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The Importance Of Being Blonde (In Italy)

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July 30, 2010 Culture & People, Encounters 14 Comments

Strange things happen when you are a foreigner. Even when you believe that you know the adopted culture and people well, some situations may leave you very surprised. In the following, I recount a strange experience which still has me a bit baffled, upset and ashamed, and which brought together two different cultural assumptions:

Firstly, the wide-spread belief that Italians love women with blonde hair. Of the humorous warnings northern-european girls are routinely offered before travelling to Italy, most involve that they will attract young Italian men shouting “Ciao Bella” in droves.

Secondly, a less invoked idea, but nevertheless discussed among expats: When experiencing Italian culture, many foreigners start to feel that they are met with an undercurrent of distrust that seems odd in contrast to the famed conversational Italian warmth.

l cafe piazza rome The Importance Of Being Blonde (In Italy)

Coffee Bar in Rome

So here is the story: One morning, me and a friend walked into my favourite coffee bar. She is from another continent, with very dark skin, and looks a bit unusual among all the Europeans. She also has difficulties walking, which relates to an illness she had as a child. In contrast, I am blonde, fair-skinned, tall and slim, you know the cliché.

Completely oblivious to anything that might ruin the always-flirtatious coffee experience, I was looking forward to introducing my friend to the young and dapper italian barista: He prides himself on giving extra special treatment to the friends I drag along. Little did I reflect on how they had all been blonde!  I was expecting that he would give her a wink, as he generally does with any woman who enters the bar, and maybe even pour her cappucino in the shape of a heart, which he does for me every single time. Oh, how naive.

He caught a glimpse of us, and – not bothering with a smile – hid behind the coffee machine, focussing very hard on our cappucinos which were ready in record time. No hearts for us! He ran outside to tend to other customers. Objectively speaking, there could have been different explanations for this behaviour. But what I read in his eyes was repulsion at the sight of my friend. He looked as though he was going to be physically sick, and I wanted to slap him silly for it. Why was it so hard for him to give this girl a smile? Isn’t that his job? I felt outrage and violation on behalf of my friend.

But my friend didn’t seem to notice the bad behaviour, and so, to protect her, I pretended that everything was normal. It seemed like the right thing to do. She is a lovely, happy, intelligent girl, with the most heartwarming smile, and the last thing I wanted was to hurt her feelings. But my mind was working at a high speed, processing the incident and how it related to the city I had come to love. I realised that her experience in Rome must have been very different from mine.

Thinking about the experience later on, I was pondering racism, and got quite caught up in the idea. When I suggested to Keith that he should try and walk into a coffee bar in heels and a skirt, to gauge the attention, I realised that gender played a powerful role. In any case, we concluded that prejudice was likely quite strong, especially against women. It is telling that woman on Italian television all look like Barbie, over and over again.

But we also realised that the barista may have shown a certain honesty in his reaction: There is a lot of pressure nowadays to be extremely politically correct, and in many metropolitan and diverse cities across the world it is unthinkable that an ethnically different person will receive different service. Sensibility towards the issues that come with diversity is ever increasing. Which – of course! – is the way that things should be. But does being politically correct equal being non-discriminatory? After all, who knows what goes through that London barkeepers’ head, who personifies political correctness and treats everyone exactly the same?

Rome, compared with cities like London and New York, is decidedly non-diverse and non-multicultural. People generally look mediterranean, which is probably why blonde stands out. And perhaps our barista was rather taken aback by my friend’s appearance, which is certainly uncommon in Rome, and naturally showed that surprise and unfamiliarity.

This is only one interpretation of the situation. What are your thoughts? Have you had any strange and interesting experiences in Rome that you believe related to appearance?

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Currently there are "14 comments" on this Article:

  1. Eric says:

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    Interesting. Although there is a much more formal language that indicates respect and formality than we have in Northern Europe, It fairly quickly breaks down into a very honest relationship. You get to know Italians much quicker than Northern Europeans.

    Hard to know what this was however. Trying to understand his possible reasons from a male perspective… but can’t. You might be right on. Just racism.

  2. Kari says:

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    Thanks for an interesting article.

    In my experience adapted beauty(makeup/clothes etc) is crucial and even more important than the cliches of blonde-isms of blue eyes and legs etc. Only with the apparent effort of looking good do a customer recieve a fairly good service (For good service: do not bother coming to Rome…).

    I suggest: add earrings, lipstick, shiny hair, mascara and a freshly ironed shirt (preferably white and spotless) and the respons of any barrista will change.

  3. rachybaby says:

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    As a black woman, my thoughts are that this is a non-issue… You’ve realized that people pre-judge (if that’s what the barista was doing) – I don’t mean to be rude, but whoopdie do. We’ve become soooo politically correct that we now seem to think that it’s a ‘right’ to NOT feel offended.

    I truly admire you feeling protective of your friend…what you did for her is true friendship, but we all have the right to like or not like someone based on whatever reason we want. Is that fair? No, no it all situations, but it’s real. Disliking someone for idiotic, senseless, or silly reasons will never be eradicated, but you just have to accept it and continue to live your life.

    You and your friend got served your cappuccinos (and I’m guessing the barrista wasn’t overtly rude?)….well, that’s all the barrista was suppose to do. And if you both didn’t like the customer service – and to fight the evils of pre-judging – it was your right to complain that you didn’t get your “extras”, or you could’ve showed your displeasure by not patronizing that coffee bar anymore. But again, the barrista did his job, and to your point, would it have been better for all mankind (kumbaya) if he did felt “repulsed” but hid it?

    I’m assuming the continent your friend is from is Africa?? Would you have felt differently had you gone to some African town that was populated by a few, if any, white people? What if those black Africans stopped and stared, and possibly made you feel like you were from Mars? Would you have made an excuse like, “Well, the people in this African town don’t see too many white folks, so they can’t help but react that way. After all, I do, indeed, stand out!”

    I went to Cuba a few years back, and I stayed at a resort that mostly catered to Italian tourists (my travel agent failed to mention that fact). The first time I took off my beach dress at the pool – I had my bathing suit on underneath of course – a large group of Italians stopped and stared at me. They were mesmerized! It was like they were seeing an alien. And throughout my stay I got a few more “looks” like that. Was I offended? No way. They hadn’t seen very many who looked like me – and that was okay.

    I admire your passion, but this issue is really muchado about nothing.

  4. andrew Ar says:

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    Interesting article. I’m american and spend a lot of time in Italy. I have noticed over and over and over that there is strong prejudice against people of african decent all over italy. I love food and so have made friends with a lot of managers/chefs and owners of restaurants and have noticed when a black customer walks in they will try everything they can to ward them off. it is a bit unnerving. I have heard all kinds of words used for africans. I mean it is what it is. What can you do. I am surprised this poster was surprised by the baristas reaction! was she born yesterday?

  5. nadia says:

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    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

  6. Gaius says:

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    This article shows its author’s intelligence and humanity. It also answers -for which I thank the author- a question that has been running through my mind ever since I returned from an utmost depressing stay in Rome: are foreign women aware of the privileged treatment they receive in Rome (or Italy in general)? Do they notice how different they are treated compared to other foreigners -i.e. foreigners that are female nor Caucasian?

    Whereas a foreign female’s stay in Italy is a roller coaster of wine and dine, terrace parties, BBQs, trips to the beach etc., a foreign male in Italy experiences 24/7 loneliness.
    Ask ten foreign males how many Italians he knows and nine times out of ten the answer will be zero. -the one knowing Italians will be of Italian descent and has family in Rome.

    Worse -a lot worse- even is the situation of the “extracomunitari”, overseas foreigners. Many of them live their entire life in seclusion: natives interact with them only if strictly needed, most of the times in a work environment. Should I remind that, after all, ghetto is an Italian word?

  7. Eleonora says:

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    I think you’re judging every Italian by ONE only person.
    I’m Italian, I live in Piedmont and some immigrants are living here…I’m wondering why I meet Italians who hang out smiling and chatting with not white people if we are so bad…

  8. EMELIO SARTORIW=E says:

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    THE BLOND ITALIAN WOMEN ARE GREAT IN BED

  9. Simon says:

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    I’m half italian and I have family in Italy. Over the years it’s been made very clear to me what goes on in many parts of Italy. I’ll answer on the assumption that you meant a black person (but personally I imagined someone from South America with very dark skin). If you walk the streets in Italy you’ll see that there is quite a large minority of black people there (I think that’s because Italy is physically quite near to Africa and relatively cheap to travel to because Italy is so touristic). This in itself isn’t the issue of course. The issue is that some of these immigrants to Italy are often known to sell things illegally in the streets, pick pockets, try to offer fake Euro notes in exchange for your home currency, steal things and generally do nasty a disrespectful things to natives and tourists alike to try to make money. As a result, the people who live in Italy will naturally become wary of those kinds of people. Statistically, since it tends to be black people who are causing the most trouble (so I hear) it makes sense that they’ll build up a revulsion to seeing someone black who might be one of “them”. Parents will warn their children to be particularly careful around black people. It’s prejudiced but in the eyes of a parent it’s better to be safe than sorry. I think this would explain the revulsion reaction that the original poster is convinced she saw. It’s not just racism for the sake of racism. It’s a reaction to a trend but then I suppose you could argue that’s how most racism starts and is maintained. Alternatively, as others have said, the barista could have just been rushed off his feet that day, or having a bad day or just broke up with his girlfriend or just had his car crashed into or any number of other possible things. To generalise the whole of Italy from a single moment of service by a single person is completely unscientific and unjustifiable. If he did happen to be a good representation of Italy though I think my response explains the revulsion. He’s just remembering all the horror stories he’s heard from other people or maybe even seen first hand. My uncle’s in the carrabinieri (Italian military police) and he’s mentioned that kind of crime in the streets before.

  10. Rebecca (other) says:

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    Hey Rebecca, interesting article. I would have liked it if you could have given more scope…ie., you and your ethnic friend had gone to many places and you had observed many incidents like this one you had here.

    That being said, your hunch is probably right. I am half Italian, half Tunisian and I live in Barcelona (but I have lived all over Spain).

    Anyhow, I am probably a lot like your friend- dark hair, dark eyes, brown skin, and I can relate! I think in the Mediterranean, they still have this “blonde ideal.” I definitely get treated quite differently than most of my friends who are lighter skinned. FYI, I modelled in Asia and Los Angeles from 2003-2007, so it’s not like I am what most people deem “unattractive.” When I was single, I remember walking into a club and a Spanish man said “witch” cause of my long black hair.

    In Italy, I have had some rough experiences, and that is my home turf. I remember in Rome I got hassled by an immigrations officer. This particular summer I had “faked and baked,” (not proud of that), and my skin was super dark. He was telling me to just “give up the Rolexes.” He had assumed I was an African selling counterfeit Rolexes and handbags. That same summer, I also remember just waiting at a bus stop (in Firenze), and a mother and daughter started cussing me out- saying I am a prostitute and a slut (I was dressed normally). They had assumed I was an African prostitute.

    But in the end, I am not so bitter. Each country and region in the world has different concepts of beauty. Maybe a blonde girl visiting a South Pacific island would be seen as unattractive because she is not their definition of beauty. It is nothing to take personally.

    The conclusion is YES, the concept of the blonde beauty may be revered through out all of the Mediterranean, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will get racist treatment every day if you are “ethnic” or “dark skinned.” I still get a lot of annoying profiling in Spain (where I currently live), but I can’t allow it to ruin my everyday or I would go nuts!

  11. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

    have never read so much bullshit! loads of blonde haired, blue eyed Italians! it was once settled by Germanics from the north for centuries!

  12. andrew says:

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    Did you ever think he was busy with some thoughts that had nothing to do with your coffee? Jesus you didnt get a heart shape in your coffee?!?! Racism! And what if he liked you in particular? Get it gurl! You might be right but you dont even know this personAnd then to deal with this possible dilusion you’ve applauded him for being politically incorrect. . Your brain hates you. Youre only in another country get over yourself…

  13. Paula says:

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    This article makes no sense. I went on a school trip in Italy and my brown friend got a lot of male attention. And I (brunette) was the only one to get free ice cream in a ice salon when I was in a pack of blonde girls later on. I heard more stories that brown girls were quite popular in Italy.

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