It is eye-opening to see how differently people view meals and mealtime in much of Europe vs. the U.S. To many people in Italy, France and elsewhere, meals are to be savored and unhurried. in the Northeast U.S., these days it seems that taking time out for meals is often considered extravagant, wasteful and even lazy.
When we first arrived in Italy, I noticed that my friends and I were always by far the quickest eaters wherever we were, in and out while everyone around us was still enjoying a less hurried meal. By the end of our trip, we had slipped into the rhythm of delightful hour and a half or longer dinners, and unrushed lunches. But that's a hard habit to maintain once back home.
In Italy, many stores close at lunchtime, and even in Florence, the shops close by dinnertime despite the hordes of tourists still filling the streets. Yes, they could probably be making more money if they stayed open; but unless you're in the food-service/hospitality industry, it's expected that you'll be having your meals during lunch and dinner, not working. Interesting and different perspective. I can't describe the look one of my friends in Slovenia gave me when I explained that during my lunch break, I take a 20-minute walk, and then go back to my desk to eat because I've pretty much used up the break time I feel I can take. He couldn't have been more appalled if I'd told him I eat my lunch in the toilet. There's a completely different viewpoint about the importance of mealtime to living a civilized life.
Is there truly a good reason why I couldn't leave later from work in exchange for taking a longer lunch break from time to time? I don't think so. Much of this is self-imposed, because we live in a culture where if you're not running around busy all the time, you fear being seen as not "hard-working" enough, not interested enough in "success." The results of all this pressure have now filtered down to kids, where many "high-achieving" high school students now don't take a break during the day, according to a story in yesterday's New York Times. "I would never put lunch before work," one junior told the Times, as she vowed to work through what will become a new mandatory lunch break. I find that sad.