International Writers Magazine:
Thanks to a school
exchange program, I spent three months living in the small town of Prato
in northern Italy, just a short train ride from Florence. My time there
opened my eyes to a completely different way of life. The Italian residents
taught me to experience the world through the eyes of a culture that places
much more value on simple pleasures than our North American traditions
dictate. I learned that the relaxed, laid-back mannerism that Europe is
famous for is more than just a stereotype; it is an ingrained lifestyle,
much as our lifestyle at home consists of clogging our event calendars
and seeking the latest technological toys. Only lately have we begun to
recognize how destructive our habits are, not only to our own wellbeing
but to that of our planet. Ever since returning to Canada and noticing
the stark contrasts between the Italian culture and our own, I have come
to strongly believe that emulating the practices of our Italian counterparts
can help us offset the growing crises of global warming and environmental
destruction, if only we are willing to embrace a simpler way of life.
from Tuscany: the Art of Simplicity
the merry ping of a horn behind me and automatically step aside;
my short stay here has already schooled me in small-town road etiquette.
A moment later, a woman on a bicycle glides leisurely past. Several
pedestrians wave to her and she squeezes her bell again in a cheery
greeting. It strikes me that aside from the bicycle horn, the only
sound I hear on this small street in Tuscany is the foreign chatter
of a content population. It is as if the harsh industrial world
of machinery, pollution, and environmental distress has been left
at the town border.
Italians endearingly simplistic lifestyle not only promotes
a less stressful existence, but also advocates the preservation
of resources that are fast becoming depleted in this era of excessive
consumption. Italy has one of the lowest levels of energy consumption
in Europe, and for good reason: many sections of the country, especially
smaller towns like Prato, suffer from a faltering economy. These
populations are forced to practice conservation just to afford the
daily cost of living. Residents of towns like Prato have thus created
a lifestyle that encourages environmental sustainability, a practice
that North Americans have forgotten.
City and town residents
in Italy prefer the less environmentally destructive means of walking
and bicycling. Many also use scooters, which emit less gas than cars.
Furthermore, when traveling within the country, Italians rely heavily
on TrenItalia, the highly efficient public railway system that serves
as the major form of transportation throughout the country.
of the most visible differences I noticed in Italy is that most
towns hardly ever see traffic; in some areas cars are forbidden,
but in most, using alternate means of transportation is a personal
choice. This can be contrasted to North America, where an increase
in automobile production has led to higher levels of traffic and
congestion in both urban and rural districts. This in turn has contributed
to the growing pollution that is ripping through our ozone layer.
As previously mentioned, many regions of Italy are economically disadvantaged
in comparison to our own relatively rich nation. The residents of these
sectors do not have money or energy to waste. In these regions, Italians
make do by conserving their water, heat, and other resources. For example,
instead of using washers and dryers, many households hand-wash clothes
and dry them in the Tuscan sun, a practice that was initially hard for
me to adapt to! Rather than using water-wasting dishwashers, residents
wash and dry dishes by hand. Italian kitchens are strikingly void of the
collection of microwaves, coffeemakers, and other energy-consuming kitchen
appliances that clutter the average North American home; in fact, many
households make do with only a stove for their cooking.
Italian leisure looks much different from the constant stimulation we
depend on at home. In Prato, for instance, there was no electronics store.
I learned that most of the residents do not own the energy-wasting computers,
Playstations, or big-screen televisions that North Americans rely on for
entertainment. Instead, leisure time in Prato is based solely on human
interaction. Every weekend, a traditional "block party" took
place in the town center. This consisted of what seemed like the entire
population of Prato converging in the streets, where the residents would
mingle, eat at outdoor cafés, and amble through town. The purpose
of downtime in Italy is to experience the basic pleasure of reconnecting
with family members and friends, rather than pursuing the superficial
gratifications that North Americans seek from movie houses, clubs, and
theme parks, all of which use enormous amounts of electricity and produce
gallons of environmental toxins.
The same is true for
restaurants: unlike the massive portion sizes that are the standard at
North American eateries, Italian trachiattoras serve just enough to satisfy
the appetite. Furthermore, chefs concentrate on the creation of individual
dishes rather than relying on mass production. Only the best ingredients
are used, which means food is of higher quality and less is needed to
achieve the same tantalizing results.
of the most prevailing stereotypes of Italians is that they love
their food. This is absolutely correct, and with good reason: Italian
food is among the most delicious of world cuisines. However, despite
the dominant tradition that mealtime has become in Italian culture,
the residents do not waste their food. Supermercatos do not sell
items in bulk; the containers and boxes of products that these markets
stock are much smaller than those found in North American superstores,
which encourages consumers to buy only what they need. This is not
only economical for residents, but also reduces the amount of waste
products and ensures that food resources are preserved rather than
Since my return to Canada, I have found myself almost unconsciously incorporating
the customs I observed in Italy into my own daily activities. For example,
I rely on my car less, choosing instead to walk or take public transportation.
Not only does this cut down on pollution and the overuse of fossil fuels,
but I pay less for gas and get more exercise as a result. I have also
made an active attempt to reduce my energy consumption. Although I do
own computers and multiple household appliances like the average North
American, I make sure everything is switched off when not in use. I also
check that heating and lights are off when no one is home. Similarly,
ever since I returned from Italy I have started washing my dishes by hand
rather than using the dishwasher. I have also encouraged my family to
use our washer/dryer less often, and would suggest that others switch
to energy-saving machines as we have. Finally, I no longer buy in bulk
while grocery shopping but select only what I know I will need, especially
when choosing foods that are easily perishable and will therefore rot
quickly, like produce. I am convinced that if enough people follow this
practice, the amount of food products that are consumed will diminish,
therefore allowing more of these goods to be shipped to poorer countries
where food is less abundant.
Ultimately, my trip to Italy not only enlightened me to the customs of
a once-foreign culture, but also opened my eyes to our own traditions.
It is now clear to me that we have become so used to our practices that
we no longer acknowledge their harmful effects on our environment. Admittedly,
Italy is by no means the ideal prototype for environmental protection:
its rate of automobile usage, for example, has been steadily increasing
in recent years. Smaller towns like Prato might be models of resource
conservation, but bigger cities, especially with the onslaught of tourism,
are catering to both the population and outsiders needs by introducing
more time-saving, and often energy-wasting, products and practices. It
is unfeasible to hope that major cities in North America will become more
like Prato when Italys own big cities are diverging from this ideal.
However, the traditional lifestyles that we observe in our friends abroad
can educate us on minor changes that we can incorporate at home in hopes
of globalizing a sustainable economy and ultimately preserving the resources
of the planet each one of us calls home.
© Sonu Purhar August 21st 2007
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