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When in Quarantine, Do As the Italians Do

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Practice the “sweetness of doing nothing” by savoring a leisurely meal with family.

Photo by Federico Ciamei

Practice the “sweetness of doing nothing” by savoring a leisurely meal with family.

Italian tour operator and author Sophie Minchilli shares her tips for finding pleasure in the ordinary.

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As coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to ravage their country, Italians are coming together in unprecedented ways, hanging inspiring posters, singing from their balconies, and taking time each night to applaud health care workers on the front lines. How are they managing to stay so positive in the face of the pandemic? Roman food tour operator Sophie Minchilli thinks it has something to do with dolce far niente.

The Italian phrase translates to “the sweetness of doing nothing,” but it’s more than that to Minchilli. “We live in a world where we feel like we constantly have to keep busy,” she wrote in an email while on lockdown at her family home in Umbria. “The more our schedules fill up, the more we feel important and purposeful ... Italians have a different approach to life. They have figured out a way of being in the moment with such joy and blissfulness that they don’t need to ‘look forward’ to anything else.” Quite simply, Italians have found a way to be happy with being home during the coronavirus outbreak. 

Dolce far niente was a thing long before coronavirus, though. So much so, in fact, that Minchilli decided to write an entire book on the philosophy. In The Sweetness of Doing Nothing: Live Life the Italian Way with Dolce Far Niente—which was originally scheduled to come out on April 30, 2020, but has been pushed to spring 2021—she shares recipes and suggestions for appreciating the little things in life.

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“There are certain aspects of the Italian way of living that I took for granted while growing up here,” she said. “But as I got older I realized how incredible they actually are and wanted to share them with everyone ... I truly believe some of the concepts I talk about in the book can help people lead a happier and more fulfilled life.”

Tour operator and author Sophie Minchilli with her mother at their family home in Umbria.

To cultivate the idea in her own life, said Minchilli, she’s had to train herself to be content with boredom. “I think back to what my grandparents would do when they weren’t working, and it’s probably not much. That ‘nothingness’ is what made them happy, simply enjoying the peace of the moment ... Whenever I feel stressed or rushed, I force myself to shut out the outside world and just do what makes me happy, whether it’s sitting at a bar and slowly sipping on a coffee, or going to the beach for a run. Everyone needs to find their own special way.”

Of course, right now, going to a bar or the beach isn’t an option for many people, whether in Italy, the U.S., or several other places around the world. Below, Minchilli shares five ways Americans can practice dolce far niente while social distancing, self-isolating, or whatever it is you’re doing to get by.  

1. Make a Schedule

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“This has helped me stay sane. Knowing what to do every morning has helped me to not feel too overwhelmed with all this free time at home. You can also set goals: finish a book a week, get through that list of movies you’ve been wanting to watch but never had time for, or learn how to bake a loaf of bread.”

2. Get Some Exercise

“This is easier for people who are not in big cities, but people in apartments can also get creative with the help of the Internet. There are plenty of online classes, anything from Zumba to yoga!”

3. Take a Technology Break 

“The first few days, I was constantly checking the news and social media, and found that the explosion of information was actually bad for me. I decided to only look at the news in the mornings, and never in the afternoon or at night before I go to bed. I’m so used to always having my phone with me that it’s felt quite liberating to forget about it throughout the day. I keep leaving it in the weirdest places and not being able to find it!”

4. Chat with Friends   

“I suddenly feel like a teenager again! I’ve been spending a lot of time on the phone with friends, and reconnecting with the ones I’d lost touch with over the years. Instead of having a drink at the bar, we have all been meeting on a conference call with our own glass of wine and chatting as if we were sitting in a beautiful Italian square in the sun.”

5. Cook Something

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“Since we should only be going out to shop for food once a week, I’ve come up with a weekly menu filled with things I would never have cooked in my normal life because they’re too time-consuming. But during a quarantine? They’re perfect! Bake bread, make complicated desserts, stews, and soups. Having a weekly menu sitting in front of you will make it easier to shop, and it’s also something to look forward to every morning.”

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