Italians Get Back to Business

Nowhere does the arrival of September make me want to get a haircut and buy some new pencils like Italy.
Why? Because both of these back-to-school establishments are open, as of yesterday, after a month-long hiatus.
Although a record number of Italians have felt the economic pinch hard enough to put the squeeze on beach vacations, those stranded souls stuck in business hub Milan during the peak month of summer had to trek miles to find fresh mozzarella.
The city’s guide to stores open in August was no help — despite the neighborhood by neighborhood listings, just four stores were open in the center, according to consumer groups.
It was a bleak time. I know, I was here as it all closed down. Usually villa surfing for most of August, this time I was in town until after Ferragosto, the mid-month watershed summer holiday.
Suddenly, there was no more clatter of dishes and waiters smoking in the courtyard from the restaurant downstairs. And no more eau de fresh bread wafting over the balcony from the bakery around the corner. Both the gym and public pools shut doors, leaving only stretching classes and ballroom dancing, both for free but decidedly aimed at a geriatric crowd, in the park.
Every single one of the hip bars lining the avenue leading to the park shut down, too. Supermarkets were open regularly — but that meant no “extraordinary” Sunday openings — and I half wished they repeated the experiment using them as air-conditioned rec centers just so I’d have something to do. When the even gelato shops closed — most of them aren’t open in winter, since ice cream is “seasonal” — I knew I was in trouble.
Wandering around a city empty enough that pedestrians could cross streets without looking at traffic lights, I went in search of a kiosk serving watermelon with an Italian friend who commiserated. Somewhat.
“Sure”, she said, “sooner or later, there won’t be anymore going en masse on holiday in August, with everything closing down like this. But then you’ll have random shops closing for the month of June or two weeks in September, so it’ll be just as bad.”
“No,” I tried to explain, “The thing is, in some countries, businesses never close for summer holidays.”
“Never? Ever?” She couldn’t believe it. “Don’t the owners go on vacation? You people are crazy.”
It didn’t sink in until I explained that while it was true that in the U.S. in particular, two weeks of vacation is the norm, shops are staffed with part-timers, retirees, college students etc. So that everyone takes vacation — in turn. She looked incredulous. And to be honest, I’m not sure if, or when, it will ever happen here.
Now, the smells and sounds of the restaurant below are back. The little old lady across the way with a terrace full of hydrangeas — when I don’t see her pottering about, I always wonder if she’ll ever return — has come home, too. I got honked at this morning crossing without paying attention to the traffic light, newspapers are full of reports of “re-entry syndrome” and vacationers touching up their glamor holiday snaps.
Time to get a move on.