One of the most noticeable features of university life today is the obsessive attention to student well-being. I don’t think a day has passed in the last two years when I haven’t received an email from the university with tips or links to resources for “welfare,” “self-care,” or “mental health.” It’s enough to make me wonder if I’m enrolled in an institute of higher learning or some other kind of institution.
When I was at university the first time around in the 1990s, student welfare consisted of a designated person in each residence whose chief responsibility was to take freshmen across the street to emergency when they needed their stomachs pumped. I assume the university checked that we were still enrolled each term, but if so that was the limit of their interest in our existence, let alone our well-being.
I’m not saying the old way was better, but neither can I say that the new way produces a noticeably calmer and better-adjusted class of student. If the adultlings today are more anxious than any generation before them—including the two generations that fought world wars in their teens and early twenties—it’s not for lack of administrative attention.1Of course, the reason young people are simmering stock pots of stress is obvious to anyone has followed the changes to our society over the last two generations: the loss of childhood independence; helicopter parenting; institutionalised health and safetyism; technological dependence; predatory social media design; and a therapeutic industry that profits off neurosis. Alas, you’d have to be prepared to be treated like a dissident to point this out, let alone do anything about it. But that’s a whole other column.
The latest student welfare wheeze is alpacas. A couple of weeks ago, the university brought a small herd of “wellbeing alpacas” into Radcliffe Square for … well, honestly, I couldn’t tell you what it was for, but there were alpacas and it had something to do with mental health. Whatever the idea was, it backfired, as the camelids created a new distraction for the students studying in the library next door.
Fortunately, there is a better way. Over the last twenty years, I’ve developed a simple “self-care” routine that is cheap, reliable, and 100 percent alpaca-free: Friday pizza night. Almost every Friday, wherever I’ve been in the world and whatever else is going on in my life, I’ve set aside Friday night for pizza. Over time the ritual has evolved, but the essentials have remained the same: Neapolitan-style pizza, at a bar, with red wine and a detective or spy novel, in silence. That’s it. That’s the secret to long-term mental health.
Pizza night started when I was working as a lawyer in Washington DC, when by Friday evening, I would find myself too mentally exhausted to do anything but eat, drink, and read. So that’s what I did. Even if I had more work to do over the weekend, Friday pizza night gave me something to look forward to all week. I used to say that pizza night may be on Friday, but it’s really for Wednesday in one of those weeks that seems to be dragging on forever. Pizza night turns an interminable Wednesday into just two more nights ’til pizza night.
Each component of the pizza night ritual is important. I may be in Chicago, New York, New Haven, or Rome, each of which has its own distinct style of pizza, but pizza night is for Neapolitan-style pizza, the more genuine the better. I’ll enjoy the local variety another day.2Which, let’s be clear, is not really pizza. The bar might be full and tables may be available, but I’ll wait for the bar, however long it takes. Sitting alone at a table is fine for some occasions, but reading at a bar strikes the right balance between sociability and seclusion for pizza night.
The reason for the wine should be obvious. It should be good, but not too good. Pizza night is not the time to explore the dusty end of the cellar. Something a bit rustic, nothing mass-produced. The choice of book is important. The goal is a brief mental holiday, so I’ve settled on spy and detective novels that take me to a different time and place. Le Carré and Deighton, of course, and Philip Kerr, Joseph Kanon, David Downing, and Alan Furst. For a lighter escape, Ian Fleming, Andrea Camilleri, and Donna Leon.
Finally, the silence. Pizza night is a solitary activity; it is a few hours alone with two of the great physical comforts in life—good pizza and red wine—lost in 1970s Berlin or 1930s Paris. Pizza night is unapologetically selfish. I’ve excused myself from occasions with bosses, friends, girlfriends, several premiers, a prime minister, and Supreme Court justices of two countries to sit alone at a bar with my pizza, wine, and book. We give so much of our lives to others, it’s not too much to ask for one night to ourselves.
There are exceptions, of course. Major family holidays take precedence, obviously, as do (most) weddings and similar obligations. On some work trips there may not be time between poorly-scheduled meetings to get away even for an hour (though this is rare). As a rule, I refuse Friday invitations or make it clear that I will have to leave early. I’ve found that generally there’s no need to explain. A simple “I’m sorry, Friday’s pizza night” suffices, even if it’s met by a queer glance or, from those who know, an eyeroll.
Every civilisation since the Sumerians has known that humans need ritual, but our irreligious age has no time for them. Weeks and months now run together in a blur of overlapping memories with only Christmas and birthdays to mark the passage of time. To stay grounded, I try always to have something planned to look forward to: a holiday at least once a year; a short getaway each month; and, every week, pizza night. Pizza night is a secular sacrament that orders time and locates me within it. It reassures and comforts by imposing rhythmic familiarity onto a world of kaleidoscopic disorder. And who couldn’t use that?
Eight of my favourite pizza night locations,3The usual caveat applies: because the worst people in the world are those who reveal hidden gems, I have omitted some of my favourite regular places. based on pizza quality, wine selection, and atmosphere. Only one is perfect, but all are excellent.
La Notizia, Naples
50 Kalò, Naples
Da Zero, Milan
2Amys, Washington DC
Norman Hardie, Prince Edward County
Via Tevere, Vancouver
Standard Serious Pizza, Berlin