Ciao, Bella!: On Being a Foreign Woman in Italy
As a foreigner in Italy, I’ve heard my fair share of “Ciao, bella” comments and “Where are you from” questions from all sorts of people. I’ve found that despite my best attempts to dress and act like Italians, my blonde hair, complexion and mannerisms are a dead giveaway for my American background. Since it didn’t take me long to figure out that I would never completely “fit in” as an Italian, my attempts to dress as Italians do were pretty half-hearted anyway.
However, I’ve found that being identified instantly as a foreigner isn’t all bad. In my everyday interactions with Italians, many patiently wait while I stumble through my attempts to speak Italian. Some have told me that they find it amusing– in a friendly way–when I completely butcher the accent. This is very unlike the experiences I had in Paris, where, to quote the comedian Eddie Izzard, “the French are very spiky, and, well, French.”
Italians also get excited when I say I’m from the States. They love to tell me about times they’ve visited and how much they loved it, so we have a bonding experience right away. To me, even if it’s just small talk, this speaks to the warmth and friendliness of Italians.
But being labeled as a foreigner certainly has its down side. For one, I’m usually charged more for anything I buy, particularly taxis. Hence, I avoid taking taxis at all costs. And because I can’t speak Italian well enough, I can’t fight back and demand a fair price.
Another down side is that as a foreign woman, I’m seen as an easy target. Incidents usually happen on weekends if I go out to places frequented by college students or recent graduates. That’s where many younger Italian men (or some older men) go out looking for an easy score.
Even when I’m not at a bar, I still have to be careful. Once while walking to the bus I was asked for the time by a man. We began talking about English lessons, but after a series of extremely embarrassing questions about my personal life he eventually asked if I was interested in becoming a sex worker. I was dressed in jeans and flats, so his question took me by surprise. All I wanted was to get to my bus stop!
I found out later that in Italy, sex workers tend to wear pants at night because even though prostitution is legal here, it’s possible to be arrested for wearing skirts or shorts. Apparently it becomes too obvious that you’re a sex worker if you show your legs. Still, I do see women wearing skirts here at night. As a foreigner, it’s important to be “in the know” about things like this for safety reasons.
Another time I was waiting at a bus stop in the pouring rain after celebrating my birthday and I offered to share my umbrella with a man who didn’t have one. It was a simple, friendly gesture on my part, and it almost turned into a marriage proposal from the guy standing with me after a half hour of conversation! I suspect that he almost proposed because it was 5 AM and that apparently the bus stop is the place to find true love.
Throughout my travels, I’ve found the impressions I give run the gamut from friendly American to potential sex worker. Since each person I meet has become part of my travel story and has added to the richness of my experiences, I’ve realized that I’m glad I don’t totally fit in with the local culture.