Hi friends / but actually just my family: I hope you are all very well. I am about to embark on a very exciting project that is centered around a very exciting pastime: sitting. Not convinced sitting is so great? Check out my most recent musings on sitting, and why it is worth your thought, consideration, love, and butt.
Sitting is sacred. Sitting is beautiful. Sitting is so simple, so seemingly obvious that we fail to appreciate or even recognize it on a day-to-day basis. In America, we associate sitting with waste, laziness, and poor health. Businesspeople invest in stand-up desks, or worse, treadmill desks. Health scientists publish studies on the ill effects of too much sitting. Michelle Obama and other very bright, well-intentioned public figures encourage us to move, upright and often. This is very reasonable; Americans sit too much. The fundamental problem, though, isn’t the act of sitting; it’s that we aren’t sitting properly.
Having traveled through Italy, from Bergamo to Palermo, I’ve found that my most treasured memories transpired as I sat: eating a luscious bowl of spaghetti alle vongole, discussing Berlusconi with an old man on a bench, sipping aperitivos perfectly alone in a café for hours. When we gather to sit together, we enter a special realm where sharing is the ruling principle. Seated, we share meals, memories, stories, beers, secrets, and cheese, really all of the best things. But when we sit alone, we experience something equally magical — the ability to deeply observe the beauty and complexity of our surroundings.
Italians know how to sit.
The literal translation of Dolce fare niente is “sweet doing nothing.” The phrase reads awkwardly in English, in part because we can be pretty squeamish about “doing nothing.” And when we are doing nothing — stalking ourselves on Instagram, toiling at the gym, deciding on the appropriate emoji for a particular text — we are numb. At best, we’re vaguely interested. At worst, we’re lonely, alienated by our screens, made anxious by our inability to set aside daily space to sit and inhale and experience peace, with others or alone.
Peace, however, is not always silent. There is a loud peace, a sort of hectic order to the narrow streets of Naples, for example, where old men and women sit for the vast majority of the day. It was sitting on benches and stoops in the piazzas of Naples when I first truly understood the meaning of the sacred tradition of dolce fare niente. I couldn’t have arrived at this understanding alone. Italy’s elders enlightened me: It was how they sat.
Parked on stoops or plastic chairs outside their homes, dolling out ‘ciaos’ to people passing by, the old people of Naples unequivocally run the streets. Typically, they assemble in packs. Visit any piazza in the Campania region and you’ll find clusters of them, on benches or stairs, playing cards and gossiping with the same friend groups they’ve had since grade school. These older folks, men and women, offered me an invaluable (and unsolicited) sitting education.
One afternoon, as I lugged groceries up the narrow street to my apartment, I noticed I had a spectator: a short, fleshy old woman named Maria, sitting outside her home on a pink beach chair.
Now I’d grown accustomed to being watched, particularly by people over 60, ever since I’d moved to Naples. From balconies, windows, and motorcycles, my retired neighbors would both watch and openly discuss me. Once, an old man in a pinstripe suit approached me at the bar. “I saw you buying groceries yesterday. Gatorade and cookies and chips. Why?”
This particular old woman, Maria, looked kind; her inspection of me was not malicious, but gentle, almost thoughtful. I sat down on the chair next to hers.
In a matter of minutes, she became an old friend. Maria was an eighty-three-year-old, born-and-raised napolitana, currently living with her youngest (and unmarried) grandson, Antonio, a wild-eyed, perpetually shirtless man in his early forties, who ran outside to offer me a beer the moment I sat down. I sipped my Peroni as Maria told me about her eight children, reminding me, again, that Antonio was not married. She’d periodically interrupt her anecdotes to grab my hand and insist I drink faster. “With this sun, the beer will get hot.”
The beer was still cold, and Antonio, still shirtless, clutched his stomach and stuck his head outside. “Quick, quick!”
The faux urgency rolled over me, as intended, and I sat with Maria, for hours. And Maria would continue sitting for hours after I left. All the while, there was noise. Screaming and vrooming and meowing and sizzling and taunting and singing. If you sit for long enough, the noise seeps in through your pores and becomes you. Your insides are Naples, and Naples’ insides are you.
Though reluctant to exaggerate, I’m very comfortable with the following declaration: there is no silence in Naples. Not in churches, not in alleys, and especially not at six in the morning, when garbage trucks make their rounds and dogs settle their scores. The first night I attempted sleep in my apartment, an array of noises wafted through my window: shrieking cats, shrieking vespas, a pack of middle-aged men singing “Summer of 69,” a family washing dishes, and at least four distinct heated arguments, all concerning food.
I stepped onto my tiny balcony, resisting the urge to scream “BASTA!” and throw clothespins at the sound offenders. Instead, I made an important decision: I chose to sit. Just as I had with my old friend Maria earlier in the day.
The streets are so narrow in the quartieri spagnoli that from my balcony, I could see into six different homes spanning three floors. Due of the ruthless Neapolitan heat, residents keep their windows and balconies open, so not only can you see other people’s business, you hear and smell it, too. (And on unlucky days, you step in it.)
You will find no notions of outside or inside. Here, the concept of privacy falls somewhere on the spectrum between nonexistent and joke. Napolitani bring their living rooms to the streets. They assemble tables and chairs outside of their homes, where they’ll sit amidst swarms of swerving Vespas and agitated children. When you walk through the cobblestone streets, you weave in and out of dogs, babies, chairs, motorcycles. When you sit in the cobblestone streets, you both see and are everything. Clothespins will fall on your head, from high, high above you. Strangers will offer you sfogliatelle. A dog will eat the sfogliatelle out of your hand.
I sat with Maria the next day, and then the next, and for weeks after that. I explored the city through stoops, lawn chairs, benches; I made my friends, and I sat with them, for hours, because the day is hot and long, and I had nowhere to be but everywhere.