By KENNA LEWIS
One recent evening, Andrea Young, a study abroad student from California, was walking down a cobblestoned street in Trastevere when a pair of strangers approached her and a friend.
“Americane?,” one of the unfamiliar men shouted at them, blocking the sidewalk. “Molto belle!” The stranger gestured to his apartment around the corner. “Would you like to come up for the evening?” he asked.
For many young women in the United States, such a scene would bring to mind the infamous “stranger danger” their mothers relentlessly warn them about. But in Rome’s busy streets, such forward invitations to young foreigners are considered normal.
“I had no idea how overwhelming the men in Rome would be,” said Young, adding she and her friend managed to rush along after politely refusing the stranger’s invitation.
“They are so forward and so much more aggressive than Americans. They will say whatever comes to mind without a filter. And they won’t keep their hands in their place,” said Young.
Catcalls, uninvited groping and sexual comments are so frequent, they often amount to culture shock for some students. Many study abroad programs have now begun hosting safety seminars centered on the behavior of Roman men and how best to cope with it.
Indeed, playing hard-to-get is not the norm among young Romans. Whether a woman agrees to a quick cup of coffee or engages in sidewalk banter for no more than 30 seconds, she is likely to be showered with more compliments than she would receive from the average American Joe after several dates.
A simple ciao bella is the least a young study abroad student can expect on her daily walk to class; but many say the slightly creepier. “My baby” or “my little sex machine” are not uncommon.
These experiences have brought into stark contrast the different attitudes between young Romans and their American counterparts. Carter Russell, a study abroad student from California, admits to sharing some of these lustful thoughts when a beautiful girl passes by. But the difference, he says, is that he keeps them to himself.
“Romans aren’t criticized as much as we are for, say, uninvited touching in public,” Russell explains. “I think the increased attention toward gender equality has made such open behavior taboo in the United States. As a result, American men tend to be far more discreet in their approach to women.”
While some American students may find catcalls and flirtatious gropes more flattering than problematic, others find it is challenging to adjust to this culture as they realize that a simple exchange can quickly go wrong.
“I have a short temper, so when strangers approach me I have a tendency to quickly tell them off,” said Brynne Murphy, study abroad student from Rhode Island.
“But in some cases this is exactly what one shouldn’t do. Young Romans don’t like it when you talk back to them. Show too much attitude and the situation can turn dangerous,” said Murphy.
To help ensure greater safety and prepare students for situations like these, programs like Cultural Experiences Abroad have begun hosting seminars during orientation focused on “dealing with” Italian men.
“We decided to implement the safety orientation because we noticed that there have been more student issues lately,” Anna Felberbaum, CEA’s Rome Program Director, said.
“Other programs may like to pretend that the world is safe and wonderful, but that is not the world we live in today.”
Over two separate sessions, students participating in the CEA program were recently briefed on what to expect from Roman men, and how to keep their interactions as short and safe as possible.
Michele Caneschi, a police officer from Florence, and Rhianne Taylor, a young English woman who has lived in Rome for several years, joined Felberbaum in giving warnings, describing personal experiences, and explaining how to blend better with the local scene.
According to Felberbaum, Italian men, while undoubtedly passionate, are not always as aggressive and direct with everyone. They often choose young American students for a reason.
“They expect some young [American] women to be easier because those women send out the wrong message,” says Felberbaum. “It is not unusual to see a drunk American girl dressed in a short skirt staggering down the street without inhibitions. Italian girls don’t drink to get drunk so they are rarely in that situation.”
Knowing this, many Romans deliberately set out for the so-called “American bars” in hopes of finding this particular type of young woman.
“On the several nights I have been at American bars, [Italian] men have come up to my friends and me and have asked straight out ‘are you American?’” says Murphy. “Sometimes we put on a fake Irish accent just to make them go away. And they will!”