I was raised in Rome, and until the age of 23 it was the only Italian city I had ever lived in. When I got into a postgraduate program in Padova (which is in the Italian region of Veneto), my father took me aside to give me the benefit of his worldly experience.
“There are two things you need to know about the Veneti”, he said to me. “They are very religious, and they are very clean”.
To the average listener, this sounds like a gross generalization, and we all know that we shouldn’t generalize when talking about groups of people. However, this was not meant as an accusation, or something to laugh at the Veneti about, or judge them in any way. It was a statement of fact that my father told me in order to give me a heads up about the two main cultural differences between Rome and Veneto. It turned out to be excellent advice.
It might surprise many of you to know that, despite the location of the Vatican, the Romans are a very secular people. I would argue that this is partially because of the location of the Vatican, as we see how the sausages are made more often than most, but that’s besides the point of this story. What is the point is that, to this day, I have never met a person from Rome or its surroundings who regularly goes to church. A couple might go on Easter and Christmas, most only go for weddings and funerals, and some never go at all. This gave me the cultural context that, when you meet a new person, you automatically assume that they are either non-believers or at least not practicing, unless they specify otherwise.
In Veneto, on the other hand, you should assume the person is religious, unless they specify otherwise. This is an important thing to know, in order to avoid saying something in passing that might seriously offend that other person unnecessarily. This held true even in the context of the Department of Biology, where for the very first time in my life I met a person who went to Mass every single day (consider, I had no idea Mass even existed every day before I met her). I was happy that I didn’t insult the Pope or blaspheme in front of her before finding that out. I had to work with her after all, and there was no need to antagonize her. She knew I was an atheist and we had friendly little chats about it every so often, and I’m glad I wasn’t a dick to someone, without meaning to, before we could establish a cordial work relationship.
Of course, this does not mean that every single person in Veneto is religious. In the same region I also met someone who had gotten himself unbaptized, another thing I didn’t know existed until that time. The warning my father gave me was not intended to paint all Veneti with the same brush, but rather to impress upon my that it is not culturally acceptable to make anti-religious statements, in an off handed way to people you don’t know, in Veneto the way it is in Rome.
This held true also for cleanliness. There is a certain level of cleanliness that is culturally acceptable when inviting people over to your apartment, for instance. If you invite people over and there are dirty underwear strewn all over the couch, that’s insulting. However, how clean you apartment has to be in order for you to not insult your guests will vary between cultures. I knew this already from having lived in Ireland. In Veneto, this standard is much higher than it is in Rome. It was great, in my first year there, when I would clean and clean and clean, only to invite someone over and they would look around, smile, and say “Isn’t it great that we have the kind of friendship that you don’t need to clean up for me?” And I would die a little inside.
Many times, generalizations are no more than racist stereotypes. Sometimes, however, they are used to indicate important cultural differences that are always good to keep in mind. Being aware of these little things is what really permits you to integrate into a new place. That doesn’t mean that you change who you are, I did not pretend to be religious or anything like that in order to fit in, but I was polite to people I didn’t know, and my father’s advice helped me to be so.