It is a sad but unavoidable fact that if you’re a woman in Rome, you’re going to get sexually harassed or aggressively chatted up at some point. When I was here two years ago I spent a lot of time walking around on my own, and at the moment I’m generally on my own too. The most memorable incidents from 2011 were the man groping me on Via Colombo when I got lost, and the man in the Villa Borghese who tried to chat me up by talking about Byron and complimenting me on my meravigliosi eyes. He stroked my cheek and asked if I wanted to get a coffee; I told him that I’d already had a coffee that day, which confused him. Then I escaped.
I remember feeling indignant that I’d been deprived of my bench in the park, when all I wanted to do was sit and read in peace. I had a similar experience this afternoon, but more upsetting. I’d originally intended to go to the Villa Borghese, but the bus never came so I got on another random bus and ended up near Castel Sant’Angelo. I went to the park there and spent ten minutes reading on a bench before I was interrupted by a middle-aged Italian man who asked me for the time. As I told him, he sat down next to me and I thought, “Uh oh.”
The conversation went something like this:
“Where are you from?”
“London.” I tell him that I live in Rome and am working as an English teacher.
“I want to improve my English. Can you give me a private lesson?”
“Er, I’m not sure. I think I’ll be very busy with my job…”
“No, I mean now. Here, I’ll pay you.”
He throws a 10 euro note in my bag, and at this point I start feeling a little unnerved. I give the money back to him.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” He asks.
“Yes.” I lie.
Questions about my imaginary boyfriend go on for a while. I end up saying that I’ve been with this boyfriend for two years, and that he’s the only one I’ve had.
“You haven’t been with anyone else? Not even for one night?”
“20? That’s late. That’s when you lost your virginity?”
“This is really personal – I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I’m doing a survey…”
He persists until I say I have to go and meet a friend, at which point he quickly walks off.
Obviously I should have got up and walked away at a much earlier point in that conversation, but I have this ridiculous instinct to be polite and engage in conversation until I’m feeling really uncomfortable. And by that point, I’m too freaked out to get up and leave.
As I went to find another bench I wondered what it was like to be a man, and not have to deal with this shit. Or a woman in a relationship – I know any woman is a potential target, but the chances of these things happening must be significantly reduced if you’re walking around with your boyfriend or husband.
I love Rome, but I hate not being able to sit on a park bench without being harassed, or ride on a tram without being chatted up by Brazilians called Sergio (all right, that only happened once). I’ll just have to hope that I get better at escaping from these situations at an earlier point, and that I learn ways to avoid getting into them in the first place.
Rose-sellers and perverts of Rome, leave me alone! For the first time since arriving here, I’m feeling a little nostalgic for London, where I walked alone everywhere and never got harassed.