A couple of years ago, my husband and I were featured in an episode of an American reality show. We were renovating our first apartment together in Southern Tuscany and the cameras followed us around as we chased absent builders, struggled with a three-metre-tall door we didn’t order and argued about who exactly asked for a lilac master bedroom. I stressed and complained on camera, while he sauntered from room to room repeating, “it’s okay, it’s okay” in his Italian-flecked English.
When the episode aired, I couldn’t watch. I appeared the perpetually grumpy Australian, impossible to please, shrewish and frazzled, while he was effortlessly calm and oh-so European. I even received emails from strangers expressing sympathy for my poor mistreated husband! And while I disagree with the trolls about that last part, I have to admit, it wasn’t all editing. In life, like on camera, my Tuscan husband is almost always stress-free… and therefore wrinkle-free… and also ulcer-free.
[Finding your inner "dolce vita" can be hard for some]
I’m a firm believer that not all stress is negative. Good stress can motivate you, propel you forward and help you achieve your goals. We all know Italians could use a good kick up the bum every once and while. I know that if it hadn’t been for me, my husband would still be walking through a half-finished kitchen with no windows saying “it’s okay, it’s okay”, but my years in Southern Tuscany have taught me a few things about stress and, I admit, my stomach thanks me for ‘going native’.
So here it is, the ultimate Tuscan’s guide to a stress-free life.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
At the end of last year, I accidently flung my watch halfway across the bathroom and cracked the glass. I took it to the only jewellery store in my very small town to be repaired. For the next four months, I stopped by regularly to see if it was ready and each time, the jeweller, Ettore, regretfully told me that it wasn’t and that he had no idea when it would be.
When I complained about the delay, he rolled his eyes. This unhurriedness goes completely against our modern tendency to expect everything immediately. But the only things that should be rushed, he tells me sagely, are matters of life and death.
Perhaps that’s why you’ll never meet a Tuscan who isn’t late to everything. No event, meeting, film, party, school day or even Catholic mass starts when it is supposed to. You could see this as inbred rudeness, but perhaps it’s the ultimate display of innate patience. Whether they are five minutes or 50 minutes late, whether your watch is fixed in one week or six months, it’ll happen eventually. So just sit back and enjoy the show.
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Be more forgiving
My husband likes to call our town the Old Wild West. People double, sometimes triple, park all over the sidewalk, you approach at pedestrian crossing at your own risk and you only have to look at your next-door neighbour to know he’s stealing your land by moving his fence line a few centimetres forward every year.
Sure no one follows the rules, pays their taxes or uses their turn signals, but underneath it all is a serene acceptance. It’s what keeps Tuscans from becoming an angry anarchistic mass of road accidents, fist fights and burst blood vessels. They believe everyone is allowed to act like a jerk sometimes (read, all the time) and that’s okay.
Tuscans don’t get angry when someone cuts them off. They expect it and they ultimately forgive it with a shrug and a smile. Every local I spoke to insisted that it didn’t matter that no one followed the rules. My colleague, Nedo, couldn’t understand why I would find it frustrating. Worrying about other people and their behaviour never changed anything, he tells me. That’s just the way people are. They will act the way they want, so should you. It’s horribly selfish, but also a incredibly liberating.
Live in the moment
The Tuscans may not be on their way to a utopian society with these techniques, but it does seem to be doing wonders for their lifespan. On warm spring afternoons, you can find a handful of our town’s oldest residents sitting in the piazza gossiping. One of them is my neighbour, Adelina, who never shies away from giving me advice.
When I ask her and her friends why Tuscans stay stress-free, she tells me simply to appreciate what I have. Tuscans are by nature hoarders, savers, reluctant to go into debt and content for things to always stay the same. You see it every August when everyone goes on holiday for a month even if it’s more expensive, even if they could go another time, even if it means huge lines at the airport and crowds at the beach. It’s part of their tradition and they have no intention of giving it up just because it’s unpractical.
Our town isn’t perfect. There are so many things that could be changed. If we were all a little bit more like the Germans, life would be much easier. But it’s not how the Tuscans live.
Rather than worrying about what they will lack tomorrow, Tuscans prefer to look at what they have today. Adelina tells me life isn’t about ignoring the problems, but accepting that things go wrong. You’ll probably never get your watch fixed and your builder will go on a month-long cruise, leaving behind unfinished scaffolding dangling menacing around your house. But there’s always plenty to appreciate. The lovely weather, for example, that allows a handful of octogenarians to get out and berate a 20-something foreigner for wearing open-toed shoes.
Focus on that, she tells me, and you’ll live and long and happy life. But first go inside and get a jacket before you catch a cold.