Paul and Lucy Spadoni periodically live in Tuscany to explore Paul’s Italian roots, practice their Italian and enjoy “la dolce vita.”
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Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Do Italian males live up to reputation for persistent and flirtatious behavior?
Before I began going
to Italy regularly, I wondered about the reputation of Italian men as
aggressive, flirting Casanovas. Was that a misconception, or did I need to
worry about bringing my daughters to Italy? Anybody seriously interested in
Italian culture has probably seen Ruth Orkin’s famous photo “American Girl in Italy,” which probably did more to ingrain the image of the aggressive Latin
lover into the public's consciousness than any other symbol. But that was taken
in 1951; times change, so did I still need to be concerned? During the year we
spent in Padova in 2001-02, we had ample opportunity to put this question to
the test, as we brought with us Suzye and Lindsey, then 16 and 14.
"American Girl in Italy" by Ruth Orkin
Their conclusion? The
stereotype is partly true, they said, but they never felt threatened or
seriously harassed. Most of the time they were approached, it was in tourist
areas such as the train or bus stations, and the guys never did anything more
than persistently try to make conversation. “A lot of the times we got hit on
more aggressively it was from immigrants hanging around the train station, not
Italians,” Suzye said.
“Ciao, bella,” was
the cliché opening line the girls remember the most, but they also recall many other approaches. The first sentence was usually in Italian, but when that drew
a blank, the pursuers would say, “You speak French? You speak English? Oh, you
want a coffee. You are so beautiful. I love you. I must see you again, baby.”
The girls were very
rarely approached this way in non-tourist areas or by the boys in the Italian
school they attended. It seems that foreign girls were usually the targets, and
if boys didn’t know they were outsiders, the girls had nothing to worry about.
At first, it was a novelty and they played along to see what else the boys
would say. However, the boys usually knew limited English and the conversations
never progressed very far, so the girls quickly grew tired of the game and
learned how to avoid being approached.
“Just don't look at
them in the first place,” Suzye said. “If you give them eye contact, then
they'll talk to you. If you walk confidently and just look at the ground, they
won’t approach you.
“And if they do, even
if it’s just innocent questions like where are you from, don’t answer because
they’ll think you’re interested and will keep asking more questions.”
Lindsey said she made
up a story that she often used. “I said my name is Miya and I’m from New York
and that I don’t remember my phone number. The last part was actually true.”
Then Suzye struck on
a different idea, asking for the boys’ phone numbers instead. This seemed to
give the pursuers the feeling that they had at least partially accomplished
their goal. “I'm waiting for your call, beautiful,” one told her as the girls
Lindsey tried this
approach and was particularly pleased when one boy couldn’t find a piece of
paper to write down his number and so wrote it on a lira banknote.
Often the girls would
go out with their bilingual Italian friend Erica, who pretended that she too
was a foreign student who spoke only English. The girls would share a coffee or
tea with a group of boys they had just met while the boys would try out their
limited English on the girls. But the boys would also talk among themselves in
Italian, not realizing that Erica could understand everything and translate any
interesting comments about the girls into English for Suzye and Lindsey.
Lucy had her own
experience with an aggressive male in Bassano de Grappa. She stopped at a bakery to ask
for directions, and the young man at the counter referred her to a customer in his 60s who spoke some English and said he could help her. However,
the old man was not about to give the directions without asking for a little
something in return. He tried to hold her hand, but Lucy pulled it away. He
tried again several times without success, and then he asked her to sit and
have tea with him. His speech was slurred and mixed with profanities, and Lucy
smelled liquor on his breath.
She kept asking for
the directions she needed, but he kept delaying. He began telling her about
himself. He was a professore from India who took care of disabled children. He
loved his children and would do anything for them. Lucy looked pleadingly at
the bakery employee, who seemed sympathetic and a bit exasperated. He spoke to
the professore and tried to get him to just give the directions. Lucy was
perhaps too patient and polite, but she continued to pull her hand away,
interrupt and ask for directions. The professore finally forgot about his
charm, grabbed her hand again and told her to shut up. She pulled her hand away
for the last time and walked off as his angry denunciations following her out
Of course I never got
to witness any of these incidents in person, except for one memorable occasion.
We were riding on a train, and Suzye and Lindsey were sitting about three seats
away from us. The seats directly across from them became vacant at one of the
stops, and a group of three or four high-school-aged boys came down the aisle,
sat down and tried to engage the girls in conversation. They seemed nice
enough, but one in particular was persistent and fairly aggressive. The girls
were politely saying no thanks to the boys. Lucy and I were watching with some
amusement, but then the lead boy reached out and put his hand on Suzye’s knee
while continuing to talk.
This dad had watched
long enough—I stood and spoke loudly and firmly, “Basta! Non toccare!” I
wanted to say more, but my language skills were too limited. Naturally I didn’t
want to admit this, so I just remained standing and gave the boys what I hoped
was a withering glare. The offending boy let loose a stream of apologetic
Italian, something about only trying to be friendly and not meaning any harm, I
think. I had no words to add, so I just continued to look stern while the boys
moved on to the next car.
Later I thought of
something I could have said, but that’s pretty much the way it goes whenever I
try to speak Italian. I always think of something better to say five minutes
after the conversation has ended. Anyway, I was pleased as it was that I had
been able to come out with “Enough! You’re not to touch!” so convincingly that
the boy must have thought I was Italian. But I wish I had added, “Potete
parlare, ma non toccare.” You can talk but not touch.
Back to the original
question, what about the stereotypical image of aggressive Italian males? The
incidents I've described are the exception and not the rule. Overall, Lucy has
spent about 20 months in Italy and only had one incident, and that professore was not native Italian. Suzye and Lindsey had
more, but mainly in tourist areas, rarely out in the countryside. Admittedly
they have been approached in Italy more often than they have been in America,
although Suzye pointed out that she has spent most of her life in Washington
state, explaining, “Here everyone is so passive and indirect, which is not the
case in other places I've traveled.” However, they have not felt threatened in
Italy and were always able to walk away. In truth, violent crime in Italy is
much less common than it is in the United States and Great Britain. So although
there is some truth to the aggressive Italian male image, I don’t hesitate to
let my wife and daughters travel alone in Italy.
I would add to the
advice Suzye gave by saying it would be advisable to dress modestly but also
somewhat stylishly, which will make you blend in more with the Italian women.
It would also be helpful to learn a few Italian phrases, such as vai via (go
away) or mi lascia in pace (leave me in alone, or literally, leave me in
peace). If these don’t help, one can make a scene, as I did on the train. ----------------------------------------------------- For follow-up information on this topic, read also Is Italy a safe and healthy place for young women (and men)?