Our first night in Rome, we decided to check out the night scene. We read a travel guide and asked our dorm’s security guard for tips on the clubs. I was dressed in a black lycra skirt and a sheer muslin shirt. After a subway ride, two bus transfers and a seven-block walk, we were standing outside Supper Club.
Not even 10 minutes after entering, a handsome Italian started hitting on us. Normally, when a handsome man in a Dolce & Gabbana shirt is winking at you, it’s a good sign that he will pay for all your drinks. But he didn’t want to pay for our drinks: He wanted to marry us. And because I said no, he wanted to marry my friend. He told my friend, “I am your Tarzan, you are my Jane, and we are made for each other.” Sure.
She laughed hysterically. Unaware of our delight, Tarzan ran to the other girls in our group and serenaded them all with the same dialogue. Effortlessly, all seven of us got the same Tarzan-Jane line.
This was fun though. In India, guys are too shy to ask you out. In America, they are too broke to pay for your drinks – but here, a step ahead, they want to marry you. How quick is that?
A few weeks later, on the subway to school, an old man asked if I was Indian. I smiled and said “Yes.” Apparently, that was enough for 65-year-old Paolo to ask me to cook an Indian dinner for him. He told me his family was in Genoa and that he went back every weekend. He slyly asked if I would like to see his apartment.
His audacity stunned me. It took me an entire month to convince my Mom I was only going to Italy, not communist Russia. If she found out about my newly acquired men-attracting skills, she’d raise hell and blame my dad for “letting me go out of hand.” I quietly smiled and got off at the next stop.
Toward the end of my semester, I made up my mind about Italian men. The last day in Rome, I was walking back to my dorm from the Vatican at around 11:30 p.m. and saw a drunk American staggering on the road. He was new to Rome and had too much to drink. He had forgotten the way to his hotel.
He showed me his hotel keys and I recognized the hotel as the one right next to my dorm. Being too aware of Italian drivers, I was sure a rushing Vespa scooter would collide with the drunken American. So I offered to walk him to his hotel. In his slurred voice, he told me that he was a principal at an Iowa high school. He was vacationing in Italy with his wife and grandson.
And while we waited for the signal to turn green, this high school principal leaned in and groped me. Shocked beyond words, I involuntarily shoved him, crossed the road, and yelled out “I was only trying to help you, you S.O.B!” That is when I changed my opinion of Italian men.
Men, after all, are only men. Americans, Italians and Indians – they are all alike. That night I cried and ran to the gelateria, ordered a triple scoop and with tears streaming down my face. Still upset, I was tapped on the shoulder. The old Italian behind the counter was offering me his handkerchief. Smiling through my tears, I accepted it.
While it is still impossible to forgive the principal, in the back of my mind, I’m not really surprised. Coming from a culture where an older man treats a young girl like his own daughter, it is sad to think that somewhere between America and Italy, my innocence and belief in the goodness of human beings were lost. But while in Italy, every time I felt violated by a man’s wrong intentions, just being in the land that inspired love and hope would resurrect my faith in the goodness of humanity all over again.
Jinal Shah can be reached at email@example.com.