Turning vegan in a small town populated by meat-lovers
What is it like to become vegan in a small Italian town, where there aren’t many other vegans?
By Mattia Chiaravalloti
Let me tell you a horror story. A story about a troubled kid who, eight years ago, decided to turn vegan in a small Italian town populated by meat-lovers.
You’d better be.
That troubled kid, surprise, surprise, was me.
It happened when I was 18 years old, back in 2012, when veganism wasn’t that popular around the world, let alone in an unknown Italian town near Venice where people would happily replace the Sacred Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) with Lasagna Carbonara and Beef Braciole.
I was wolfing down a roasted rabbit when something clicked in me. This thing was not long ago prancing around on the grass, and now, his corpse rested on a deathbed of peas and potatoes, on my plate. It didn’t feel right. Not anymore.
When I announced my decision, everyone thought it was a joke. When they understood it wasn’t a joke, they thought I was crazy.
The word that comes into my mind when I think about those first months, or years, of breakthrough is alienation.
Now, I don’t want to make this sound too tragic. I wasn’t locked in the school’s toilet, shoved and spat on, no one threw dead rabbits in my garden. No, none of that. I didn’t become a weirdo or an outcast.
But when your closest friends ridicule a heart-felt life-changing choice of yours such as this, you can’t help but feel distant, alone.
I’m sure you can relate to this.
I’m talking about the people you’ve known since primary school, the ones you’ve played football with since you were a little brat, the ones who shared your first hangovers, the companions of all-nighters to study for hopeless math’s exams (which you would fail anyway).
When these people don’t understand you or, even worse, don’t want to understand you, you can’t help but feel isolated.
And then, of course, at times I had to isolate myself. No more Christmas roast, no more Easter lamb and no more New Year’s Eve cotechino. No more Sundays’ barbecues either, save for a few where I brought my own vegan burgers with me.
When you are the only one who doesn’t eat meat at a table, you feel even more alone than you would feel if you were alone at that table.
I’m sure you know the feeling. It’s you and your pale soya burger around a pack of people wolfing down fatty ribs and greasy sausages.
So Many Brilliant Jokes
And of course, the feeling of isolation is amplified by the storm of brilliant jokes I had to endure.
People shoving sausages at my face, moaning in pleasure while they savage that steak.
Do you guys remember what Tyrion Lannister said in one episode of Game of Thrones? “Everyone who makes a joke about a dwarf’s height thinks he’s the only person ever to make a joke about a dwarf’s height.”
Well, apply that on vegan jokes and multiply it by a thousand.
And if it’s not jokes I had to bear, it’s the immutable list of arguments I had to debate, over and over again.
“But bro, eating other animals is only normal, look at lions mauling gazelles in the African savanna. It’s the natural cycle!”
“But babe, you know meat consumption will never stop, your effort is useless, you might as well eat a chicken nugget here and there!”
“But darling, plants are alive, too, they can feel! So, you shouldn’t eat them either if you were coherent!”
“But mate, where do you get your protein? You know plant proteins are not enough? You’re gonna die!”
As I said, an underlying feeling of isolation.
When you become vegan in such a traditional environment, you partially give up the cultural bond that connects you to the people around you. It’s inevitable.
Small Town Life vs City Life
Now, I know what you are thinking. To some extent, every vegan on Planet Earth goes through this drama. Nothing special about it, right?
Correct. Yet again… There is a substantial difference.
When you become vegan in a big town or a city, you have the opportunity to expand your circle of friends and meet like-minded people who share your beliefs and lifestyle.
See, for me, that was not an option at all, as the circle of vegans in my town was pretty tight, so tight that I could barely fit in.
Then I had a choice to make. Either I did something about the whole situation, or I turned into a hardcore loner watching anime alone all day and reminiscing more sociable times…
As anime have never been my thing (except for Attack On Titan, that’s pretty sick), I chose the former.
Putting Things Into Perspective
What did I do?
Well, I ‘gave up’ veganism.
Hey, hey, hold on one second … Calm your udders and let me explain.
I didn’t resume eating meat. No, not at all. I had already broken up with gnocchi al ragù and I had no intention to give our relationship another try. It was over.
What I meant was, I gave up my ‘vegan’ identity. Or to put it differently, I stopped clinging so hard on my beliefs.
I took a breath, stepped back and put things into perspective.
And that was downright hard, trust me.
Because we identify so much with our beliefs that they become our second skin. We go around with these shiny labels hanging from our neck: “I AM CHRISTIAN!” “I AM AN ATHEIST!” “I AM A FEMINIST” “I AM A TORY!” “I AM A VEGAN!”
But we are none of that. Not only, at least.
‘Vegan, Football Fan, Student’
In my case, yes, I was vegan (or vegetarian at the time), but I was also many other things. I was a football fan, a snowboarder, a student, a book reader, a gamer.
No matter how dear to me, veganism didn’t need to engulf my whole persona.
I needed to look for things that connected me with my people instead of focusing on the only point of disconnection. I needed to see the glass half-full, you know?
As I said, however, this wasn’t a piece of cake.
It was a long process of internal growth. Many baby steps up a steep staircase. Many missteps and headbangs.
But, on top of it, there was a precious prize to be seized. Which was: learning to love people despite not loving their life-choices.
Everyone Has A Journey
People go through different phases at their own pace for their own reasons. Everyone has a journey in life. No point in trying to derail them from their tracks against their will.
It wasn’t my job to knock on my townspeople’s doors holding The Vegan Bible and a Rosary made of chickpeas and preach at their doorstep trying to convert them.
Why? Because it’s not that they don’t understand, it’s more that they don’t want to understand.
“Who has an ear, let him hear AND who has not an ear, it’s their own damn business” … That’s what Jesus said, right?
Now, I’m not saying that activism is not important. It’s damn vital. But when you start brewing frustration, anger and hatred … Nah, not worth it. In fact, it’s counterproductive.
“So babe, how about your proteins and the natural cycle and our precious culture and the feelings of plants?”
How about all that?
Well, I began to explain my reasons without getting emotionally involved. Calm, detached. More like an Oxford civil engineering professor than Nigel Farage in a campaign rally.
And of course, I learned how to laugh stupid jokes off. No point in being touchy. A smile is the best defense at times. The less you react, the less they come at you. They get tired.
I was cool with it, like Tyrion.
Well, maybe not that cool, but you get the point.
So, this was my story. The tragic story of a vegetarian kid then vegan who survived in a haunted town populated by meat-loving ‘demons’.
In fact, not only he survived, but he also matured mentally and spiritually, learning how to be different without being alone.
It wasn’t that much of a horror story, after all, was it?
Words by Mattia Chiaravalloti