I studied abroad in the north of Italy, Bergamo, during the summer of 2005 doing some Italian language intensives at the Universita’ di Bergamo. There was a slew of us from my Florida university and after the program ended I went south for a week exploring Rome. I wasn’t completely alone in Rome, but there were several days of exploring solo as the other students from my Uni went separate ways. It was my first time ever going it alone abroad – Bergamo is a much smaller city and we all traveled to and from class en masse.
But in Rome the lure of the the ancient Coliseum and the magical Trevi Fountain under the dusky night sky prompted me to enjoy some pistachio gelato in the warm evening air before the 25 minute walk back to my hostel. Naturally, being the south of Itlay it was mere minutes before I had an ardent suitor buying me a rose on the Spanish Steps- an Italian man from Sicily. We talked, it was lovely, but he got a little too ardent (nearly scarily so) so I escaped and hightailed it back to the protection of my hostel.
On the walk back, men standing in the doorways of the local bars murmured appreciative “mmms” and clearly audible “che bellas.” Over and over again, as a single female walking at night I was subjected to their comments. I was 21, alone, and all of this outright attention left me flustered so I started an ungainly trot until I was just a block from my hostel –I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I saw a carabinieri car, essentially the Italian police, parked within view of both me and my hostel. I knew all was well since they could watch me walk all the way to the door of my hostel.
Then it happened…I’m nearly on level with the carabinieri and the piercing shriek of a whistled catcall breaks through the night air. Then a breath later, the ever present “che bella.” I was so exasperated…and pissed–the police too? Really!?! I mean did they seriously just catcall at me?!
I think that was my first visceral introduction to some serious cultural differences – and I had to readjust my expectations. I’m not condoning the catcalling, but that sort of “open appreciation” for women accompanied my every moment in the south. It just did. And it probably took the last two years of travel for me to really come to accept that evening for what it was – a little slice of the southern Italian culture rather than reeeaaally, reeeaallly crude men (which was my first thought).