There's been a lot written about happiness lately. I've got a surefire way to achieve it: go to the Amalfi Coast. It's not just the gorgeous vistas of terraced cliffs tumbling to a turquoise sea, or the little pastel villages climbing up from the waterfront, or the pasta alle vongole and limoncello. It's the people who live there, whose warmth has long been heralded, that make it such a happy place.
I had two experiences last summer that really drove the point home, and made me curious about what makes everyone in the region so invariably kind and generous and, well, happy.
First happy experience: I arrived in Portofino to do some shopping and have lunch and realized as soon as I tried to make my first purchase that I had left my wallet and credit cards back in the safe in my hotel room. No worries, said Giuseppe, the owner of the Ceramica Assunta. He would lend me 100 Euros ($131.00 US) so that I could buy a hand-painted pasta spoon from his shop and have a nice lunch. I could pay him back the next time I was in town. Giuseppe had no idea who I was or where I was staying or how long I planned to be in the area. When I expressed my surprise and thanks at his offer, he responded with the cliché "there is more to life than money." Except for Giuseppe, it wasn't a cliche, it was a way of life. So I took 50 Euros, had a lovely lunch on the beach, and returned the next day to buy my spoon and repay his kindness.
Second: I arrived at my hotel, the Monastero Santa Rosa in Conca dei Marni, just outside the town of Amalfi, having schlepped my bags on and off trains and taxis from Florence. My neck and shoulders were killing me, so I booked a 50-minute massage in the hotel's spa. I told Maria, my masseuse, to concentrate on nothing but soothing my aching areas. She stroked away, I winced and whimpered. When she was done, and I thanked her and told her I felt better, she patted and kissed me on the head. An action so innocent, so motherly, so caring, I was touched to the point of tears. I got up and looked at the clock: she had spent 80 minutes, no extra charge, just because she truly wanted me to feel better.
And so days later, sitting at Andrea Pansa, the café run by the 5th generation of Pansas in the center of the town of Amalfi, I gave it all some thought. I'm certain the residents of the area experience the same stresses as we all do over jobs, money, family, health, etc. But why, do they seem to handle it more successfully. Why, in short, are they happy?
1. Natural beauty. As I was being led to my room at the Monastero Santa Rosa, a former convent perched high in the hills with a sweeping view of the Gulf of Salerno, I was detoured onto a terrace to see the view. I'd been in the area before, I knew what to expect, but the vista was so breathtaking I was rendered literally speechless, mid-sentence, and couldn't continue because of the lump in my throat from the sheer beauty.
2. Color. The turquoise of the sea, the green of the vineyards, the sun-baked umber of the walls, the terra cotta of the roof tiles, the splashes of fuchsia and bougainvillea, the cobalt of the sky, and hundreds of days a year of sunshine.
3. Food. We know how healthy a Mediterranean diet is with its olive oil, fish, fruits, veggies and red wine. No one needs to be told how tasty it is too. Meals are an occasion, meant for enjoyment, conversation, and a glass of wine. A break for coffee and a pastry in the afternoon is a way of life--one pastry, not a whole box of Oreo cookies or bag of Cheetos.
4. Smells. The scent of a lemon grove, of rosemary in the pot, of olive oil soap, fried fish, sage leaves, a tomato warmed by the sun, a whiff of seabreeze. The waiters at the Monastero Santa Rosa call the cheese trolley the "Chanel trolley" because it is so fragrant.
5. Slowing Down. It must have been an hour and I was still sitting, reflecting, at a table on the piazza at Andrea Panza. And there were customers there longer than me, and no one was rushed. Who wouldn't be happy with a 4-hour lunch and nap every day?
6. Community. In these small towns you know your neighbors and your neighbors know you. Which is both good and bad, in my book, but certainly lends a sense of safety and security and helps monitor bad behavior. It also provides a sense of belonging, like the cluster of octogenarians at the café, regulars who I imagine meet here every morning to start their day.
7. Attention to detail. At the café, there is a red rose in a crystal vase and white embroidered clothes on every table. At the Monastero Santa Rosa, breakfast is served on specially made faience plates painted with a yellow sun and the words Buon Giorno.
8. Acceptance of bodies. There is a line of restaurants bordering the beach in Positano, so as you sit and dine you see all sorts of bodies in bathing suits walking by. No one seems surgically tucked or enhanced. There are all sorts of bulges and dimples on display, and no one seems the least bit shy or uncomfortable. Because that's what real bodies look like.
9. Acceptance of aging. The bathers, above, spanned all age groups. A typical scene: grandma in a bikini holds the baby while mama brushes the sand off the bottoms of the toddlers and grandpa in his Speedo pushes the stroller. No one rushes to pop on a coverup or hold a beach bag in front of jiggly thighs. This is real life.
10. Pride in one's work. At the Monastero Santa Rosa, I tell Daniel, the sommelier, that I want to try local wines and he is so pleased he brings me samples to sip and presents me at the end of the meal with a detailed list of wines consumed. And Andrea Pansa keeps circulating the tables of the café, as his father and grandfather and great- and great-great-grandfathers did before him, wanting to be sure everyone was taken care of, that everyone was happy.
I couldn't begin to analyze the impact Catholicism, homogeneity, nuclear families, months of sanctioned vacation time, the heritage of Michelangelo and Dante, and a lifetime of gelato has on it all. But I hope I get to spend more time there trying to figure it out, experiencing, reflecting, and being blissfully, contentedly happy...