By Hannah Cooke
We were walking down a street after a long day of trying to find interesting things to do in Catania. It was hot, and my friend and I were trudging single file in a narrow strip of shade down a street that was empty but for a group of old men sitting around a card table, smoking and drinking wine. As we approached, one of the men looked us up and down. He slowly raised his hand and traced a circle in the air with his finger. Conversation stopped and they closely monitored our approach, then leaned out of their seats to watch as we walked away. My friend told me that in Sicily, the gesture means something like: “check it ouuuuut”.
We shook it off and continued down the street, and eventually neared a couple of younger ragazzi. They looked a little like less-moneyed cast members of Jersey Shore – bright t-shirts, hair gel, thick tans – and were slouched together on a scooter, arms loosely folded, legs open. Eyes to the ground, we walked briskly by. But it’s unavoidable; they have this compulsion to let you know that they have seen you. This time, it came in the form of a long “ssssssssssssssssssssssss” sound.
That’s not all. Another guy made kissing noises as we walked by, and some more yelled out their car windows. All in one ten-minute walk home - nowhere near the grand total for the day. This doesn’t include the men who just looked at us; who craned their heads like spectators in a tennis match as we passed by. Italians love hanging out on the street, leaning out their windows and perching on steps with their buddies, so you become fairly immune to this curbside attention. But that afternoon it brought us down - we collapsed on the bed, grumpy, accosted fugitives from the Italian man on the street.
When I talk to my Italian friends about this, they’ll either say yes, it’s a bit gross, but I need to take it as a compliment (not the point, guys), or they’ll say that Sicilians are pigs but the men in Napoli know how to treat a woman, or that the men in Napoli are sleazy but that the guys in Florence are much more polite. Before Sicily, I’d been less exposed to the neck craners because I’d either been travelling with a guy friend, or been in a place like Tropea, where I’d befriended local guys, and therefore wasn’t fair game.
It’s not every guy, of course. There are as many sweethearts as there are hissing jerks, more I hope. But the way it is brushed off, excused by this cultural trope of the romantic Italian man is depressing. It does a disservice to the ones who are just chivalrous, cheesy and charming, the ones who’ll buy you a rose when you’re alone in a café, who give you desert on the house, or who’ll go out of their way to help you with your luggage at the train station.
Blerg. Writing about this is exhausting. Being relentlessly objectified is wearying. Hissing is gross and demeaning. Lazily twirling a finger in the air doesn’t show appreciation, it just made me feel a little less than human. It pissed me off enough to write about it, instead of all the other cool things I’ve done lately (I am writing this from a luxury three story apartment in the centre of Rome. The coffee table is a giant 17th Century bellows). You can blame the sleazy Catanian man on the street for this one.