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.