If you live in Italy for any length of time, rather sooner than later you will learn two terms of utmost importance to you, no matter how basic your Italian may be otherwise.
One is riposo and the other orario continuato. Respectively meaning ‘extended lunch break’ and ‘uninterrupted opening hours’.
Now, taking a break in the middle of your working day in order to have lunch and just relax a bit is something quite commonplace. Still, Italy is the world apart from the striving for productivity and efficiency no matter at what cost Western society. Lunch breaks all over Europe and the USA seem to be constantly shrinking and it is now universally accepted for people to tuck into their lunch boxes at their desks whilst simultaneously checking emails and fielding phone calls. Meanwhile, in the Bel Paese a proper lunch break most often than not stretches over several hours – anything from 2 to 4 in fact.
A 4-hour lunch break?! That sounds crazy!
This as well may be your first reaction the first time that you are faced with a street-worth of metal shutters pulled all the way down and securely locked in the middle of the afternoon right when you fancy a late lunch, some snacks, cute office supplies, a spanking new top, a box of paracetamol or other items that you absolutely must have at that very moment in time.
A long extended lunch break is only the norm here in Italy. It is an integral part of local culture – observed and cherished -and it equals time taken off during the hottest hours of the day to spend in relaxation or enjoying some quality moments with friends and family. The tradition of riposo is so deeply ingrained that I remember once seeing stalls at a huge antique market just outside of Vicenza closing for riposo. The stallholders covered their wares with stretches of fabric and then lay up a small portable table next to the stall in order to have a long and relaxing lunch whilst chatting to each other.
Not to mention the donkey in the photograph above which I spotted having a lunch break at an animal exhibition in Vicenza only a few weeks ago. So unless you are in one of Italy’s big touristic cities, chances are you will keep facing metal shutters closed for riposo until you adapt your consumer habits to the local opening times.
Which, in all honesty, is not that difficult at all. Obviously, it may take some time and for quite a while it may really, really bug you that you are wasting your afternoon when you can be more productive out there paying bills and doing your shopping. Still, once you have gotten used to the idea that the working day here in Italy is mainly split in two, then it will become really easy to observe riposo and even enjoy it by having a nice snooze at home, getting together with friends and family or other such relaxing activities.
I have always wondered if Italians are not getting a bit frustrated with this opening and closing twice a day thingy, seeing that they need to clean and sanitise the premises twice or, if they work in an office and don’t live nearby, they seem to sit in a cafe for a long period of time just lunching and perusing the local press. But, I guess, it is a cultural thing, so questioning it would be the same as asking an Englishman how come they are happy to forego lunch break completely in order to work some more.
Now, the flip side of the riposo coin is the so called orario continuato. Which basically means that a business stays open all the way through the day, so you don’t need to worry as to when you can pop in for whatever it is that you need. Usually, the establishments maintaining an orario continuato are huge (frequently multinational) companies like supermarkets and fashion stores which are often clustered together in large shopping malls outside of the historical centres of cities and towns or are in the heart of the big cities attracting the tourist masses.
The small, medium and even some of the larger business on the other hand still customarily observe riposo with an almost religious zeal. This applies to local shops such as bakers, grocers, and butchers, pharmacies, clothing stores, and even the customer service centre of our electricity and gas supplier. Plus, churches, museums, post offices and even some coffee shops may also close for riposo.
So, what to do?! Well, here are my six tried and tested ways to make riposo work for you without getting angry and exasperated every time you really need something just when you can’t get it.
1. Don’t Fight It
Honestly, don’t! Don’t waste your time feeling indignant about riposo, feeling hard done-by the fact that the shops are shut or, even worse, making unfavourable comparisons with how things are ‘so much better back home’. Well, you are in Italy now, so it is time to take riposo in your stride and make the most of it.
2. Plan Ahead
I remember, when we still lived in England, we were very spontaneous with our shopping habits. If we fancied something at 8 pm, we would jump in the car and drive ten minutes up the road to the nearest supermarket which was open 24/7 and we would buy it then and there. Sometimes, such shopping trips would happen several times a week. Well, this doesn’t quite work like this here in Vicenza. First, due to the opening times. Second, because I would much rather use my time to relax, write or explore Veneto and Italy than to dart back and forth to the shops. So, now, we plan ahead. We do one big shop every week or every ten days and we pop down to the local bakery and fruit and veg shop every other day. When we visit another town, we have a look online ahead of time just to make sure what are the opening hours of the local museums and sights, especially if the place is off the beaten track.
3. Familiarise Yourself with Local Opening Times
Make sure that you know when your local shops open and shut. For example, a nearby butcher’s is only open for half a day and alternates between mornings and afternoons through the week. I can never keep up with their opening hours, so to save myself some wasted journeys, we buy all our meat from the supermarket. I love my local bakery and fruit and veg shop though, so I know their opening hours by heart. Same applies to my favourite local coffee shop, which also shuts for riposo, but at least re-opens at 3:30 pm unlike my second favourite local coffee shop which stays shut until 4:30 pm. In addition to the daily opening hours, make sure you also know if there are any days during the week when the local businesses stay shut for an extra half a day. For example, here in Vicenza it is quite customary for shops not to open on Monday morning and then each borough has an allocated day when the shops are open in the morning but shut in the afternoon. Local markets also operate within set hours, so be aware of these, as if you come even fifteen minutes late, the stalls will be neatly packed off and even dismantled and taken away.
4. Use Riposo To Relax
As you are in Italy after all, do as Italians do and take every opportunity to enjoy riposo as it should be: by having a nice afternoon snooze, by spending an hour or two with a good book or simply by catching up with your Netflix list. And seeing that this is the country which puts family at the centre of it all, why not spend this relaxing time with your significant other (schedules permitting) or with a dear friend. Coffee shops in the centre of towns and cities often stay open all the way through riposo, so they make a nice meeting point even when it is really hot and sweaty out there.
5. Shop During Riposo
Now, this may seem counter-intuitive to everything I said above, but hear me out. As previously mentioned large supermarkets and shopping malls usually work all through the day. At the same time, the tradition of riposo is so deeply ingrained in Italians that between 12:30 and 3:30 pm there is much less traffic outside and a minimal footfall in the shops which stay open. So, if you want to do a quick and unobstructed food shop for the week, do it within traditional riposo hours and you will feel like you are having the supermarket mostly to yourself.
6. Use Vending Machines and Automated Shops
And, lastly, if you really need something during riposo and you can’t make the long journey to an out of town large supermarket or shopping mall, then use one of the many vending machines and even whole automated shops dotted around Italy. They sell a wide selection of products – from biscuits, coffee and sandwiches to such slightly more exotic wares like raw milk, water on tap and, ahem, condoms and sex toys. Usually, prices are significantly higher than in the shops, but you have what you need right away right in the middle of deep riposo. And this is a convenience you will soon learn to appreciate. If you want to learn more about Italy’s weird and wonderful vending machines and automated shops, please, click here for detailed information and lots of pictures.
Do you love or hate riposo? Have you ever been inconvenienced by the Italian extended lunch break? Do you have any tips yourself as to how to make riposo work for you? Share with me your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below. I would love to read them and engage with you.