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.