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.
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?Rate this article by clicking here.
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