Fact: In Italy, most older women look like footballs.
Fact: My Italian family have suffered various skin cancers.
Fact: I’m terrified of getting cancer but especially of getting old.
Before going to school in Italy, my grandmother admonished me: I would only receive her buon viaggio blessings if I wore a hat, sun glasses, and SPF 1,000,000 at all times of the day and night. She got no lip from me. Imagining that my avventura nell’Italia would in no way be dissimilar to Audrey Hepburn’s Roman holiday, I gladly obliged.
Upon arrival, it was immediately clear that Audrey and I shared nothing in common other than good bone structure. As handsome men zoomed her around town on the backs of Vespas, I escaped on foot after being flashed by a weirdo in my grandmother’s neighborhood. Audrey flitted up the Spanish Steps, while down below at Trevi Fountain, I was aggressively offered cocaine on more than one occasion. She had Gregory Peck; I had the number for Interpol.
I didn’t hate everything about Italy. I loved the public water fountains, clean and cool, making a 40 °C summer bearable, modern conveniences of millennial old aqueducts. I fell in love with photography and trying to capture moments I knew would be over too too soon. I loved meeting my family, speaking only in Italian with them, and hearing my cousins debate socialism versus capitalism but having too limited a vocabulary to properly respond. I got my Italian adventure–it just didn’t look like what I had expected.
Most surprising of all, instead of fielding cat calls from hairy Italian dudes, I was hounded by hundreds of little nonnas screaming at me to eat some meat and get some sun. Everywhere I went, these varicosed ladies would point and gawk, “What’s wrong with you? Did a can of paint fall on you? Get this girl a steak! She’s so white, she might fall over.” I happily played the dumb American card, pretending not to understand what they were saying, and under my breath whispering, “Your wrinkles are so big that the undersides of your fat rolls are not tanned!!!”
Back at the makeshift dormitory, the resident prostitute (who lived rent free in the building) shared her sentiments in a much more intimate setting. She was a striking woman with a beautiful figure and a classic Italian summer bronze. Even at breakfast she arrived to the table wearing a string bikini, thong, and sheer sarong. The strings were tied extra tight on her shoulders so she could show ample top, side, and bottom boob (which, in her case, were evenly tanned). When I deferred the meat course at dinner, she would swoop next to me and growl, “Meat is how you look this good.” As if I needed any impetus to remain vegetarian, the thought of turning into that sad soul was enough to keep vigilant for life.
It wasn’t until I reached Rome itself in the last two weeks of my travels that I found one Italian woman besides my grandmother who treasured my porcelain tone. Inside a little shop, where I purchased one of my favorite dresses, this woman lit up when I walked in the door. “La tua pelle!” she cried. “È come gli antichi romani!” Whereas the others made me feel like I had no right to even call myself Italian, this woman assured me that the ancient Romans bathed in milk and treasured their soft, pale skin. I bought the dress, put on my sunglasses and floppy hat, proudly walking the streets as only a true Roman could.