How many times have you found yourself in a deserted Italian city between the hours of 1 and 4 pm? Store closed, silence all around, or maybe the vague noise of silverware coming from opened windows, in the summer... and Sunday? No way, you have to plan your grocery shopping in advance: everything is closed.
Well... now since globalization has reached Italy: malls started opening in the late-eighties and now little shops with a ten hour business day are blooming (so similar to the delis in NYC that, when I enter one, I automatically start speaking English). But besides these scary hints of an Italian "Americanization", many stores still resist the tide and dutifully place a "closed" sign during lunch hours.
What do the Italians do when they close their stores? Many people think that they go home and take a nap, a siesta (Spanish word, by the way). This is one of the Italian myths we never cared to explain. If you are the owner of a store (granted you can resist the chains, the franchises, the malls and the economic crisis), let's say you have a clothing store in the city center: you open the gate at around 9 a.m. till 12.30 p.m., then you go home, you cook, eat, rest a little (I doubt you'd nap: it depends on how close your apartment and your store are) and then you come back at about 3.30 and finally close for the day approximately at 7 p.m.
That's quality of life: sacrificing the possibility of making some business for the tranquility of having a nice home-cooked meal. I know it's great to be able to buy what you need at any time and it's actually a real pain to realize it's Sunday and the only thing you can do is window shop. But, before moving to New York, that was my life: it's easy to adjust to these rhythms, especially if everybody around you comes back home and cooks and is not out there shopping or gulping a panino during lunch break.
What if your store or your office is too far away from home? Every time I meet my literary agent in Milan we eat out, so I have a first-hand experience on employees during lunch-break in one of the toughest cities in Italy (the most similar to New York when it comes to working, making money and the frenetic pace of day to day life). I loved lunch-breaks there: small restaurants everywhere offer lunch menus to attract the exigent Italian food-lover and you can actually have a civilized lunch experience without food poisoning and making it in time for the afternoon shift. (By the way, Milan is all about efficiency: in the morning a classic Milanese breakfast is espresso in a cold cup, so you can drink it faster... but that's another story, I'll get back to you on that).
So Italian siesta? No Italian lunch at home, something that we can conceive less and less in a fast-paced world where quality of life comes second to career.