I Studied Abroad in Italy to Get Back at My Boyfriend, Part 2: Culture (Men) Shock

Italy schoolOur Italian professors warned us that Italian men were not a threat, but that they were after us only for sport. “It’s just a national sport in Italy! It doesn’t mean anything!” they said. They encouraged us girls to ignore them. I took their advice at first, when I was a timid country girl. But after a couple of months, I had had enough. I could yell “Va Via!” while literally shoving them away. When my boyfriend (Future Mr. Okayest) picked me up at the airport after a summer in Italy, he said he actually did not recognize me. He later said that he noticed me and appreciated me, but kept on looking for me. I had a don’t-mess-with-me attitude on like a suit. And I was confident.

Italy statueI’m not so sure that those professors should have encouraged 19 to 21-year-old girls to ignore the “innocent” appreciations of Italian men. Yes, I understand that appreciating women is a national sport in that country. Yes, I understand that they were trying to explain that most men were simply noting beauty, as if we were delicate little flowers or a fine glass of wine. However, some of the men were actually threatening me (and my delicate flower). Many of the men touched me. Granted, I had never lived in any city before, so maybe all women who live in cities have to learn to deal with the attention. But I have a feeling that Italy is in a class by itself.

When I say “many of the men touched me”, I realize, after rereading my Italy journals, that that is an understatement. Truthfully, I was groped several times each day and catcalled constantly.

I identified so much with this photo, I took it home, framed it, and gave it a permanent home on the wall.

I identified so much with this photo, I bought it and it now hangs in my house.

The men who were treating me like a delicate little flower or fine wine would try to stroke my hair or my hand and said things like:

  • “American, si? Hollywood, si?”
  • “You-a, me-a, si? Una, due, yes?”
  • “Bellisima!”*

The men who were treating me like a ball in some sort of “national sport” tried things like:

  • Walking in front of me and stopping short so I would bump into them
  • Walking behind me and “bumping” into me
  • Grabbing my bum on a crowded bus
  • Trying to, um, poke me with an umbrella

Strangely, I didn’t feel like a victim, as I would have expected. I just got tougher. It was the first time in my life I really learned to stand up for myself, so maybe it wasn’t all bad.

There were two incidents that were, in fact, extremely threatening. They are too graphic for me to actually write down here, in this blog that I say is for my children. I will just gloss over them by saying that one incident ended with me flagging down an Italian police car with vigorous hand-waving. When the police car stopped, I was quite flustered, and the only Italian I could piece together was, “Uomo no pantalones!” (“Man no pants!” has now become my favorite Italian phrase.)

Also, the police men themselves added to my agitation. Police men in Italy are a bit more casual than policemen in ‘Merica. First of all, there were four of them per police car. Second, they cruise around with the windows down, sunning their brown short-sleeved arms hanging out of the car. Third, they themselves have been known to, um, “appreciate” us.

Needless to say, their casual attitude did not suddenly disappear simply because of one American girl’s wild gesturing. They cruised off in the general direction of uomo no pantalones in no hurry. (I hope I haven’t offended any Italian policemen here. This was a long time ago…)

Me and one of many Italian waiters I propositioned by accident

Me and one of many Italian waiters I propositioned by accident

One story about Italian men happens to feature me as the culprit, not the victim. Most of my friends are quite well-acquainted with this already, but allow me to embarrass myself once again. My Italian was far inferior to my roommates’ Italian. When we went to restaurants, I often let them order first, and then I would simply tell the waiter, “sesso“, which means “same.” After doing that throughout several cities in Italy, I accidentally said it one day in Italian class. My (youthful and male) teacher burst into laughter, and explained that “sesso” means “SEX” and “stesso” means “same”. By leaving out one little letter, I had been telling attractive Italian waiters all over the country that I wanted sex.

And, in case Okayest Mom’s Mom is reading this, please know that no harm ever befell me in Italy, despite all of my crazy stories. I came back tougher, stronger, and, well, more appreciated. Hehee.

Italy trainComing home was a bit of a letdown. I think my 21-year-old self can say it best. From my 2000 Italy journal: “The walk home from the club, just us three girls, was so typical. I wish we had thought to count the incidents of honks, whistles, bikes swerving, catcalls, and approaches at conversation. At 3:30 AM, all the settled men must be in with their women, because every passerby had to comment. In a 45-minute walk, there was at least one incident per minute. It’s not even annoying anymore- it’s just the way it is. But when I go home, will I feel a lack? Will I feel ignored? Will I feel unattractive when no one comments anymore? Worse yet, will I appreciate when someone does catcall?”



*I was also called “Barbie Girl” and “Hey, Chiquita Banana, your sandwich is ready!”

Don’t forget to read the first part of this series, I Studied Abroad in Italy to Get Back at My Boyfriend, Part 1: (Culture Shock: Food), which details why exactly I had to get back at my boyfriend and why I was starving in Italy.







I Studied Abroad in Italy to Get Back at My Boyfriend, Part 1 (Culture Shock: Food)

Overlooking the sea in Cinque Terre on my 21st birthday


Me in Florence, 2000

I studied abroad in Italy in the summer of 2000 to get back at my boyfriend. Yep. Besides shaving my head and getting a tattoo one time after a bad breakup, this was definitely the most un-me thing I ever did. Thank goodness. I changed during my three months there. I grew up. I got stronger physically and emotionally. My man actually didn’t recognize me when I came home. I learned to scream “Va via” (“go away”) at groping men. I learned that I was not a city girl after all. As every traveler learns on her first trip abroad, I learned what I loved about home.

My boyfriend in summer 2000 was future Mr. Okayest. What horrible thing do you think he did to make me leave the country out of spite? Forget my birthday? Ask to go on a “break”? Cheat on me? No, dear readers, it was nothing so lurid. He simply took an internship in another state. I thought he and I would come home from college that summer to be together, and, instead, he (smartly) got an excellent internship. So, out of spite, I thought, “Well, if he’s not coming home, then neither am I. He’s going to leave the state? I’m going to leave the country!” And that is how a ridiculous homebody like me leaves the country.

During the summer of 2000 (“estate duemila”), Italia was a place without air conditioning, computers, and cell phones. I lived in Florence (Firenze), which was a bustling city of nearly half a million, with Gucci, Prada, and Tiffany stores in between each ancient monument and art museum. This was a bustling metropolis, yet somehow it was stuck in time, too, in the most deliciously relaxed way. It was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Homeowners couldn’t even change the paint color on their shutters without permission from the town government. It was one of the fashion centers of the world, but I was just there in my Birkenstocks.

Me in Florence, 2000

My trip to Italy was only 14 years ago, but it seems like another lifetime ago. The summer of 2000 was before the Euro: Italy still used lire. It was before the smoking ban: everyone, from my bank teller to my ice cream man, dropped ashes into my money and food. It was before the iPod: I actually brought a walkman and cassette tapes with me. [Insert sheepish grin here. Embarrassment is not resulting from being so old that I had a walkman and cassette tapes. Instead, embarrassment is caused by being raised by a musician who listens only to quality vinyl.]

I didn’t read about anything before I left. I was a smart/dumb 20-year-old. What I knew about Florence was from my two art history classes. What I knew about Italy was from “The Godfather”. What little Italian language I knew was probably food words or things my future father-in-law had said. There was no Wikipedia to peruse before leaving. I got a travel guidebook at the used bookstore and that was that.

There was no cell phone to take with me. I bought phone cards at the corner markets and called my boyfriend from the nearest payphone. He said it sounded like I was at a racetrack, which was somewhat accurate, since the traffic was crazy enough to knock one of my friend’s shoes off her feet. There was not much internet either. My parents did not have email yet, but of course my boyfriend did. It didn’t matter much because there were only a couple of internet cafes I could use – at exorbitant rates. What I am trying to tell you young whipper-snappers is: back then, when you left, you were gone.

If I remember correctly, I spent a whole summer in Italy for less than three grand. That included airfare. My parents said they supported my decision (although they were completely shocked) if I would handle all the finances myself. I visited the student aid office about a hundred times, and worked out all the details and kinks. I always had a job during college. I had some savings. I borrowed some from a generous aunt and uncle, and I added the rest of the cost to my already-generous student loans. In the late 90s, student loan rates were at a Clinton-inspired record low, so I figured I wouldn’t mind paying for Italy when I was 34 years old. I was right.

Arriving in Italy was a complete shock for this Southern country girl. I wasn’t sure if I was more shocked by city life or by Italian life. Both were a major change for a girl who grew up on a mountain in Virginia and went to college in a rural town whose only claim to fame involved turkeys. Suddenly, I was breathing exhaust fumes and not understanding a word anyone said.

My bedroom in my homestay

My bedroom in my homestay

Our study abroad group was broken up into groups of twos and threes for homestays. I lived with a very formal family who had Sicilian accents that made their Italian even more impossible to understand. We were expected to dress for dinner, not ever be barefoot, and eat whatever was prepared, even if it was fried octopus. As a lactose-intolerant Mormon who doesn’t like chocolate, I will also add that I must have seemed very rude when I declined pretty much every coffee drink ever made.

A Room with a View - MY view

A Room with a View – MY view

Their fancy apartment was on the second floor, but, in Europe, that means about 300 steps. They did not have air conditioning, but neither did anyone else. Even the most famous of paintings were sweating in the Uffizi without air conditioning. We were there during the summer, in a major heat wave. The weather felt a lot like it did at home: hot and sticky. At least something felt like home!

Half our meals were at our homestay, and half our meals were on our own. I learned a few things very quickly about how Italians do food. First, they don’t hurry. The first phrase I had to learn and use was “Il conto, per favore” (“The check, please”). If you don’t ask for the check, the waiter will let you sit there all day. Does your American self bristle at the thought? Well, don’t, because Italians think it’s rude to bring you a check before you have finished relaxing. (I now bristle when American waiters shoo me away from their table with an early check. I mean, I felt that way before kids. Now I don’t really go to restaurants.)

Next, I learned that pasta is just a first course. And it’s not a big portion at all- maybe just a few bites of homemade noodles. Do you think those Italians stay slim with an Olive-Garden-situation? I don’t think so. Same with bread. I never saw a single breadbasket in all of Italy. If we got any bread at all, it would be a tiny hard-as-a-rock little thing sitting beside your plate.

Italy train0010 Oh, and then there’s the fruit. If you reach for a peach at the corner fruit stand, the grocer might actually smack your hand away. Only the seller selects and hands you your fruit. “Why would I want to sell dirty fruit?” Also, they only sell things in season, so you don’t need to worry about picking over the selection to be sure you get something ripe.

I also learned that Italians don’t drink. Water. Italians don’t drink water. We were always so thirsty – and everyone, from the shopkeeper to the homestay mama to the waiter, snickered and giggled about the amount of water we consumed. You don’t really see Italians carrying around a water bottle. And, if you don’t want sparkling water, you better be sure you specify that you want ”still” water. We thought we were in heaven when we found 1-liter bottles of “still” water in the grocery store, but we looked ridiculous carrying them around Italy. (They were maybe the size of a Big Gulp from home, so it didn’t seem weird to us.)

Typical tiny Italian breakfast

So, not only was I thirsty, but I was starving. I was starving in Italy! I was in one of the world’s most beloved culinary meccas, and I was starving all the time. I was used to big, American portions. I was used to a lot of fat and a lot of calories. I was a meat and potatoes girl who was completely out of her element in the world of fresh food. Besides, I was walking over eight miles a day to and from class and meals (and clubs), and burning more calories than I ever had. I lost quite a bit of weight that wasn’t mine to lose.

I was constantly in awe of the beauty of the colors, the food, the people, and the art. I felt alive with all that beauty. But I surprised myself by feeling a little deadened inside from being away from all that was familiar, and being away from the people who loved me. I realized that I was indeed an introvert. I was an introverted country girl in a big city in another country where no one knew me, and everything was so beautiful it hurt. My heart hurt to see all these beautiful things without the mother who used to tell me that “You’re my piece of blue Italian sky” because she never got to travel… and my heart hurt to see all those beautiful things without the man I was to marry. I wanted to go home, and come back with the people I loved.


My view, walking home over the Arno River


Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I will scare you with: I Studied Abroad in Italy to Get Back at my Boyfriend, Part 2 (Culture Shock: Men).