About five weeks ago I tumbled out of a plane into the fashion/food/history capital of the world – Italy. I am here for an extended vacation/look-see, to learn the language (ha!) to explore possibilities for the future and to spend time with my nearest and dearest. Given the fact that I have been here three times before over the past 15 years for brief stints as a tourist, you would think that I would know something about the place. However, I can assure you that while I can alphabetically recite every gelato flavour ever invented, it turns out this extremely beautiful country is rather mystifying. This, coupled with my laziness, idealism and naivety means that I am often left scratching my head about how the country functions (or, rather, doesn’t).
The first curious aspect that was brought to my attention (or, more accurately that I paid attention to because I have become cluckey for them) is the presence of dogs. Everywhere. It seems that every man and his dog has a cute little pet dog, the most common being yappy poodles and fat, pregnant sausage dogs. It seems that dogs are given special human privileges here and are basically allowed everywhere. I’ve seen well-behaved dogs in clothes stores, restaurants, bars, public transport, on Vespas and even at a wedding. I assume they’re also given access to cinemas, churches and public swimming pools too, but I will need to confirm and report back. While the dogs are, for the most part, obedient, the same cannot be said for their cousins, the children, who are left to run wild everywhere and are tolerated in all their caffeine and wine induced revelry (yes, wine drinking starts here at 7 years old I am told).
The next striking thing is the fashion. OK, so everybody knows that Italy is the fashion hub of the universe. But knowing it intellectually and living it are two very different things. I only realized this after I found myself in a sobbing heap one day as a tsunami of insecurity that I haven’t felt since I was like, oh I don’t know, 13 and unable to afford any of the clothes the cool girls were wearing, washed over me. And by ‘washed over’ I mean pummeled. No, wait. It’s not the fashion that is so insecurity-inducing. It’s the whole industrial complex of beauty that places a disproportionate emphasis on appearances. This means that designer glasses, sunglasses, handbags and shoes are the norm. And that’s just the children. Imagine the sense of discombobulation and cultural confusion one feels when faced with the fact that what the average woman in New Zealand wears to a wedding is what the average Italian woman wears to supermarket on Saturday morning to buy milk. Imagine how one feels, when during a job interview in Milan, the interviewer says, ‘you have to up your dress game. I don’t agree with the importance of appearances here, but it’s the reality. It matters more than you think.’ Yip, that happened to me. This does not bode well as I have always been someone who has avoided heels and make-up like the plague (chronic clumsiness is debilitating, people) and who would rather spend an extra ten minutes in bed in the morning than waste time putting together a nice outfit. The times I have put in a lot of effort I just look like I raided the dress up box at 3am after too many shots of tequila.
So, the point is that Italian women, 80% of whom are incredibly naturally beautiful anyway, have upped the game by spending all their money on designers clothes and accessories in an aggressive effort to outshine women of other nationalities in a kind of Darwinian survival of the most beautiful. This means I must dust off all those old pretentious books I bought and actually read them, so that I can compensate for my frumpiness. War and Peace, anyone?
But, it could be worse. One of the most eye-opening things here has been the presence of prostitutes. While I’m no stranger to seeing ladies (and ladyboys) of the night – I’ve walked through the red light district of Amsterdam and passed by the girly bars of Bangkok. What makes Italy different is that prostitution is illegal. So, how have pimps and police gotten around this? There are two solutions. The first is to set up massage parlors with names reminiscent of a spa in Asia, like ‘Zen Dreams’. Decorate the exterior with pictures of water flowing over rocks, jasmine flowers and a lot of pink. This might be the sort of place I would consider going to for a mani/pedi, but luckily locals in the know set me straight. The second solution is somewhat more bizarre. The sex workers (women – often very young – and transgenders, who are often from Africa and Eastern Europe and are in all likelihood working against their will) stand on the roadside of busy sections of highways on the outskirts of cities in their heels and skimpy, blingy clothes, at roundabouts and outside gas stations. Day and night a prospective client will drive by, slow down and pick them up and they’ll do the deed in the car or a nearby field or forest. Sometimes on the car in broad daylight and in public. The reasoning goes that it’s just a woman standing on a street and a man stopping to give her a ride, so to speak. There are so many reasons why it’s wrong and is a good example of the hypocritical Italian government turning a blind eye while people find a way to dance around the laws.
These observations have caused a kind of splitting in my mind – perhaps there are two Italies – the one enjoyed by tourists and the much more complex and bizarre society that I am trying to understand every day. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg – I could go on about the obsession with hygiene but the lack of public bathrooms, causing one (OK, me) to pee in the street, the arcane politeness and formalities, the homogeneity and xenophobia. But no, it’s time to take some more gelato and literally put my head in the sand.