I planned to write this month’s blog on an entirely different topic but I felt compelled to write about the power of food, conversation and connection after a recent trip to Italy. I had the good fortune to spend a week travelling in southern Italy with my son. This was not a traditional sightseeing trip but rather a chance to spend the week unwinding and enjoying the local culture and its culinary delights. We happened to travel during a holiday week in Italy so many locals were off from work and enjoying time with family and friends
After breakfast each day, we’d take a long, leisurely walk through town. By mid-morning, the local cafes were filled with people sipping cappuccino and engaging in conversation. We might pass by the same café an hour or two later and it seemed that barely anyone had moved (or stopped talking!) except to have another cappuccino or pastry.
Dinner was a time to linger over multicourse meals and to share thoughts, laughs and, of course, delicious food. No one hurried from the table, and I noticed far fewer phones out as people appeared to be more connected to their dining companions and to the present moment.
These experiences reminded me of my childhood in a large, extended Italian American family. Although I am an only child, I grew up surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins, as my mother and three of her siblings lived within ten minutes of each other. At least once a week, all (or almost all) of us would be at someone’s house for dinner or perhaps “coffee and cake” – evenings full of laughter, love, and connection. Holiday meals were marathons, lasting the better part of the day and extending well into the night. The food was, of course, the focal point, but it is the emotional experience of those family get-togethers that I remember most.
I’ve been reading so much these days about the increase in feelings of isolation reported by many Americans, and the consequences of this isolation on our mental health. In a recent article, the New York Times noted that since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they are lonely has doubled from 20 to 40%. A number of studies have found that the effects of social isolation are numerous and often severe. There is a large body of research that has highlighted the link between social isolation and poor health, including depression, inflammation and cardiovascular disease. Social isolation has also been shown to decrease life expectancy.
Sadly, in this age of widespread social media use and ever increasing numbers of online connections, we appear to be lacking in meaningful in person connections that are so critical to our physical and mental wellbeing.
What to do? Consider making some time to have dinner or coffee and a “chiacchierata” (chat in Italian) with a family member or friend. Put the phones away and engage with the person in front of you. Make time for a real family dinner. They develop meaningful connections that offer significant protective factors for children and teens. If you are unable to see a loved one in person, try a phone call or Skype session instead of texting. Perhaps you can visit an older neighbor who lives alone. In this harried American world in which we live, we have to be intentional about slowing down and creating connection. As for me, it seems like a good time to grab a friend and a cappuccino and have a few laughs!