Encounters with Wannabe-Casanovas in Italy
More than a generation ago, an insecure and self-conscious 20-year-old spent her junior year at the University of Stirling in Scotland. With a female companion, she traveled throughout Western Europe and into Tunisia. That young woman was me, and the memories of traveling on the Continent remain strong.
“I realize that I am again generalizing, but I believe that there are two types of Italian men; those who flirt with compliments and nice smiles, and those who leer, stare, make noises and who are generally obnoxious. Italian men seem to be completely preoccupied with the opposite sex and they certainly have their own peculiar way of showing it. I have learned that a smile works so much better than impatience when dealing with the first type, and I’ve enjoyed hearing compliments like, “pretty girl,” and “you’re-a nice-a” when I’ve encountered Italian men of this type. Unfortunately, the second type of Italian men is the reason why I have a negative attitude about Italy.”
These are the comments I wrote in my journal about my experience in Italy. Although I was aware that Italy had a language and customs different than my own, I experienced culture shock regarding how some Italian men treated my traveling companion, Dana, and me.
On the one hand, Italian men could be generous and amusing:
” . . . a jovial Italian man from Naples joined us at an early stop. He was heavy-set, had very dark skin, black bushy hair, and a large handlebar moustache. The man didn’t speak a lick of English, and of course we don’t know Italian, but we were able to communicate. He waved his hands when he spoke and seemed to be friendly, generous, and curious. What a character; he had packed a large lunch and offered us everything in his bag—his huge sandwich, fruit, and even some wine. The man was very happy and his apple cheeks were so rosy that it looked like he smiled while he ate his food. He leaned out the window at every stop and shouted greetings to the people at the station, and when we reached the Italian frontier, he walked into the train corridor, merrily singing, ‘passa-porta, passa-porta!'”
Dana and I agreed that the Italians are marvelous people-watchers and are intensely curious about their surroundings. Italian train passengers leaned out the windows of their compartments while stopped at stations and they looked at passersby, who in turn, looked at them. I once found myself the subject of this curiosity in the waiting room at the Milan train station.
While writing a postcard home, I looked up to find an Italian man next to me not even trying to hide the fact that he was studiously reading what I had just written. Perhaps it is this intense curiosity in others that influences the cultural norm of approaching female touristichi and attempting to get their attention. Italian curiosity may also be the basis for flirting with women, even in the most inopportune occasions:
“. . . Augustino [our handsome tour guide] came to the rescue [on our way to the Isle of Capri]. Laughing, he said that our faces looked ‘a little too white,’ and as the hydrofoil lurched this way and that, he picked up our limp bodies. Carrying us by our elbows, he placed Dana by another seasick man standing by an open porthole. I felt like a drenched dishrag as he carried me to the captain’s cabin and placed me on a console by another open porthole. I sat cross-legged in a cramped little space and tried to take my mind off of my misery. The captain’s cabin was compact, and there were dials and knobs everywhere. The captain was still another handsome Italian who spoke some English. The fresh air was welcome as the captain attempted to joke with me. I tried to joke back as best I could under the circumstances, but I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
The captain said, ‘Hey, I’ve been to San Francisco, San Pedro, and San Diego, all California ports!’ With an animated face, he turned to me and remarked, ‘I don’t smoke or drink; I just like beautiful women like you!’ How could he say that; I knew I looked horrible, especially because I was seasick. The captain jokingly asked, ‘Do you think all Italian men are Casanovas?’ Gulping the fresh air, I managed a weak, ‘Yes.’ The captain looked at me, winked, and said, ‘You better watch out for Augustino because he is a playboy.’ I played along in spite of being seasick and responded, ‘I’ll be careful.’ Immediately, the captain said loudly to his crew, ‘I don’t know who should be careful, her or Augustino!’ and he burst into raucous laughter!”
On the other hand, not all of our interactions with Italian men were pleasant. On one occasion, Dana and I were made to feel like prostitutes by an official at a train station:
“We searched for a place to rest before the next train was scheduled to depart, and we found some tables and chairs next to a closed snack bar. The area was deserted, and Dana and I wearily sat down to wait for our train. Not long thereafter, a railroad official in a dark uniform and cap came up to us and began to speak to us in Italian. I don’t know what he said, but something struck me as just not right. Dana and I used our Italian phrasebook to try to understand what the man was saying, but the phrasebook was useless. Maybe it was the nasty gleam in his eye, or perhaps it was the lascivious grin upon his face; whatever it was, I felt uncomfortable. The man reached in his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and opened it so that we could see his money. Dana continued to look at me quizzically and then look at the official, but by this time I had figured out what the man was trying to communicate. He behaved as if we were prostitutes! The man must have sensed my anger, because he laughed an evil laugh, waved his hands and shook his head back and forth as if to say, ‘Just kidding!’ His expression then changed to official formality and he emphatically motioned for us to get up from our chairs and leave the snack bar area.”
However, what unnerved us the most was that some Italians seemed to believe that it was their right to stare and make hissing sounds at us:
“Rome is ‘creep city!’ Dana and I are stared at and approached everywhere we go. We are also subject to hissing sounds. Do Roman men believe that a loud ‘psss-psss-pss’ or ‘tsssss’ will attract a girl’s attention? Thank God we’ll be here for only three days, unlike the six we spent in Paris. I intend to enjoy the city despite the creeps, and I’ll carry my umbrella everywhere, even if it’s 90 degrees outside. I’ll use it for protection if I must.”
As an ethnocentric American, I thought that this behavior was rude, annoying, and downright disgusting. It didn’t even occur to me that the stares and noises might be an Italian way of flirting:
“We traveled underground to what looked like a tube station and of course were again confronted by staring creeps. One conservatively dressed man with silver hair made clucking sounds and smiled as he mentally undressed me. He slowly and carefully looked over my face, torso, and legs. I thought that this distinguished-looking person would know enough not to harass a young girl, and I had had it. What was wrong with all of these Italian men? Disgusted, I contorted my face and made the same clucking noises while staring back at him. The man momentarily looked surprised, and then shook his head slowly back and forth. He looked straight at me and in heavily accented English, slowly said, ‘You silly, stupid girl!’ I was dumbfounded and so completely shocked that I couldn’t move. Am I supposed to feel complimented when men who I don’t know invade my privacy and whistle, hiss, and cluck? How unbelievable!”
Looking back on my travels in Italy, I understand that my reactions to Italian men were based on norms for appropriate behavior in the US. Knowing that norms are different in Italy, especially as they relate to female touristichi and flirting, would have helped me better contend with those I thought were harassing me and reduce the culture shock that I experienced. Although I hated being “harassed” by men young and old during my travels in Italy, I will forever fondly remember the jovial train passenger, the handsome tour guide, and the flirtatious sea captain. And the insecure and self-conscious 20-year-old? She returned to the US from her year abroad as an empowered and confident young lady who knew she could fend for herself, even when dealing with “rude, annoying, and downright disgusting” behaviors from others.
Shelley D. Lane, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education in the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. Excerpts in this blog entry are printed with permission from her study abroad memoir, “A Stirling Diary: An Intercultural Story of Communication, Connection, and Coming-of-Age” (http://www.astirlingdiary.com).