Does “no” translate in Italian?
“Africa!! Have you heard of Africa?”
Emma, my travel partner, and I exchange confused expressions as a man dressed head to toe in black clothing carrying an oversized brightly colored tribal print bag approaches us. He sticks out among the hundreds of tourists walking amok, focusing too much on their Canon cameras and Google Maps smartphone app to pay attention to who they bump into.
“Africa,” he begins to shout forcefully, following us a few meters before he seemingly loses interest when we hurry off.
Rome, Italy is just a tad bit off geographically from Africa. This eternal city features architecture dating centuries older than [the foundations of the country most familiar to me, unlike any place I have experienced before]. A city of romance, decadent Italian cuisine, and historical sites galore: maybe I was expecting something magical, unrealistic theatrical adaptations to blame for my unreasonably high expectations.
“Are you from Africa?”
Not this again. Walking from the Roman Forum to the Colosseum, Emma and I are stopped several times by men with the same attire and bag choice, resulting in similar conversation exchange. “Do you know Africa,” “Are you African,” “Let me show you Africa”: the soliciting is relentless, if it is in fact soliciting. However, one exchange elicits more than simply a confused and annoyed response.
“Africa! Look at these African friendship bracelets,” he pressures us as we attempt to decipher his accent. He heads toward us quickly, closing in the gap of personal space still left between us and this man. Still clueless about what he wants from us.
He reaches out, attempting to put his arms around my shoulder; I flinch, murmuring a few choice words. He aggressively walks closer, grabbing my wrist while attempting to fasten some sort of multicolored rope to it.
“What the FUCK let go,” I pull my wrist forcefully back, jolting away.
We don’t even attract [so little as the stares of those] passing by. Picture taking and finding the best souvenir shops are more important.
* * *
Twinkling lights that scale the stucco chromatically blur together as our bottle of Pinot Grigio disappears. The flirtatious smile the waiter gives as he pours complementary limoncello at our candlelit table on the patio still resonates in my mind. The hazy sun is long gone; the humidity making it pleasant to enjoy a meal outside in early March. Identical vespas line the nonexistent sidewalk, making the grid of narrow cobblestone lined streets an indistinguishable maze easy to lose oneself in. There is charm in Trastevere, pushing me to return my faith for the city, adventure and wonder down every corner. I can almost say the charm worked.
“Ciao, bella!” the waiter says to us.
After taking six years of Italian Language and Culture over the course of my high school career as well as attempting to speak with my Nonna as a child without reprimanding, I easily understand conversation between local Italians, proving especially useful to order food in small family owned trattorias. As we walk from the restaurant to a nearby bar, the waiter calls out, “il mio cuore, sei carina,” holding both his hands to his heart as if my leaving caused him the greatest heartache in the world, afraid I was to be the one that got away and his one true love.
And then he starts jogging toward us, stopping a few feet away. I notice the detailed features on his sheepishly handsome young face; he couldn’t have been older than 20, unable to grow stubble. Cute, I thought, harmless, innocent. In the middle of his asking for my number, I turn to leave, politely yet flattered, when I realize no isn’t an acceptable answer. My wrist has been getting a great deal of contact on this trip.
Although slightly more picturesque, the narrow, darkened Roman streets are reminiscent of the alleys back in New York, venturing down subway platforms, paying attention to whatever may be lurking around the corner. We attempt to navigate back to Piazza Trilussa, a reference point by the water, a safe distance from the chaotic maze. Hurrying to find our way, persistent stares send a chill down my spine, the whistles piercing my ears. My neck aches from looking over my shoulder, breathless from brisk walking.
Once we stumble upon the Piazza, the hundreds of young people congregating around the steps all have hands full of alcohol bottles and cigarettes. Faint rock music can be heard from a venue blocks away, its sound resonating between chatter in languages foreign to me. Pan out and the diverse mix of students, locals, and visitors alike look happily engaged socially, a typical Saturday night when the weather is bearable. Neighboring streets to the Piazza are impassable from the crowds outside bars and cafes, as well as restaurants beginning to close shop. The bars inside are empty, but on a night like tonight it is rare to be found anywhere but on the street drinking the beer you spent twenty minutes ordering.
But when you get closer, what do you hear?
“No thank you,” an English tourist says to the persistent proposition of another drink.
“I’m fine,” when an American student studying abroad at John Cabot University, its campus down the block, is asked what’s wrong with her when she denies an Italian student a kiss.
“This happens all the time,” she says; her tone plagued with what she’s used to on a nightly basis. We have a decent amount in common: we’re both from New York, we’re both young women trying to experience living in a different country and fully immersing ourselves in a foreign culture, attempting to gain something from abandoning everything we know to be familiar. What we did not expect was to be berated by men, justified by the fact our bodies are sexualized or for the mere fact we are tourists, not native to the space we currently possess.
“They’re just a little pushy here; it could be a lot worse.” Her response raises more questions than I want to answer.
* * *
We lug our carry-ons down the hostel’s four flights of rickety, creaking stairs. Last on our list we walk to the Trevi Fountain, wishing to channel our inner Lizzie McGuire and make a wish.
I see a man in all black and a vibrant bag walking up to what looks like a tourist when—
“CHE SCHIFA!!…” Do not mess with an Italian woman.
An older Italian couple sitting next to us, enjoying their shared cone of gelato, becomes interested when watching the same situation unfold. I overhear the woman in Italian mutter “Io odio la città.” I hate the city.
I was warned prior to my Roman holiday to beware of pickpocketing, scam artists, and pushy men with suspicious intentions, but I thought New York City would have prepared me for the worst. But I guess when in Rome…
Photo by Pexels.