Friday, September 10, 2010

Italian hours

When traveling through Italy, you can’t help noticing how the south operates by a different time zone than the north of the country. In my part of Puglia, you never go out to dine before nine pm, and families with grandmothers and small children are still dropping in for their evening meal at half past ten in the evening. Appetite comes slowly in a warm climate. In consequence, we are always running late for dinners in northern Italy, where all tables are full at eight o’clock and where some restaurant kitchens stop serving after ten.

Now time - to me at least - was part of the order of things, and therefore above questioning, until I happened to read the introduction to Henry James’ Italian hours. Here Professor John Auchard interprets the title in a historical context, quoting guidebooks from the early 19th century for saying that the “manner of reckoning time in some parts of Italy is peculiar to themselves." Apparently, time in Italy was considered a local phenomenon, varying approximately four minutes for every degree of longitude, so that noon arrived at different moments in Florence, Milan and Rome. This should explain why trains, for instance, operated on different schedules in different towns, and why they sometimes happened to depart earlier than announced!

Synchronization improved with the unification of Italy in 1870, but it took years before standard Greenwich mean time, proposed in 1884, was widely adopted. And perhaps the local protests against time tyranny and regimentation are still manifest at dinner time.

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