This Woman’s World

Photo credit: Tokyoform

Fimmina senza amuri è fiore senza oduri
A woman without love is a flower without perfume
– Sicilian proverb

It’s the last class of the evening. We’ve been talking about manners and culture, and we’re all tired. I wind up the last minutes with an open class chat about men and women and what they expect of each other in different cultures. I throw some provocative statements out into the room. ‘Men should always hold doors open for women.’ There’s a mixed reaction to this one. A few say ‘yes’, but most say ‘no, not necessarily’. There’s a brief discussion which ends when one student says, “You hold the door for someone who needs it: it doesn’t matter if they’re a man or a woman,” and we all nod, satisfied with this sensible conclusion.

I decide to up the stakes a little: ‘Men should always pay for women when out on a date.’ This one gets more ‘yes’ answers. One student ventures the concept of going Dutch, but the men in the class are nonplussed by the idea. They are men: ergo, they pay. I put forward the point of view that, as a woman, being in debt to a man who wants to have sex with you puts you in a position of weakness. They look at me with incomprehension: it’s either not an idea that’s occurred to them or it’s something that isn’t talked about.

Photo credit: Jurvetson

Nuddu si pigghia si nun s’assumigghia
Nobody marries who isn’t alike
– Sicilian proverb

We move on and I make a final statement: ‘Men should always see a woman to her door at the end of the night’. There’s a resounding ‘yes’ from the class. They’re confused that I would even question it. When I tell them that I’ve never been seen home after a date they are appalled. One woman, her mouth dropping open in dumbfounded amazement, says, “But we Sicilians always say that Englishmen are so well-mannered. We call them ‘lords’!” I try to explain that London – where I’ve done all my dating – is a law unto itself. When each person has travelled an hour on the tube from opposite sides of the city to the centre to meet, for the man to then take the woman home is impractical. It falls upon deaf ears. “It isn’t safe for a woman to walk on her own,” says Gaetano with finality.

Photo credit: Spyros Papaspyropolous

Cù asini caccia e fimmini cridi, faccia di paradisu nun ni vidi
No-one who hunts girls or donkeys will ever get to heaven
– Sicilian proverb

A different night on Via Umberto. It’s late so I’m walking home from work the long way, along better-lit main streets rather than cut-throughs. A man on a bicycle goes past and slows to match my pace. He says something – I miss the words, but when a man on the road stops a woman walking on her own it’s not generally for innocent reasons. I’ve been caught before, thinking that someone wanted information when in fact they wanted me to ‘go for a ride’. I keep my head down and ignore him, pulling my bag closer to my body as I carry on walking. He persists. “No, no! It’s OK! Please!” I stop walking but stay the far side of the pavement from him. “Are you going to Piazza Duomo?” he asks. I wilfully misunderstand and point the way. “It’s down there to the left.” He shakes his head “No! I asked if *you were going* to Piazza Duomo.” I realise that there is no-one else around, and start walking again, anxious to get away from him. “No. I’m not.” I hurry towards the brighter lights and people on Via Etnea, hoping I can get there without incident.

When I reach Via Etnea, where the street is wide and well-lit and other people are walking, I slow my pace a little. I feel safer as I pass Savia and Spinella cafes, with their customers sitting outside eating granita. Then the man on the bicycle appears again. This time his intentions are more than clear. He waves a fistful of money at me. “Are you going to Piazza Duomo? Do you want to spend half an hour with me?” I snap. “Fuck you! I’m going home after a long day at work. Leave me alone!” I carry on walking as fast as I can, head down, cursing my stupidity for having lost my cool and for having told him I was going home. If he follows me I’m screwed: there’s nowhere to divert to. He seems to have got the message, but I don’t feel safe until I’ve got into my building and slammed the heavy outer iron door behind me.

Photo credit: Fon-Tina
Photo credit: Fon-Tina

La bona mugghieri è la prima ricchizza di la casa
A good wife is the richest part of the home
– Sicilian proverb

“You remember that husband and wife team?” asks Deanna. “The beginners?” I nod. “Well, he doesn’t come any more – he decided he was too stupid.” I make a sad face as I shove pasta into my mouth. He’d have been fine in a lesson with someone of the same level as him, but his wife had just enough knowledge to make him feel inadequate. Well, that and the fact that she’d sit there looking irritated at having to wait for him and then scold him when he didn’t get things right. Practising negative structures one day I asked him if she was German, expecting to get the reply, ‘no, she’s Italian.’ Instead, he sniggered and wagged his finger like a stern schoolmarm, watching his wife out of the corner of his eye. “Yes, she’s German!” His wife rolled her eyes without rancour: I don’t think this was the first time she’d heard the joke.

Deanna continues. “Anyway, I got one of my other students a job with them. They wanted a man – a *man*, mind you.” Chris raises an eyebrow and Deanna nods. Her voice is light but the sarcasm is impossible to miss. “Yeah – because of course women get pregnant and have periods and stuff.” She laughs: the brittle, resigned kind of laugh that means it isn’t funny at all.

Photo credit: Flood

È bona donna, donna chi nun parra
A good woman is one who doesn’t speak
– Sicilian proverb

Chris waves his fork over the mini arancini left on his plate. “Anyone want one of these?” Deanna gives a filthy chuckle. “Go on, Kate. You know you want a piece of Chris’ balls.” Chris looks across at her. “I’d say Kate’s got plenty of balls already, actually. Not like them.” He flicks his eyes towards the three women on the table next to us. “See those girls? They’ve been sitting there in silence ever since they arrived. It’s the men doing all the talking.” I glance sideways. He’s right. They’re not even talking to each other; instead listening in meek subservience to their menfolk holding court. “Just wait until they marry them, though,” says Chris. “They’re all sweetness and light while they’re reeling them in, but then they get married and turn into proper umbrella breakers.” We laugh at his use of one of our boss’ favourite phrases to describe someone who’s a real martinet. “How does the umbrella break, though?” muses Chris. “I mean – is it like this?” – he mimes stabbing someone – “or like this?” he whacks an imaginary umbrella over someone’s head. He grins appreciatively as he performs the second action. “It’s that one, isn’t it? Has to be!”

Photo credit: Duncan

Pigghiala bedda e pigghiala pri nienti, ca di la bedda ti nnì fai cuntento
Take her if she’s beautiful – even if she has nothing – because you can be proud of her beauty
– Sicilian proverb

I’m five minutes from home when I feel the first spot of rain. I look up at the sky and quicken my pace. Two minutes from home the spots turn into regular raindrops. “Oh, please.” I mutter a silent prayer to the weather gods. “Just hold off until I get home, will you?” They listen. The rain starts in earnest as I reach the shelter of the doorframe and fumble for my keys. I hear a shout from across the street. “Ombrella? Eyyy, bella! Ombrella?” I look up to see one of the wandering African street sellers grinning and waving at me. He laughs. “Finally you notice me, gorgeous! Need an umbrella?” I laugh and shake my head, pointing out that I’ve got my keys and am going inside. He looks me up and down with an appreciative grin, then waves me goodnight. “Night, beautiful.” It may be all talk, but the open admiration is something that I’m more than happy never to get used to about being a woman here in Italy.

This month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable subject was ‘Being a woman in Italy’. As you can see, I chickened out of the bigger picture, choosing instead to focus on my personal experiences and those of women around me. Do check out how the other ladies have treated the subject, though:

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About Kate Bailward

Kate Bailward is a cat-loving, trifle-hating, maniac driver. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+
This entry was posted in Italy Blogging Roundtable, Living Like a Maniac and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to This Woman’s World

  1. Alexandra says:

    I like your personal experience report, and your almost fictional narrative writing style. I don’t think any one of us can really get the big picture without generalizing.

  2. Thanks Alexandra. It’s a subject that I initially thought would be simple because there’s so much material, but that just makes it harder. As you say, it’s so easy to fall into generalisation. Also, the fact that we’re straniere adds another layer of complexity to it because of our different cultural perceptions and expectations. Tough subject to write about, but I’m glad we did it. It’s made me think. Hard.
    Kate Bailward´s last post ..This Woman’s World

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  4. Simon says:

    In my view, one of the traits of a great storyteller is making me think without shouting opinions at me, usually by providing a point of view I can empathise with then providing experiences from that point of view, which you’ve done here admirably.

    Stories like these have the power to get people to really think about their behaviour, not by using harsh, polarising, generalised judgement which amounts to little more than shouting.

  5. Pingback: Being a woman in Italy… in the Renaissance |


    I jest. Seriously, thank you so much for a lovely, thoughtful comment. It’s really appreciated. I was worried when posting this that it might come off too ‘me, me, me’ and superficial, so I’m really glad to hear that you enjoyed reading it.

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  8. Leila says:

    Loved this piece of writing – you need the ‘balls’ to cope with the ‘open admiration’. Not sure I could deal with it – though I do remember coming back from South America, having become very used to the attention, feeling somewhat disappointed not to have men constantly cluck clucking at me! Write more on women please :-)

  9. Thanks lovely! Yeah, there’s plenty more to be said. Once I started working on this piece there were so many ideas that I had to bin loads just to be able to fit everything into one post. This one’s worth revisiting, for sure … xxx

  10. Michelle says:

    I agree with the above commenters, this is a refreshing take on a delicate subject. Very nicely done. It’s bad enough up here in central Italy to deal with the everyday sexism, I can hardly imagine how challenging it would be down in Sicily, so my hat’s off to you!
    Michelle´s last post ..Florence Birth Story 5: Kate and Livia at Ponte a Niccheri

  11. Thanks Michelle. :) There’s such an interesting dichotomy in the way that women are both revered and scorned. I don’t know if it’s particularly southern – I’ve never lived in the centre or the north so am not qualified to comment – but it’s certainly different from England. In many ways it’s positive: mothers, wives and brides are put on pedestals. Those of us who fall outside that remit, however, run the danger of being tarred with a very sticky brush.

  12. Tina says:

    Hi Kate,
    As usual, you have demonstrated a good storytelling style, and I really enjoyed reading this. :-)
    Having lived in the south (Puglia) and now living in the north (Emilia Romagna) it has been very interesting to note the differences between the two.
    Naturally, my experience in Puglia is much more in line with what you describe here. But my experience in Emilia Romagna is really pretty different, now that I think of it. If you were to make the statement “men should always pay on a date” to a class in Bologna, I think it would open a big discussion on going dutch, which seems to be acceptable after the first couple of dates. I also don’t get followed up here (yay!). Another difference is the higher percentage of employed women – probably the closer you get to the continent the more, um, “continental” things are. There is still the presence of gender roles and chivalry, but they just aren’t as pronounced as in Puglia. Of course, other people’s mileage may differ. ;-)

  13. Thanks for dropping by and giving us your experiences, Tina. :) It’s great to hear from someone who’s lived in both the south and the north and can compare the two. Of course, as you say, not everyone’s experiences are the same, but it’s good to hear that I’m not the only one that’s attracted unwanted followers. Guess it’s the tall red / blonde haired thing that does it!

    In terms of female employment, things will take time. I’ve sometimes felt, living down here in the south, that we’re about 50 years in the past compared to the UK, putting us round or about 1963. And as a song from that year says: a change is gonna come … :)

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