The thing you can never fault Italians on is their honesty. They don’t lie about beauty, or desire, and as a people we can, in the same way the English are filed under repressed, or New Zealanders as horizontal, sum them up by labelling their profiles with enormous capital letters that say: SEX.
And it’s causing me quite some bother.
‘Can I give you a compliment?’ Mario said to me, as he served up my primo piatto. ‘You are beautiful. You have beautiful eyes.’ I didn’t know what to say. ‘Cute is cute, and you are cute,’ he finished, shrugging.
I turned magenta and tried to force myself to be gracious. I wanted to die.
I don’t think I realised how truly invisible I’ve been, at least in Italy, and now, 40 pounds lighter and feeling, of course, strong and sexy and all the things associated with that, this country reminds me of my sex at every corner.
I was stared at walking into a restaurant yesterday. It was a table of men, all about my age, wearing overalls and smoking and laughing right up until the moment where I walked past their table, wherein they fell deathly silent and followed me with their eyes until I sat down, continuing to take turns staring at me as I ordered, sipped at my wine, ate my food. I was wearing a playsuit, but a playsuit with shorts. Until this trip, in this new body, that would’ve been unthinkable to me. My legs were on show. The legs that have lost inches and carried me across finish lines and even led my mother to comment, apropos nothing, You’ve not a speck of cellulite anymore, have you?
(Which isn’t strictly true, but I said thank you anyway.)
I’ve felt comfortable wearing shorts and going sleeveless because I don’t feel the same unease with my body as I once did. I used to spend so much time – without realising it – camouflaging lumps and bumps and bulks, that I guess, also without realising it, that I used to spend a lot of time wordlessly apologising for those things, too. But this trip has had its wardrobe supplied by the UK size 10 housemate who moved to Australia, leaving me behind a selection of holiday clothes that bare limbs and backs and cleavages, and I feel so positive about how I’ve learnt to treat my body that I’ve worn them without thinking about it. They fit, they’re cute, and so bare-legged I go.
And the way I am treated for it is so utterly different.
It’s not like I’m Claudia Schiffer. This attention surprises nobody more than it does me. But the obviousness of the stares, the unabashed-ness of the ‘Ciao, bella’, the way fingertips brush purposefully on giving change, or a little money is knocked off the bill if you promise to return again tomorrow… the backward glances walking down the road, the insistence of eye-contact even though they are strangers…
This is a different side of Italy for me.
I don’t mean that I’m suddenly the pied piper of uomi Italiani; there’s not a string of cross-eyed fellas forever swooning at me as I look at another church or eat fish for supper (again).
What I mean is that this subtle alteration in how I am received knocks me sideways, because it’s never been this way before. I’m totally unpractised in how to handle it. I’ve never been the cute one. I’ve been the funny one, or the mouthy one. The witty one, maybe. I’ve never had to deal with the attention that comes from simply having legs.
(I’m not saying it’s the right attention, btw.)
As I move about my days I don’t feel any different to any other time I’ve lived or travelled here, and so when the man serving my coffee engages in conversation with that kind of lop-sided smile it leaves me breathless and uneasy. This morning the most handsome man I’ve seen in quite some time – Southern, mahogany tan, hipster beard and broad shoulders and no wedding ring – spoke with me in the most flirtatious, charming way, I second guessed myself til the point where I reasoned I must be part of some elaborate practical joke.
The ways these exchanges happen… I don’t know. At first I thought folks were just being nice, but then all those folks were fellas, and there’s nice and then there’s that kind of nice, and it’s not like I’m saying OH BOO HOO, ALL THE MEN ARE FLIRTING AND POOR LITTLE ME IT JUST WON’T STOP.
Except, I kind of am, because it’s happening (and remember, I am GENUINELY BAFFLED BY THIS) with a fervour and frequency that means all day, every day, I’m faced with sexsexsexsexsex and, quite frankly, sometimes I just want my damned coffee, y’know?
(Okay fine. I lied. It’s actually very flattering. But still. How does one flirt back, again?)