The Night Before I Came to Italy

by Katie Brutocao (Gonzaga University)
THE NIGHT BEFORE I CAME TO ITALY, my parents, brother and I went to an Italian restaurant as a sort of bon voyage dinner (now that I have eaten two weeks worth of pasta, bread, and pizza I realize that the better choice may have been a greasy cheeseburger joint – but I digress). Hanging on the wall right behind me was Ruth Orkin's famous photograph American Girl in Italy. As my dad looked up from his veal parmesan, he pointed to the picture and said, “That is what you need to avoid when you are in Italy.” I laughed, thinking that scenes like that would never happen in the 21st century, and told my dad not to worry.

Upon arriving in Italy, I realized that Italian men are far more aggressive than I ever would have imagined, and that Orkin’s photograph could very well have been taken of me trying to navigate my way through the busy Florence streets last weekend. Part of me thinks it’s funny to hear people shout “Ciao Bella!” and to see Italian men fighting one another off at the bars to get close to the American girls. But another part of me wonders why such outright displays of affection toward perfect strangers are okay.

The communications student in me suspects that it has something to do with proxemics. Proxemics is extremely powerful because it refers to the way that people structure their personal space. How we interpret the meaning of messages conveyed by the other person is directly related to the distance someone is from us. In Italy, it’s just accepted that people will be closer to one another than in the United States. It’s also assumed that touching will be more frequent and will be less emotionally-charged than touching in America. So it becomes a difficult tightrope to walk when you are in a foreign country trying to blend in and embrace the culture, but the American in you cries foul.

The point where I started feeling uncomfortable with the Italian “closeness” (for lack of a better word) was last weekend when Tamra and I were in a jacket store and the salesman grabbed her, held her in an uncomfortably long hug, and then planted sloppy kisses on each of her cheeks. I rolled my eyes and stifled a giggle, until he turned to me and I realized that I was next! I got the same hug and cheek kisses, and as I walked out of the store it dawned on me that something like that never would happen in America. If we took that scene and transported it to any American shopping mall, the man would have been slapped with a hand at best, a lawsuit at worst. But here in Italy, it is okay, acceptable. I learned today that in 2001, the Italian Supreme Court ruled that a man grabbing a woman’s backside was not sexual harassment as long as the act was not premeditated. (What the heck?!)

I understand that what happened with the jacket man was nowhere near as bad as being “legally” groped. I am also neither harsh enough to immediately assume that what he did was an act of harm nor na├»ve enough to assume it was an act of love (that part was easy to figure out since I got Tamra’s sloppy seconds!) But what should we American girls do when the Italian men get too close for comfort? Should we laugh and let them give us sloppy cheek kisses in the interest of international diplomacy? Or should we stand firm to the proxemics that we have gotten used to in the United States. And if we stand firm, how firm should we be? After all, the same Italian Supreme Court ruled that women could retaliate to a backside grab with an open fist. All I know is, if all American girls retaliated in such a way whenever the line was crossed, there would be a lot of Italian guys with black eyes.