Italian men have a colorful reputation for being overly, how should we say… expressive… toward women.  In the US we sometimes view this as an uber-aggressive, unwanted attention; I’ve even heard women talk about being scared to go to Italy because they don’t want to be harassed (which is a bit silly, if you ask me).

Then again, I’ve heard women come back after NOT having been harassed who are a bit disappointed.  ;)

When I told my friends and family I was going to go to Italy alone one of the first warnings I got was “watch for roaming hands”.  A quick google search will give you equal amounts of posts talking about how aggressive Italian men are and posts that say that – perhaps aside from some forward comments – Italian men are no different from men anywhere else.  Let’s clear that up right now: the Italian men I’ve encountered while traveling aren’t like any American men I’ve ever met.  But maybe I just know the wrong men.

The first year I ventured to Italy, of course I felt I had to go to Rome.  I travel alone so am perhaps a bit of an open target, but I’m also used to city travel and felt like I knew how deal with unwanted attention.

I walk through New York, LA and Chicago and the only “unwanted attention” I get (the only attention, for that matter) is from people asking for money or food, telling me how Christ is in my heart, selling tickets or passing out flyers.  In Rome, to my great surprise, I got random guys falling into step with me trying to make conversation (in broken English, when they’d find out I was American), trying to ask me to coffee. Or shouts – literally, shouts – from shop windows telling me I’m beautiful (I’d look over wondering who they could possibly be yelling at and they’d wave and smile and I’d realize they were talking to ME).  Waiters whispering “bellissima” in my ear every time they passed the table, or guys looking at me so intently while walking down the street that I started to think I had spilled something on myself.

Huh?? Do I look different in Italy or something? This NEVER happens in the US! What is going on?!

One evening I was walking back to my hotel after dinner, wearing a red jumper, rainboots and jacket when I heard one of the men passing me in the other direction sing quietly, as if to himself, the song “Lady in red…”.  I started – was that coincidence? I looked back and the man turned around to look at me, put his hand to his forehead and gave me a little bow and a smile before walking on.  Absolutely charming. I think my face turned as red as my jumper.

On my way back from St. Peter’s Basilica I started to cross a street about ten feet from the crosswalk (there were no cars coming) and a young man who couldn’t’ve been out of college called out from the crosswalk: “Miss! Come to the lines! Otherwise a car could hit you and I would be very sad; you couldn’t come dancing with me tonight”.  I didn’t go dancing, but I appreciated the concern. (It didn’t hurt that he had the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen and the most crystal clear blue eyes… maybe I should’ve gone dancing :/ )

Though downright shocking, this kind of attention is incredibly flattering.  Compliments without expected reciprocity are the most delightful kind.  Italian men seem to have a way about them to be complimentary but not sleazy, forward but polite. Of course, every country has their share of sleazy men; I’m not claiming Italian men are perfect gentlemen nor are they all Casanovas.  But the random compliments and smiles that don’t seem to want anything in return (and that never happen on American soil) are oh-so-good for a girl’s ego.

Even so, by the fourth day the constant attention was starting to grate on my nerves a bit.  I just needed a break. Museums were too crowded, my feet hurt, I had almost smashed the audio guide at the Forum into a tree in frustration and I just wanted a relaxing dinner and to sleep.  I went to a restaurant by Piazza Navona that I had found on TripAdvisor and was promptly seated.  The waiter was young and started talking to me about his travels, showing me pictures on his phone.  I really just wanted him to go away so I could eat in peace, but I’m typically not a rude person so I listened and gave the appropriate polite responses when necessary. When I got up to leave he said “Oh wait, I want to show you something” and pulled me into a dining room that wasn’t being used.

Then he grabbed my shoulders and leaned in to KISS me!

I don’t mean the two-cheek kiss that Europeans are famous for – I mean full force on the lips.  I dodged and moved to back away, trying to remove his hands but he held on tighter and tried to readjust his aim!  When had I given ANY indication I was being more than casually courteous?! I pushed him – hard – and hurried out, stunned.

In a BBC article about Italian men and their roaming hands that discussed a new ruling allowing women in Italy to prosecute for untoward advances, 20-yr-old Tara Londi said, ”It won’t change the way they behave because I don’t think girls often go to the police over this kind of thing. A slap in the face is always better.”

I wish I had read Tara’s article before that first trip.  I might’ve put her advice to use.

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Turning my obsession with Italy into something I can pretend is constructive. Italy travel tips and stories for everyone.

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