A romp in Rome

On a summer stay in Rome, a young American feminist is unexpectedly liberated by the attentions of Italian men.

Published March 11, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I was nervous about my stay in Rome. I was to share an apartment for one month in the summertime with 14 other American students in an old palazzo between the Vatican and the Pantheon. The litany of horror stories I'd heard leading up to my departure had created a little film clip of nightmares running through my head: from being relentlessly hounded in the markets to being cornered in an alley, from being groped on a train to being raped in the street. I have problems from time to time in my hometown of Seattle -- being followed, propositioned and yelled at, no matter what I happen to be wearing -- so I dreaded what it would be like in Italy. But I figured it was the chance of a lifetime, so I braced myself for the hassles.

Then I talked with a French friend who'd spent two years in Italy. She was baffled by my fear. "Yes, they'll come up and talk to you," Marie said.

"They're forward?" I asked.

"They are very friendly," she said, "and so attractive!" She shook her hand back and forth, in a French gesture for "woowee." "You will wish they were interested, but they are only making friends."

By the time I arrived, I didn't know what to expect, and at first I was more concerned with surviving the hustling cab drivers at the Stazione Termini and the frantic traffic as I crossed the street. But before long I came to appreciate the distinctive Roman style Marie had admired: the slick, dark hair and olive skin, the loose, energetic gait of the men in stylish suits or tight jeans, sandals and sunglasses. As it turned out, these men were forward, but for the most part far from threatening. And their honesty won them points right away.

"You will sleep with me tonight!" said a member of the Italian navy to my friend Becka after they'd been chatting for a few minutes on the Spanish Steps. "No, no, I have a boyfriend," she replied. "Yes, yes! You will sleep with me tonight!"

The propositions, the whistles, the strange clicking sounds the Roman men made became a fascinating topic of conversation. We looked at their behavior with anthropological curiosity as we read D.H. Lawrence's description of the "phallic culture" of the Etruscans. These exchanges were part of a larger social flamboyance that is as quintessentially Roman as peeling stucco, coffee bars and cobblestone. Rome is like a giant carnival stage, where people speak as much with their gestures as with those words we could barely understand. We watched from our deck and from the crowded streets the old ladies, the richly suited men on fancy Vespas, the punk rockers, the teenage couples making out passionately for all the world to see.

And we realized that bodies take up a different kind of space in Italy -- public space. The Italians bump into each other, slide by each other in a crowd, kiss and hug, ride on the backs of each other's mopeds. Bodies are exposed, especially in the July heat that makes even a tank top feel heavy. Bodies surround one another, old and young; they knock into one another, and they mean no harm. Exposed penises and breasts delicately carved in marble line buildings like the Palazzo Spada, a two-minute walk from our place. They are whole, and revered, a welcome contrast from the disembodied parts splashed on billboards. Even the body of the Virgin Mary, the patron goddess of Rome, is corporeal, represented in infinitely different ways, from ample breasts and round face to the slender hips of a young girl.

"Bella ragazza," a man in white jeans said one day as I walked
down a narrow, shop-lined street. "Ve-ry beau-ti-ful," he said again,
looking at my body through the blue cotton dress and then at my face with
a smile. I may not be interested in what he's interested in, I thought,
but how could I not smile back at such a compliment?

I felt as though my
body were being appreciated rather than attacked. I began to wear the
short spaghetti strap dress I had, and the nearly see-through sheer skirt,
not just for the pleasure of the warm wind and sunshine touching my skin --
I also anticipated with a little girlish pride the looks and occasional
comments I would receive.

What was happening? Was my feminist stamina lapsing? Where was
the icy don't-fuck-with-me face, the bitterness of my Seattle pedestrian
days? It just wasn't the same. Some of these guys might be lecherous, but
they weren't aggressive. For perhaps the first time in my life, I felt
safe enough to stop worrying about it. Even when the overall-clad
man in the Campo dei Fiori market pinched my ass, my first thought was
simply, "Oh yeah, that'll win me over, big boy." His gesture was silly,
neither flattering nor threatening. I rolled my eyes and off he went.

I treated the place like an amusement park, as some of my young
countrywomen did, I could have gotten into trouble. But I found that I
could be aware of my surroundings without holding onto my fear.
And by losing that fear, I could be pleasantly surprised by this other
system of social behavior. In that month I had more genuine interchanges
with Italian men, using the few words I knew of their language or their
few words of mine, in bars and shops and out under that bright sun than I
have in a year with unknown American men.

Now that I'm back on the streets of Seattle, some of the shields are up again,
because the fun is gone. "Hey, baby," doesn't have quite the same ring as
"Ciao, bella," for starters. But there's also an anger behind the eyes of
the men here, a barely concealed resentment. Catcalls here don't mean the
same thing. Those Campo boys would never shout "bitch," either. The old
feminist refrain comes back to me: It's not about sex; it's about power.

I'm sick of that refrain; I'd rather understand what's
driving the behavior. But seeing one's own culture is always more
difficult. For now, I simply content myself with the knowledge that it
isn't like this everywhere.

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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