What I Didn’t Know About Italy Is What I Remember

March 1989

No one warned me that young men roam the streets of Rome like stray dogs. I learn this when I decide to go for a stroll to clear my jet lagged brain. Two blocks away from my hotel, a man lurches out of a doorway and tags along. He hisses, “Bella” over and over in my ear. Another man crosses the street and joins in. Soon I’m surrounded by a pack. Their voices are a raucous chorus of “Bella, bella.” At first I smile and shake my head. Then I quicken my pace and scowl. As their numbers grow, they become more aggressive. They step in front of me, cutting me off. They tug on my arm, trying to pull me into an alley. I look to passersby for help, but they avert their eyes. I tear my arms out of the young men’s grasp and run back to my hotel almost in tears. I’ve never before run away from anything or anyone in broad daylight. I will wait for my Italian friend before I venture out again.

The Coliseum is on a busy road in the middle of the city. Cars whizz by, their occupants sometimes scream and shake their fists at each other. I didn’t know that people could become indifferent to the presence of such a magnificent and ancient monument. It seems almost comically out of place in this modern metropolis, like it was dropped here from the sky like Dorothy’s house in Oz.

In Venice, if you’re a tourist, they make you pay double to use the bathroom, and they try to shortchange you in the shops. The locals cut in line in front of you. I didn’t know that my style of dress would be so conspicuous. My old-fashioned white lace blouse and curly blond hair provoke snickers and “Heidi” comments. My Italian friend tells me this while stifling a laugh. I shrug. Heidi was one of my favorite books as a child. There are worse things to be called. I pause on one of the tiny bridges. Murky water oozes through the canal. I would like to see a gondola, but it’s low season for tourists and apparently the locals never take gondolas. My friend laughs at the local slang. She seems to have forgotten that, just a couple of days ago, people in Rome were mocking her because her parents are from the south of Italy.

It’s strange that there are so many differences in one small country and even between countries in Europe. It goes much deeper than just language, landscape, and food. Suddenly, I’m embarrassed to be a twenty year old American. I had no idea that there is so much that I don’t know about the world.

I didn’t know that Rome and Venice are cities of shadow and light, rather than color. I’m happy that I bought black and white film by mistake. One day, my memories will be as murky and obscure as these photos.

20 thoughts on “What I Didn’t Know About Italy Is What I Remember

  1. Ouch! One scary experience that must have been. Well, I’d like to invite you to India. The kind of differences you get to see here, not just in the language, culture or food, but just anything and everything, I’m sure will leave you spellbound! 🙂

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  3. You will experience more horrible things in Asia, Philippines specifically… luckily I didn’t experience the pack of men when I was in Rome, fortunately my nun cousin was with me to tour me around so I think it helped. 🙂

    The bw film was a happy mistake better than me who didn’t even think of buying a camera when I lived & worked in Europe, hahaha… well, enough reason to go back and photograph the places, I guess.

    • Hi Prem – I’ve encountered worse things on my travels – mainly in Papua New Guinea and Chuuk, Micronesia. Rome was a “coming attractions” sort of experience. The world is a dangerous place for women traveling alone.

      I can imagine your regret at not having a camera in Europe!

  4. Incredible experience. The beginning reminds me of the Tennessee Williams/Elizabeth Taylor /Katherine Hepburn movie SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER. If you can find it, I’ll bet you’d enjoy it. Great writing as always.<3

  5. Travelling is an adventure. What most people forget is that adventures come with danger. My favourite quotes about travelling is from J.R.R. Tolkien. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Adventures are are always fun to remember when you are home, safe and sound…

    • Oh yeah, it’s a dangerous road out there, especially for solo women travelers. This adventure was just a little preview of what I was to encounter on my journeys. But, you’re right, it’s kind of a thrill to have come so close to danger.

  6. Effectivement, on peut se demander si l’aventure peut se vivre sans danger. Surtout pour les femmes malheureusement. Les hommes ont de bien bas instincts, et partout dans le monde. J’ai beaucoup aimé le parallèle avec la chute de la maison de Dorothy dans le Oz, j’adore ! Vivre tant d’aventures extraordinaires, et pas toujours gaies, et avoir toujours et encore une vision aussi poétique… quelle joie pour moi de te lire !

  7. Now that’s an Italy Tale if never heard.
    The difference between being real or on a guided tour.
    The difference of being 20 and bella not retired or in a family or on buisness.

    • Hi there! Thanks for the comment. I meant “dark and murky” more in the sense of all memories of long ago which are difficult to reconstruct, but your comment made me think of these particular memories in a new way…I suppose that they are dark in a negative sense, but strangely I don’t think of them as “bad”.

  8. I have always thought of Venice as one of the “cities of shadow and light.” The way in which the water reflects the sun at different times of day and the night lamps only illuminate part of a bridge or wall in Venice is poetic. Your photos capture those memories well.

    • Thank you. I’ve never visited Venice during the sunny months, but I have the feeling that that the chiaroscuro effect was intensified by the gloom of March.

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