Let’s dedicate some time to … time.
We all generally follow the same societal standards of time: a decade, year, month, week, day. Seasons, minutes, appointments, dates.
And yet how we relate to those standards of time is radically different across cultures.
“On time” in Germany seems to mean at least five minutes early. On time in America: the exact time previously agreed upon. On time in Italy: within 30 minutes of the agreed upon time. On time in Ghana: within the day….or whatever.
Living in another country means that you’re perpetually a little bit “off”. Your style is nearly Italian, your accent nearly perfect, your humor just….a liiiiitttle bit…off. Whether it’s cooking, working, or even free time, there’s always the risk of a cultural gaffe. This is especially true with time.
Italians have super-set times that they instinctively understand among themselves, but which aren’t at all clear to outsiders. After nearly 5 years in the country, I’m just now beginning to understand. Naturally, most coincide with meals.
Snacktime/coffee break: 10:30 am
Snacktime (tea time): 4:30-5:30
Aperitivo: 6 – 7:30
Dinner: 7:30-9 (later on weekends)
Breakfast is a free-for-all based on wake-up time. Merenda, or snack time, is a bit more strict, falling around 10:30. This is based off Italian schools’ traditional mid-morning break and snack time. For adults, this is usually the first of many coffee breaks.
Lunchtime can be anywhere from 12:30 to 2:00, or for that entire span of time for some.
Then, of course, there’s tea time. Adopted from the English, tea time falls precisely at 5 o’clock and can be with warm tea and cookies or it can simply be a snack. Many Italian elementary schools get out at 4:30, the perfect time for an afternoon snack before dinner. (Dinner’s not eaten before 7:30, so there’s no threat of spoiling your appetite).
Perhaps the most difficult time-related problem are the general parts of the day.
When you wake up you’re in the clear, morning is morning everywhere. It’s what comes next that starts all the problems: there’s the ever-elusive “afternoon.”
Afternoon is a very different concept in Italy.
If a friend in America says “let’s meet up this afternoon” I’m thinking around 2:00 p.m. Italians, on the other hand, aren’t even finished with lunch at that time.
For an Italian, “afternoon” is NO EARLIER than 4 pm. If you’d like to meet at any time earlier than that, you have to specify primo pomeriggio or early afternoon, which is anytime from 2 – 4, but generally falls around 2:30, right after lunch.
For an American, evening begins around 5 pm and ends when it’s dark, when it then considered night. Italian night is only when sleeping, everything else is called evening. So while we may say “we went out to dinner last night,” an Italian would say “we went out yesterday evening.”
This means if you invite someone over for a coffee it’s clear they’ll be there at 2:30. If someone wants to see you in the afternoon, you’re free until at least 4.
My American sensibilities can’t begin to understand why we can’t just specify an hour, but I do know that Italians love the flexibility. Not only that, they require it. Even if you attempt to give a precise time, they’ll stay vague. Your best bet? Relax. They’ll show up sooner or later; probably within the hour!