loose and we were patting our distended bellies.  Finally, at 10 pm, three hours late, our hosts decided it might be nice to start the concert.  It was one of the worst things I’d ever played or heard.  I distinctly remember tears of laughter running down our faces as we cracked and scratched our way through some Mozart.  Luckily the conductor had also had the 20-course meal and a fair amount of wine, and it was so late that the audience had dwindled down to about 10 people and some feral cats.

Years later, when I was running that very festival, I made a point to talk about this at the beginning all-company meeting.  I tried to tell them about the bubble, and to just go with whatever comes up, blah, blah.  No one listened, and within 24 hours I always had around 200 uber-disciplined classical musicians and opera singers extremely upset about schedules.

In music school, we had a saying: “to be early is to be on time.  To be on time is to be late.”  I was trying to explain this to an Italian colleague.  I was telling her that, in America, if we have a meeting at 8:00 am, it means you get there a few minutes before so that the meeting can start exactly at 8:00.  

“You mean it doesn’t start at 8:15 or so?,” she asked, her eyes wide.

“No,” I said.  “It starts at 8:00.”  

“That would be really stressful.”

Every year for the opera performance, I had to make the decision as to how late we would go past the published start time until downbeat.  Usually it was about 15 minutes.  Even then, I would still have a throng of people at the box office, casually walking in twenty minutes late (or was it on time?).  They’d hear the orchestra and then panic - “what?!  It’s already started???!!!”

So who is right and who is wrong?  I don’t really know.  When I’m in Italy, I try to do as the Romans, to use the cliche.  That can be pretty challenging when you’re the touchstone for Americans who are used to their heavily-scheduled days.  When it’s just me over there, I decide to embrace it.  I admit that it takes some time to let go of my anxiety over being late, but eventually it washes over me and I’m okay with taking my time to go about my daily life.  It’s okay that the bank tellers are taking 30 minutes to coo over a baby or ask an elderly client about her life while I stand there patiently-ish and wait my turn.  It’s okay that the waiter is letting us be and we’ve been waiting 20 minutes to get the check.  It’s okay that we’re 30 minutes late for a dinner party.  Of course, there are times when this attitude about time leads to complete inefficiency and frustration, but that’s what the beautiful landscape, language, and wine are for, right?

What about you?  What’s been your experience with time in Italy (or elsewhere)?  Let me know in the comments.

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