Almost as prominently featured in pictures from my trip to Italy in June as a grin on my face was my orange bag. A more stylish spin on a fanny pack, it was bright, made of patent leather, complete with a pouch just big enough for my necessary belongings that fell close to my body, and had a shoulder strap. Its purpose was to protect me (in a hassle-free way allowing me to use my hands to hold gelato instead of clutching my things) from “pickpockets,” “gypsies,” or whatever name one prefers to describe the stereotypical dwellers of Italian cities out to take advantage of my distracted American attitude. I never left my residence in Fiesole for an afternoon in Florence or a weekend trip outside the city borders without my orange bag. It was a regular part of my Italian style. Eventually, I recognized it as even more than that: a symbol of my simultaneous awareness and enjoyment of my American self whilst abroad.
The style was the work of my mom and Kate Spade, but the source of this item’s necessity was deep-rooted concerns about the safety of Americans, especially young and inexperienced travelers like myself, while abroad. These concerns were drilled into my brain by both my official orientation before leaving the country and more casual comments (mainly, “Watch out for those Italian men!”) by family and friends. I took all of the advice seriously, but what I heard was more intriguing than worrisome. The underlying message of it all was suggestive of a different culture that I couldn’t wait to experience.
I was lucky that this remained my primary concern during my trip. The secluded, picturesque Italian villa where I lived with 24 other students and a beloved family of Georgetown professors and Italian caretakers immediately made me feel as comfortable as I ever had in my own home. I felt so safe that my adoption of my most alert attitude when I left the villa’s gates, symbolized by my orange bag’s appearance in every photo, was simply automatic. My friends and I never saw any gypsies, and we were fortunate to always be surrounded by a group of people (and shoulder bags) day and night that we trusted.
One story about a near-nightmare for an American abroad was all I needed, however, to truly realize the importance of the issue of my safety, and the need to develop an attitude and a strategy outside of those imposed upon me by my parents and advisors. Over our celebration of Pranzo (our three-course, wine-accompanied lunch) one afternoon, I heard of how two of our male friends on the program, who had been out later than us the night before (and for whom a group of only two was not too little because of their gender), had rescued a stranger. They found a college-aged American girl, too drunk and completely alone, surrounded by a group of Italian boys who looked at her with smirks on their faces, and they used her phone to get in touch with one of her friends. I remember thinking how lucky I was to have friends who not only would never let me be in that situation, but also would go out of their way to make sure a complete stranger never suffered, either.
This story didn’t confirm any stereotypes about Italian men for me, for I know that identifying them (or anyone) by negative generalizations is naive. But it did make me forever and irreversibly more aware than before, and it helped me develop a mindset that I wish to share with other women for their travels abroad. In my opinion, it is imperative for an American, especially a woman, who might be (again, perhaps stereotypically) more vulnerable than a man, to be aware of her “otherness.” This is what draws attention from natives, usually in an unintentional and harmless way. What is worrisome about it is that it is, almost by definition, associated with unfamiliarity. The easiest way to avert that worry is awareness, as was symbolized by my bright orange bag, attached to my person almost every minute of the day. It allowed me to be aware and have fun at the same time, and no matter how trivial an example, shows just how wonderful an experience abroad can be if you embrace it in the right manner.
So don’t forget your brightly-colored bag, and happy travels!