Punto! Enough. No more. We’re done. This conversation is over.
It’s the strongest word I know in Italian. And I just wrote it to one of the few Italians I actually know.
I didn’t come to Italy for romance. A few friends said, “Maybe you’ll meet an Italian and stay!” No. Absolutely not. Of course, I would say that and then laugh. If I said it as strongly as I felt it, people would think I was upset. Instead, I tried to be nice in my response, to laugh, smile, brush it off. People in general are often put off by my directness. Maybe because they are first drawn in by my smile. When I am firm in my response, my voice often drops an octave and then people pull back. If I was a different person, I might enjoy that. But I’m a person whose life purpose is to connect. I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to soften my approach. I don’t want people to feel I’m harsh or rude or unkind.
Anyway, I didn’t come to Italy for romance. No secret hopes of a chance meeting that leads to falling in love. No brief and exciting escapade that ends up in bed with a dark, handsome, man. No. Definitely not interested. That’s not what I want. I’m not ruling out the chance that someday I may fall in love again – but at the moment, that’snot what I’m looking for. I LOVE my life. I love being single. And, in the States, I think I’ve finally learned how to navigate this status. I think.
The #MeToo movement has helped tremendously. No more slimy innuendos from men. No more inappropriate comments. Or rather, I encounter less of them now. And when I do, I feel more confident. More justified in feeling creeped out and disgusted. I’m just a little more emboldened to say something like, “Does your wife know you’re talking to me / saying these things to me?” or “You’re making me uncomfortable.” Okay, now that I think about it, I’m not sure I’ve had the nerve to actually say that in the moment. But I have written it – In an email or in a text.
Fast forward and I decide to finally visit Italy. A country where people have largely responded to #MeToo “with scorn and skeptism.”[i] No problem. As friends would say, if anyone can fend for themselves, it’s me. I’m direct. (remember?)
Except that I’m not. Not as much as I’d like to be. Not when it comes to me.
I have zero problem standing up for another person. When I hear something inappropriate being said, or see something wrong happening, I quickly jump in. My mouth engages before consulting my brain. I’ve interrupted and diffused many a potentially violent situation. But standing up for myself is something altogether different.
I don’t know if I was culturally trained not to hurt people’s feelings, if it’s a woman thing, if it has something to do with my father, or if I’m just overly sensitive to not wanting others to feel bad. But my entire life I’ve had men make sexual innuendos to me and instead of telling them to stop, I’ve just tried to ignore it. My first memories begin at age ten. A family friend, a music teacher, bosses, clients, guys that I thought were my friends and, of course, countless random men. Then, in graduate school, I was sexually harassed for almost three years by a woman older than me. And like all the times before, I couldn’t find the words to stay stop. To firmly declare, “You’re out of line.” Instead, I tried to brush it off, to laugh, maybe shake my head, but always still smile.
So here I am in Italy. Just being me. I’m smiling at strangers. And strangers are smiling back. No problem. Or so I thought.
The only time during my entire trip that I’ve actually engaged with a group of people was at a small gathering for folks who travel. We met in a restaurant in Rome. Most were local Italians. I spoke to a man from Naples, a man from Sicily, a man from Calabria, two men from Puglia. This is fantastic! All places I want to visit. And then there is one man, I can’t remember where he is from, but he has visited the States a few times. A day or two later, I notice he is following me on Instagram. And then the message, “You have sexy feet.” Or maybe he said cute feet, I can’t remember. In my disgust, I deleted it. Now to be clear, only 18% of all my posts on Instagram have photos of me and one of those is my feet. That’s the one he comments on. Really?
So I didn’t respond. I ignored it. I heard nothing more. Until several crazy days later after I’ve settled in Sicily and post a photo of me resting in the sun by the water with the text, “Technically I shouldn’t be out here.” Then this guy writes, “Respect the country.” No personal message this time. No, “How are you?” No, “Glad you’ve made it to a safe place.” Nothing but a very direct and public “Respect the country.” It felt like a scolding. This guy, whom I don’t even really know and who had the nerve to comment on my feet, scolds me for resting in the sun.
I was mad. I wrote him back. I tried to explain. I wrote my blog. And in the end, the truth is, he was right. Lockdown means lockdown. Giving the impression that I am on holiday, breaking the law, doing whatever I wish, was wrong. Bad form. But ultimately that isn’t what upset me.
You want to know why I was mad? What really got under my skin? He was able to be direct. To just say what needed to be said, without any consideration of niceties. He did what I should have done when he mentioned my feet. But I was cowardly. I ignored him. And when the time came for him to ignore me, to just brush off my behavior, he didn’t. He called me out. And he did it without any concern for my feelings.
Meanwhile, I texted another Italian I know – the fellow who hosted the gathering of travelers. I asked for his advice. He told me: “You are too nice. Don’t smile at men until you can trust them. In Italy, it’s okay for a woman to be rude.”
Well there you go. I need to stop worrying about men being sensitive to me being direct.
Add that to the list of blessings and lessons learned during #AmericanInItalyDuringCoronavirus.
[i] See NPR’s article from 18 January 2018 (as just one example) https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2018/01/18/578562334/in-italy-metoo-falters-amid-public-scorn?t=1584284623265