Julia Meigs often accompanies her husband James to medical conventions, and a couple of years ago they traveled as far as Mantua, Italy. In the introduction to a collection of letters she wrote home during her family's subsequent sabbatical year in Verona, she describes her first taste of dining the Italian way: “We had enjoyed three different wines matching the three exquisite preceding courses at a seated dinner for 70 people. And now the fourth course was arriving, the roasted boar, a huge caramelized confection resting on a pallet garlanded with a rosemary runner interwoven with figs and kumquats — a far cry from the one-course American banquet meal featuring chicken with mystery sauce.”
No doubt about it, meals are a distinguishing factor between European and American conferences — not just the food itself, but the purpose of mealtimes, defined along a spectrum that includes nourishing the body and nourishing relationships. Food in Europe is a conduit to social relations, never nourishment for its own sake, and social relations are the basis for doing business. Would the idea of a sabbatical year in Italy instead of England have materialized over an e-mail exchange while dropping sandwich crumbs onto a laptop computer? Not a chance. A relationship first had to be formed over a roasted boar. That done, Meigs' husband's Italian colleague simply shook out his linen napkin and asked: “Why don't you spend the year here in Italy? I'm sure we could find a place for you at our hospital in Verona.” And he did.
A culture discloses its secrets in many ways and in many places — the table is but one. Vincenzo Bacci, MD, an internist and endocrinologist at a hospital in Rome, did postgraduate training in the United States and regularly returns for medical conferences. Mealtime, he agrees, is different. “In Italy we talk about other things than just work over a meal.” At an American conference, he was once served lunch during a presentation. While he struggled to cut his meat with plastic cutlery, watch slides, and listen, all at the same time, he thought, “This would never happen in Italy.”
Formality, though, is the biggest difference for him. Americans are simultaneously more and less formal than Europeans. On one hand, he says, this year he will attend a meeting at an American university during which fellowships will be awarded, amid fanfare and ceremony, with participants decked out in robes — “much more formal than we do in Italy.” On the other hand, he once attended a prestigious conference in which a very important speaker arrived at the podium in sweat pants and sneakers, drenched and panting from his daily jog. “That,” he said, “would also never happen in Italy.” In general, Italians are more formal about dress and behavior in social occasions, and they don't feel as comfortable including humorous stories in presentations for that reason.
Another difference Bacci has noticed is an increase in the number of presentations and meetings packed into a day. He recently attended a U.S. conference with a schedule that ran from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. In Italy, there is time for the equally important goal of developing relationships with colleagues. That may, in the end, be more important than the presentations themselves. Thus social programs are always included, such as visits to local historical sites and cultural events. “We also tend to be a bit more relaxed with timing and scheduling — keeping to a preset schedule in not always the top priority.”
Especially when the roasted boar arrives.
Elizabeth Abbot Segnalini has lived in Rome for more than 20 years. She has worked in international and educational institutions, most recently in the field of cultural exchange. She is writing a book on intercultural matters.