A Little Lesson…Catcalls and Culture from the Italian Police

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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.

Trevie Foutain
Fontana di Trevi in Rome, Italy (clearly circa 2005)

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.

Normally, I love a man in uniform!

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).

13 thoughts on “A Little Lesson…Catcalls and Culture from the Italian Police”

  1. Oh so familiar! In the beginning, it used to scare me; then it just got annoying to feel watched all the time. Try looking at it like this, though – there’s never only one guy looking at you, hence if somebody tried anything seriously sleazy, I’m sure there’d be a couple rosenkavaliers to jump in.

    • You make a great point – the collective male staring adds a bizarre level of
      safety to the entire spectacle, I hadn’t thought of it like that! :)

    • You make a great point – the collective male staring adds a bizarre level of
      safety to the entire spectacle, I hadn’t thought of it like that! :)

    • You make a great point – the collective male staring adds a bizarre level of
      safety to the entire spectacle, I hadn’t thought of it like that! :)

    • You make a great point – the collective male staring adds a bizarre level of
      safety to the entire spectacle, I hadn’t thought of it like that! :)

  2. Hahaha, what’s so funny is that I get used to the catcalls when I’m traveling and then I return to the US and I’m like actually sad that I never hear them.

    • Lol! Sad the catcalls are gone…hmm…there is a lovely little bit of daily
      appreciation that is nice to hear affirmed all day long :)

  3. I perfectly know what you mean, and how you feel… I still find catcalls annoying even if I’ve been living in Italy all my life!
    But most women in Italy simply stop to notice them after a while.
    First time I travelled abroad solo (I was 21, just like you, and I went to Edinburgh for a semester for a law course) I was really surpriesed that men along the street didn’t even glance at me..and I realised that catcalls are a peculiar thing of italian culture and other latin cultures. And I have to say…. what a relif to be let in peace while exploring the city! :-)

    • Thanks for weighing in Maddy! It helps to have a first hand account so I
      know I wasn’t crazy for being offended – I can only imagine the shock to the
      senses in Scotland where it’s not even remotely a part of the culture, it’s
      the kind of thing I never realized I appreciated until I travel through the
      Latin cultures. :)

  4. Italians, (and Brazilians from what I’ve heard) are pretty much the most sleezy guys in the world. I would expect a lot of women there either have their guards up high, or have massive ego’s from all the compliments.

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