If you’re a female travelling alone, cat-calling and unwanted attention is pretty well guaranteed.
I mean, cat-calling is a part of everyday life. But it’s a little more unnerving when you’re in a strange country and unfamiliar with the territory.
I’ve gotten pretty adept at tuning out unwanted attention. I usually just ignore the person and be on my merry way. Often I look like a greasebag anyway, and admittedly it’s often part of the plan to deflect unwanted attention. But sometimes, sometimes those scumbags are persistent. Sometimes a person’s unwanted advances makes your heart race, and your palms sweat, and you kinda just wanna scrub your skin down with boiling water to feel clean again.
That happened a LOT in Italy. I’d rather not speculate on why Italy was creepier than most other destinations I’ve been to, but it was definitely one of the worst.
I read an article awhile back about how women shouldn’t lie to men about being married to deflect unwanted attention — we should firmly say “no” and make it clear that we’re not interested. Sometimes people have trouble with rejection. The fascinating and infuriating “Bye Felipe” Instagram account chronicles this issue quite well.
And yeah, I get the logic behind this “I’m not interested” thing. But sometimes it just won’t work. Actually, most of the time it just won’t work. I know, because I keep fucking trying.
That article’s been on my mind a lot when I travel. (Ironically, I can’t find it anywhere at the moment.) I always try to mentally talk myself into standing firm and resolute against unwanted attention. To be honest, I’ve felt a little ashamed to to otherwise. I’ve felt like it was my obligation.
It was May in Cinque Terre, and my evening in Vernazza had ended a little late. My friend Sal and I had dinner and then parted aways, but we were headed in different directions. I still had a 45-minute wait.
“You go,” I told her. We had been hiking all day, and there was plenty of people around anyway.
With her gone, I lingered around the one-room station and checked the schedule a second time. I was bleary eyed and tired. I realized a guy had walked up behind me — I was looking at the schedule on the board for a few minutes.
“Where you going?” he asked. He was a slight Italian dude who seemed harmless enough.
“Oh, Levanto,” I said. “Just waiting for my train.” I didn’t mind disclosing this info — Levanto is a big town.
“Ah! Come have a drink!” he said, and clapped his hands together.
The entire street was well-lit and busy. People were hanging out all over the place — seated at the sidewalk tables, or strolling through streets. For some reason, I assumed he had friends and was inviting me to join them. I’m honestly still not sure why I thought this, except that he motioned to a busy area with a group of people gathered around a table.
“Sure!” I said. I was excited to meet a friendly local. He told me he owns a bar in the next town over, and sure enough, he seemed to know the bartenders in Vernazza quite well. He ordered us two drinks, and I kept my eyes on the pint. So then we went to awkwardly sit outside as the bar started closing down.
I had been hiking a gruel route all day long. I could feel the salt spray from the sea layered on my face. I was wearing sweat pants, and my hair was a mess. There was nothing attractive or attention-drawing about me. (Although I suppose the yoga pants make my butt look great. Fair play.)
(Look at me making all kinds of justifications.)
He immediately asked me where my boyfriend was and why I was alone. It was like an accusatory thing — why would your boyfriend let you out of the house alone? I said that I often travel alone, but there’s a friend staying in Cinque Terre with me.
Dude’s gaze had the intensity of the sun, and like a true ginger, I burned underneath it. I tried to ask him questions about his bar and his life in Cinque Terre, but he didn’t want to answer those. If I hadn’t been so freaked out, I would have been amused by his persistence — I was literally twice his size.
“Look into my eyes,” he said. “I can tell you want to kiss me. I can see in your eyes that you want to kiss me.”
No, you shit biscuit. This is the look of pure terror.
The questions never let up and I still had 30 minutes before my train arrived. He placed a hand on my knee. I pushed it off. “Come on!” he said. “I’m not interested!” I said.
But he would not. Stop. Pushing.
I finally gave up. “I’m recently divorced,” I said. “That’s why I’m here. I don’t want to get involved with anyone.”
It was like a lightbulb going off in his head. He kept persisting anyway, but it became more reluctant. And I could feel the shame spreading through my body like a disease; I was half mortified I had to lie about an unlikely marriage, and half devastated that I’m just a piece of meat otherwise.
He walked me back to the train station and I handed him the glass of beer. “Just finish it and leave it here on the bench,” he said. The disappointment was radiating from him; I can almost reach out and touch it. He disappeared into the night and I placed the beer on the ground next to the bench.
The train ride home felt longer than usual and when I stepped off the platform into Levanto, I wanted to sob. I think I did sob, actually, much to the surprise of the hotel security guard who let me in. In my hotel room I locked the door and all the windows and sat on the floor and looked at my laptop and wondered how to articulate such shame and embarrassment over breaking that girl code and also being treated like meat. Not long before that I had been on a disastrous date with a pushy Greek man who wouldn’t take no for an answer. So you’re disrespected if you say no, and you’re disrespected if you say yes. Sleep didn’t come easy that night.
So yes, wear your fake wedding rings and tell men you’re married if it means you’re safer. There are no rules in this game.