An old gypsy woman at the Spanish Steps, Feb. 9, 2011
I realized today (…Am I caught up yet?) that unbeknownst to some men (and I am sure some women too), third-wave feminism did not die out in the 90s when it began, but is actually still alive and kicking its very high and pointy stiletto-ed heels as well as steel-toed combat boots (both of which I happen to own, even if I am more partial to the pointy variety at the moment)! By the way, I am generally inclined towards ignoring the outline of my headlines and just plunging into whatever topic most interests me first.
What a way to start? The topic that most interests me first is Italian men… Right! Well, it’s perhaps not in the way that you might think. No… This is not the “Eat. Pray. Love.” – version (Yes, there may be many more references to come… Deal with it) of some handsome, young, Italian man with an unpronounceable (at least, for me) name such as “Massimiliano” sweeping me off my very queer-loving feet into some fairytale love-land or even love-fest. Actually, this is a two-part observation: one of two men I know personally, and the other of the Roman men I have observed so far… or should I say, who have observed me?
Part 1. I have two friends here. Fortunately, or unfortunately, they both happen to be male and Roman. One, I believe, is more accepting of his Roman-ness and wears it as a badge of honour (Friend A). The other, well… We’ll just say that he thinks of himself as a sensitive type of man (Friend B), which I am not quite certain fits in with my perception of the Roman male… Then again, what do I know? I have only been here a couple of times in my life, and only know these two guys. So, what the heck.
Without going into very long and rather tedious stories, I will simply state that both Friend A & B demonstrate a similar behavioural pattern, i.e. the when all else fails, “women-are-at-fault-all-times-no-matter-what.” Curiously enough, this behavioural pattern has manifested only when I was engaging in an assertive act, such as expressing my own position on a topic, or my own right to act independently, or my own right to be heard and not be demeaned. Immediately from both of these men, I was told that I was somehow injuring them by being assertive. That by actually standing up for myself, I was actually being “rude” and “aggressive!” (Insert “Angry Black Woman Syndrome” because that is what it surely sounded like they were suggesting to me.) I am in therapy. I know for a fact that I am certainly not a sufferer of ABWS. (Now,where is that certificate of proof?)
Part 2. Beyond my two friends, I have been subject to the scrutiny of the general Roman male population, whose members, I can tell you, are not shy about making their assessment of your sexual appeal known. Between the catcalls (“Bella!”), the stares (up and down, and up and down, and up and down, and call the friends over to stare up and down again and up… you know), the polite hellos (“Buonasera“), the direct one-on-one pretend conversations (“Hi, are you American?”or “Where are you from?”), and the pull-the-car-over-to-the-side-of-the-road-to-stare-and-try-to-engage-in-conversation (yes, this actually happened on Sunday); life here in Rome has been quite simple as a woman to enjoy.
I don’t at all feel like a walking vagina on a daily basis whatsoever. Nope. Not at all! I don’t at all feel like I should try to scrub away the filthy, grimy looks I received all day long as soon as I get home – Mind you, one never knows if the looks are due to lewd thoughts, or racist thoughts, or some whacked combination. Either way, it does make leaving my little studio each day quite an adventure! It could be enough for a more reserved woman might want to resort to wearing a burka, were she permitted to do so.
Back in October as well as now, I wondered how Roman women have been able to deal with this kind of crap (what I deemed Roman male chauvinistic attitude towards women’s equality and sexuality) for generations. Then, I thought about the rapidity of the language of Italian… and how for the most part, it was pretty hard for anyone to get a word in edgewise… and I had the answer! The women didn’t listen to these whining,complaining, and seemingly sex-starved men -The women just talked over the men! (Okay, maybe I am being a bit simplistic, but…)
I suppose the therapist in me had prompted me to have the patience to listen to them, or even to pay mind to them. In the case of my friends, the reality was that they just did not like having a woman stand up to them… once again. In a patriarchal society, what’s new in that? And in the case of the general Roman male population… Well, men always desire what they esteem highly, but can never have.
Renewing the “Bitch” card
So, I renewed my “bitch” card, put on my name tag “Bitch Numero Uno” and wore it proudly today as I walked out of a bookstore, leaving Friend B behind, who thought that I should spend my time chasing after him (after he walked off and left me without letting me know where he would be going… I imagine he did this because of the small lecture I gave him on feminism… Oh well!). Side note: I am beginning to think I need to pick better Roman male friends.
Being a “bitch” is a necessary mode that all Black women must be able to access in my humble opinion. When I say “bitch,” I mean that you are quite capable of showing even deeper levels of your personality, that you too are a “beautiful, intelligent, talented, courageous hellion,” and will serve all of that up with a smile. 😉 All you need is a reason. Right?
Black women have for too long been subject to the bottom of the totem pole. It is in our best interest, therefore, to thwart anyone who tries to get in our way from upward movement… At least, these are my beliefs. I could also apply the same thoughts to a whole slew of minority groups to which I also belong (general women-folk, foreign-folk, gay-folk, chronically-ill-folk…you get the picture). In essence, down with the man!… Did I just write that? Well, what I mean is… Power to the people! And the people, in this moment, happen to be me. And I happen to be a Black woman living in Rome, albeit for a short time, where minorities are not well-liked or respected (no matter how nicely it’s put – Thanks, Francesco and Catherine)… and I am not sure exactly what the position women exactly hold… and if it is actually seen as vertical (of course, I am quite new to Rome, so don’t hold this against me… My opinion might change).
Old gypsy woman
There are many beggars here in Rome like many cities around the world – This is nothing new. Guidebooks, natives, embassies, your friends and even parents warn you against them. Don’t give them your money. While one distracts you, others will come to rob you. Darn right! It’s true… It is equally true, and not surprising for me, that a majority of the beggars that I have seen in Rome have been women… And of course, minority women. From what little I can tell, my assumption is that they are gypsies, who have been notoriously stereotyped as thieves and who live in fear in Italy due to their minority status, especially as the level of intolerance for cultural and ethnic diversity increases throughout the Italy’s major cities. Sadly, it seems to me there is a lot to be feared by the Italian male, if you happen to be female and a slight shade darker than White… At least, this is my opinion for the moment. Who knows what experiences and new insights 17 more days will bring.
For the most part, I like beggars. I always have. I should actually rephrase that. I like to help the homeless. I was brought up that way. It is not in my nature to look askance at someone, or to turn my nose up, or to shift my eyes away from that which makes me uncomfortable. I learnt this from my mother, who I watched when I was a child give to many strangers bags of food when we, ourselves, were quite poor.
Distinctly, I have a memory of an old man who came to our home in Jamaica asking for food in exchange for work. My mother would have been happy to have given him the food without having him work, but he insisted to cut the grass in the back of our house. I watched him all day cut away at the tall grass with nothing but his frail body wielding, what seemed to me then, a giant cutlass. This image has never left me.
So it was that I found myself today standing atop the Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti (“Spanish Steps”), located in the Piazza di Spagna, looking down at an old gypsy woman holding her hands clasp together as though praying. She called to each passerby and to those who stood above her, “Ho fame.” (“I am hungry.”) I stared at her for a long time. I did not think much about whether or not she were telling the truth. I only thought that I liked the look of her face. Her face told many stories as she had seen many things – Stories I would never know. So I took pictures of her – Several. And for that, I placed a euro in her jar. Still afterwards she called to me, “Bella, ho fame.”
I smiled at her, and thought, “So am I.”