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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

The sign on the door clearly said the store should have reopened at three. According to my watch and confirmed by my cellphone – twice - it was now 3:12. I’d been waiting a full 12 minutes. Unacceptable.

The place where I was waiting wouldn’t really qualify as a “store” as I had come to understand the term. It was a ground-level room of a three-storey home on the main street of a small Sicilian village. My ancestral home, in fact. I was visiting for my niece’s wedding. It was attached to rows of similar buildings that lined the narrow main street. Most of the other ground-level rooms had been similarly converted to a variety of businesses – grocery stores, flower shops, bakeries, espresso bars and other purposes not discernible based on outward appearance.

This particular “store,” I was assured, was the only place I might obtain a media card, the object that was apparently preventing my cellphone from being able to store more pictures – a catastrophe which I felt had to be rectified immediately. Fabrizio, who operated the store, would know what to do.

Looking through the glass, I became dubious that I’d find any solutions among the apparently random collection of items in the small, cluttered space. It seemed more like a workshop than a place of business. I wasn’t even sure how more than one person would fit inside.

I turned to my niece who had come along to help me find the store. As the central figure in the upcoming wedding, she certainly had better things to do. But here she was, remarkably calm despite the circumstances and lateness.

“Where is he?” I asked, with righteous agitation.

With an expression one might reserve for calming a hyperactive child, she turned her lovely deep brown eyes to me and said with barely disguised condescension:

“But Zio, he lives upstairs. He’s having lunch with his family.”

And there it was. Crystallized in those few words, expressed by this engaging young woman. All the differences between her world, the world of my parents and ancestors, and the world into which I was born, raised and lived, came into sharp and startling focus.

In her world, people were simply not ruled by any clock or regulation.

In her world, people choose to spend their time doing what is valuable to them and are unapologetic in doing so.

In her world, people not only take time for lunch but truly value that time despite what we might regard as greater priorities.

In her world, the choice to value private time over work is not only tolerated but understood and respected.

Her world has trust and comfort in its way of life and regards our work and time obsessions with a combination of amusement and pity. It’s a world that says, without rancour, but in no uncertain terms, “You’re here now – chill out. We’re not changing.”

This was not an entirely new realization for me. The contrasts between my ancestral and birth homes become apparent whenever I visit, but my understanding has changed, perhaps matured, over the years. What I previously regarded as a quaint, anachronistic way of life out of keeping with the modern world, I now see as an explicit and insightful choice, particularly when made by bright and talented young people like my niece and her partner who are choosing to remain and begin their lives in Sicily.

There is, of course, a price to be paid for this less-than-compulsive approach to productivity. The Italian economy is a continual source of concern to both its leadership and the international community.

Despite this glum outlook, Italian health indices, life expectancy, quality of life and “happiness index” rank among the highest in the world. There is a paradoxical dichotomy between the collective economic health of the nation and the individual contentment of its people.

Surely there are lessons here. Our two worlds, it would seem, have much to learn from each other. On a personal level, I love being Canadian and am grateful for the choice my father made to immigrate to this country, as was he. Nonetheless, I can’t help but appreciate the values and family focus of my ancestral home and have come to realize that occasional inoculations of la dolce vita provide much-needed balance.

When Fabrizio arrived and opened, I found that the door actually rolled up so that the “store” completely opened to the street. It became an open-air kiosk where he did his business on the sidewalk. All the stores were similar, so the street became sort of an open-air market where proprietors, passersby, street residents and customers mingled as business was conducted. It was crowded, noisy and confusing, but welcoming and very engaging. There was none of the structure and process we associate with the consumer experience, but things seemed to get done. Fabrizio, once we finished introductions and after he had inquired about every detail of the upcoming wedding, was able to find exactly what I needed from among the debris that was his workplace and install it in my cellphone. He had to stop a couple of times as his children wandered down to the store with some domestic issue that always, immediately, took precedence.

Over the rest of my stay in the village, I returned to his shop several times. Not to purchase, just to visit Fabrizio and his family. We shared espressos and cookies delivered by his children from the kitchen upstairs. The day before I was to leave, he gave me a small ceramic keepsake that still sits on my office desk and, in particularly harried moments, provides perspective and reminds me that really good coffee consumed in good company can actually be both refreshing and calming.

The wedding, by the way, was wonderful but started a half-hour after the scheduled time owing to the bride’s late arrival. No one seemed surprised. No one minded – least of all me.

Tony Sanfilippo lives in Kingston, Ont.