There are many cultural differences between the U.S. and Italy. We lived in Italy for five years. One notable difference is the importance of relationships in Italy and how they are conducted. I call it the “fast coffee/slow food” connection. Most people realize that in the U.S. we have developed a “slow coffee/fast food” culture. Over the past 50 years Americans have moved towards a fragmented family and a dietary nightmare called “fast food”. Meals are taken as quickly as possible or only for strategic purposes. Thus why families rarely eat together and the invention of the “power lunch.” But over the past 10 years and the advent of Starbucks we have also begun to develop a “slow coffee” culture. The coffee shop mentality has returned in the U.S. This is often where we catch up with people, even our children at times. The follow up to the power lunch has become the “power coffee” appointment. Yet I have to admit that Starbucks can be quite loud and distracting. While I really enjoy their coffee, the very environment can threaten my ability to really connect at a deeper level.
In Italy they do the opposite. There are caffe bars on almost every corner. They are small, often with only a counter bar. You enter, you order your espresso or cappuccino, you pay, and you leave. The whole experience may take less than five minutes. Ah, but meals, that is a very different story. There is “riposo.” This is a pause from work for a two to three hour lunch. And the evening meal often lasts two to three hours also. Italians take their food and their meals very seriously. Meals are done in a very particular order for dietary purposes. Every region has its own specialties that are not to be missed.
But more than that, life is done around the table.
Relationships are nurtured around the table.
The largest room in our 800 year old home was the dining room.
You take acquaintances and colleagues to coffee.
You have meals with your true friends and family.
The home and the dinner table are sacred.
We noticed that doing ministry in Italy requires trust and time. Italy can be a suspicious, non trusting culture, and for some historically good reasons. But we have also noticed that the walls drop and trust is built in the home around the dining room table. Conversations go much deeper and spiritual truth is better received around the table. While Italians are certainly known for loud, boisterous conversations, there is an inescapable focus that takes place. There is one conversation, even if five people are having it at the same time. We rarely conducted ministry events during those days without food and a home setting.
I know a lot of ministry happens in Starbucks these days in the U.S. But I wonder how much of it is truly effective in terms of building a relationship of trust. I think I like the “fast coffee/slow food” environment of Italy better. For one, the food is amazing, but so are the opportunities to take time to demonstrate the love of Christ.
Invest in someone over a long, slow meal!