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Worldly Wise

When in Rome: Roman European Cultures

By Janelle Barlow, Ph.D.

Roman Rear View MirrorThe magnificence of Rome is unparalleled. In spite of its narrow streets and massive numbers of tourists, its inhabitants rank it the best city in the world in which to live. The age of this city means that wherever you look, there is preserved art. 

Rome has been attempting to build a subway system for 25 years, but wherever construction workers dig, they encounter antiquities, and citizens are avid about protecting their history. Construction has to stop, and archeologists are always on standby to carefully unearth what has been discovered, which can take months or even years.

Beyond art and architecture, Roman culture has influenced not only Italy but also Portugal, Spain, and France (not to mention England). While Greece is widely considered the Cradle of Western Civilization, Rome is frequently called the Cradle of European Civilization.

The Roman Empire has had a deep and pervasive influence on Europe, mostly achieved through violence. In part because of its empire and church politics, Northern Europe pulled away from the influence of Southern Europe. A millennium later, the modern European Union has attempted to close this long cultural divide between Northern and Southern Europe. 

Cultures influenced by Rome have a deep love affair with food, and cuisine plays a critical role in all of these cultures. While the cuisines differ among Italy, France, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal, meals are savored in each of these countries. Business should never be discussed until the end of the meal if you are eating with professional colleagues. 

The meal, particularly in Italy, is an event that binds people together. It is eaten slowly. The Italians are known for their two-hour lunches. Conversation is light. A good Italian friend of mine was with his family; and after a big dinner and lots of laughter, he leaned back in his chair to smoke a cigar. Surrounded by loving family and friends, he fell over, suffering cardiac arrest. While everyone was shocked, there was general agreement that there was no better way to go. 

Food is not an area on which to scrimp on money. If others offer to pay, let them do it and accept it for the honor it represents. You can repay your hosts at a later point. Invitations to homes are rare and are considered a special opportunity to deepen a relationship. Be sure to bring a small gift. Such gifts are normally opened immediately.

Observe your hosts and copy their table manners. You’ll note that in Southern Europe everything except for bread is eaten with utensils, almost never with hands. Italy has no New York hand-eating pizza custom. Hands are used for talking. Italians, in particular, often appear to be conducting an orchestra when talking. They are seemingly unable to communicate, even on the telephone, without using their hands—though the other person obviously cannot see all of the gestures. 

Learn a few Italian phrases. Italians don’t mind it if you mangle the pronunciation. They’ll be honored. People really do take time to enjoy their lives and each other. Remember that family is important in all Latin countries. Ask about them. Shake hands when meeting someone and when saying goodbye. It’s the way it is done. Communication is typically indirect and normally quite polite. 

While most of the Italian population considers itself to be Catholic, it is a loose type of Catholicism. As the Italians say, they are born in the church, get married in the church, and are buried in the church. Beyond that, in spite of the heavy presence of the Vatican in the center of Rome, the Italians are mostly secular. 

Art, in part influenced by 3,000 years of history and architecture in the region, is vibrant. It’s hard to escape a modern history as long as that enjoyed by the Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. Design and fashion are everywhere. When you are in these countries, pay attention to how you dress. You can dress casually, but make sure you are wearing clothing that is currently in style. Otherwise, you’ll stand out. Make sure your shoes are shined and your clothing is pressed. 

If you are able to explore these countries while visiting them, be sure to build in extra time. Italy itself has so many distinct geographical regions; the differences between the north and south are striking. The Italians themselves are more relaxed in the south as compared to the more industrial north. Witness their short workweeks compared to the lengthy amount of time Americans put in at their jobs. Talk with friends and colleagues who have been to Italy, Spain, France, or Portugal. Chances are everyone has their favorite place. These are not countries where you can try to see everything in three or four days. Go to one place and get to know it. Venice itself is easily worth several days walking the sidewalks along its magnificent canals. 

Italy is a part of the world where the past is revered, and any visitor is advised to respect this. A good friend of mine once described Roman culture as a driver in a car looking out an enormous rearview mirror. The windshield is tiny. She saw the United States as a car with a tiny rearview mirror but with an enormous front windshield. Keep this metaphor in mind when dealing with people from this region of the world. When you visit and explore these countries, you’ll see why they revere their history. It influences everything they do, how they communicate, how they enjoy life, and how they evaluate you.