I have never been very comfortable being seen. I’ve spent a fair amount of my life attempting to fall into the shadows, to avoid attention, to hide my body.
But here, in Italy, I can’t seem to escape being seen. I am stared at, watched, looked at and observed. I am commented on, asked about and gestured toward. I think mostly it’s because I am a woman traveling alone, and perhaps also because I am younger and pretty.
“Sola?” I’ve been asked more times than I can count. And replying “si” I get varying looks of confusion, surprise and consternation.
Today I took the train from Florence to Rome. I sat next to a man in a scarf with the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen. He stared at me the entire time I was on the train. Midway through he asked me the question: “Sola?” I nodded my head and smiled. His eyebrows went up in surprise and then knit together in alarm.
“No boyfriend?” he asked in broken English (he had heard me speaking with the train attendant in my hacked attempt at Italian).
“No,” I confirmed, smiling again, feeling somehow I should be apologizing for the fact that I was single and alone on the train. He nodded an affirmation, and then continued to stare at me for the remainder of the ride; offering to buy me coffee, extending a piece of gum, and generally looking confused about my presence, alone, on the train.
I do a lot by myself as a single woman in the states. I don’t think too much about it. But traveling as I am it has me asking a lot of questions about what I am actually doing on this trip by myself. Am I proving something to someone, and I don’t even know who it is? Am I trying to find out more about myself that I couldn’t find otherwise?
As I wandered around the outskirts of Rome today (which also is apparently not within the realms of what a solitary female tourist should do) I stumbled upon an amazing restaurant, walked in and sat down. The owner was at a side table with his family and the chef was sitting with them. The chef spoke some English and gestured toward a table for me to sit at. He asked me what I’d like to eat, and I told him to surprise me and make whatever he’d like. He smiled happily and went into the kitchen.
The family began looking at me, watching me, observing me. I heard the words “sola” and “americana” mapped across their dialogue numerous times as their eyes looked me over. The chef came out of the kitchen and walked over to their table. They mentioned the words to him and he came over and asked me if I was traveling alone. I sighed and said “yes,” yet again. He leaned over his shoulder and nodded back at them.
And then the most beautiful thing happened. Both women, the mother and grandmother at the table smiled widely. The young daughter smiled as well. The little boy, who had been staring at me with his big blue eyes, demanded to be put down and he sauntered over to me on his two year old feet. He blew me a kiss.
The grandmother, who previously was wearing the sternest expression I’d ever seen on anyone alive, walked right over to my table and started speaking to me in rapid Italian. I looked around for help with the translation, but as I did her hand gestures stopped me. She had both hands over her heart, and was moving them back and forth toward me. She was smiling and then she gave me a thumbs up.
That was pretty much all that I needed.
Later, after the family had left, the chef came out and knelt next to my table to talk to me.
“I saw something in your eyes when you first came in the door,” he said in his own broken English. He was from Denmark but had been living and cooking in Italy for over 20 years. “Corradura,” he said`(at least that’s how I heard it through my Spanish speaking ears).
“I don’t know how that translates. But you have a strength in you, a ‘phwwisht,’ ” he said, making a dramatic movement across his body with his arm. “You walk strong in this world. And yet you are also ‘simpactica,'” he said.
The word translates into Spanish as “nice” and I nodded my head, translating, saying I understood what he meant.
“No, not just ‘nice.’ ‘Bright,’ he said. “You are bright.”
I couldn’t help but smile at the compliment, and then he asked the all too familiar question, “no boyfriend?”
I shook my head “no,” feeling the similar mixture of pride and embarassment.
“It’s ok,” he said with a wide smile, and a deep part of me wondered why people felt the need to give me permission for being single and on my own.
But he held my eyes and said firmly, “If it don’t work, it don’t work. Better on your own and alone, than lonely and with someone at your side.” He positioned his hand to the right side of his body, gesturing companionship and then moved his hands together and apart to gesture it ending. He then nodded his head strongly once more for emphasis and disappeared back into the kitchen.
I know being alone is okay. I’ve known it for a very long time. I also know traveling alone is okay. I’ve done it many times. Perhaps it’s the place I’m at in my own life where I feel somehow I have hit a ceiling on being alone. That there’s an expiration date for single people, especially women, and I’m stumbling upon it.
I often wonder if there’s something wrong with me. If there’s a reason why no one has scooped me up yet. And being stared at, watched and asked the “sola” question so many times I suppose hits a nerve.
But the chef had it right tonight. I would most definitely rather be alone and by myself, than lonely and with someone else. So thank you Ristorante Piro, for that amazing affirmation.