I’m 24. I’m not a student, but I am treated like one. That is to say, badly. American girls in Florence have a reputation, after all. I’m a signorina americana. A man follows me from store to store one Saturday morning while I’m shopping for pasta and cheese. Another man sits next to me on the bus and puts his hand on my knee. It doesn’t matter what time it is or what I’m wearing. One friend of a friend comes to me to lose his virginity. “But you’re American, so…?”
This continues for three years until I leave the country.
On a train in a New York suburb, a man stares at me long enough that I decide not to get off at my stop. The track was well-lit, but empty. One morning, a man on a street corner in Manhattan tells me he likes my glasses. I thank him and he describes how he would crush them under his heel. He shouts more about my glasses as I run-walk into a nearby clothing store.
I read regularly about violent crimes, including gun violence, in the United States. At least they probably weren’t armed in Italy, I reminisce.
My American fiancé and I travel around Italy. In Venice, a gondolier responds to me by making eye contact with my fiancé and speaking in quick Italian. My fiancé points at me and I respond in Italian. The gondolier continues to speak to my fiancé. This isn’t the only time this happens, but it is in the most romantic setting.
I’m pregnant with a biological boy. I thought I would mother a girl. I’m startled at first. I want to better understand how and why I feel I am a woman. I think a lot about gender and sex. I ask female identifying friends, “how do you know you’re a woman? When do you feel like a woman?”
Most answers, like mine, are about other people’s reactions to us—
noon-light catcalls, office-florescent-light-breast-staring, still-dark-morning-bus-commute-ass-rub. Longer-walk-home-down-better-lit-streets-at-night, weekend-twilight-unanswered-apartment-doorbell. Fear that loiters and squats in every home.
I want the answer to be something about courage and progress. About suffragettes and an eventual female president. About the matrilineal familial, historic and literary line. About the strength that comes from corsets under dresses becoming pants in the workplace and eventually jeans everywhere. About intersectional feminism and civil rights. But they aren’t.
I return to Italy a signora. I’m married to that fiancé and we have a four-year-old boy. Men, women, boys and girls offer our son and me their seats on the bus. One older woman smiles at me and offers our boy a seat in her lap during one crowded bus ride. A pharmacist asks me if it is ok for her to give him a candy. Everyone smiles at the blond, white child and me. No one leers or pulls my bra strap.
And this time, Italians answer me when I speak, even if I’m near my husband. Men and women use the formal “Lei” with both of us. No one comments on my ass, breasts, weight or whether or not I’m smiling.
At first, I’m on high alert when passing groups of men anywhere. No one says anything other than, “buona sera, signora.” I’m vaguely invisible and it is delightfully freeing. Perhaps now my age, fading hair color, wrinkles and slower gait shield me from being perceived as a woman. Of course, I cannot ignore the fact that I am white. Could or should I relax and enjoy the Renaissance architecture without hiding my breasts under an extra layer and avoiding eye contact?
I wear lipstick and go out alone one night to meet a (female) friend. The aperitivo-hour-shadows on the wheat-colored buildings seduce me into another drink. My muscle memory forgets I had been and am a woman; I felt comfortable.
Nothing happened; but I was lucky, not protected.
The next morning, I read that the women are still being raped. This year, perhaps, they are reporting it more often. Of course, it has always been happening. Reported rapes in Italy have not been higher than in the United States, yet I’ve always felt less comfortable. The attention I’ve received has been less muted.
Many American students are required to buy extra insurance to study abroad in case the worst happens. And some of the women who are raped in Italy are American students. There’s an ongoing myth that part of this private insurance is “rape insurance” and that the women can “cash in” if they report a rape, false or not.
What makes me a woman here in Italy? Is it me or their reaction to me? When I write, “their,” of course I mean “men.” I continue to work, co-parent, buy notebooks, milk and tampons. Sometimes I will be in “their” gaze and sometimes not. Can I turn my own gaze away from them? Can the thick column of “them” break into smaller, more manageable pieces?
I want to walk the cobblestone streets without clutching my purse or layering my clothes for reasons separate from the weather. The definition of womanhood should be a celebration privately and publically. A challenge to be our best, not a challenge to remain un-raped despite others.
Rape Accusations Against Italian Police Dismay Florence [New York Times]
Chloe Yelena Miller is a poet living in Florence, Italy. Her poetry chapbook, Unrest, was published by Finishing Line Press. She works as a writing coach and teaches undergraduate writing courses online.