Being on vacation in a place where the sight of me is a bit of a surprise for many people reminded me of something that happened years ago. I was in Sardinia in the early 80s … and seeing me was truly shocking for most people. One young woman begged me to come home with her so she could show me to her family (I’m totally serious). She was so adamant — and clearly coming from a place of innocence — I went with her and had a delicious lunch with her completely flabbergasted family. Her grandmother (who had been driven in for the occasion from somewhere on the outskirts of town) kept stroking my arm … yes, to see if the color rubbed off, but also just in a kind of petting way. At the end of the lunch she shook my hand and thanked me for coming and said, “Now I know what black people are like.” Yeah. Because I was making an impression for all black people everywhere. Just a little heavy, that. Good thing I was nice with them, huh?
And then there was the kid riding his moped down the street who was so busy staring at me he had an accident, crashed right into a parked car.
And there was the sailor from the boat that carried me over from Genoa who walked me to the taxi stand so I could get to my hotel. His name was Chris and he’d been very helpful on the crossing when I discovered that I get sea sick. As we walked from the dock to the cab stand, he said, “Do you notice that everyone is looking at you?” I tried to be funny and said something about it being because my fly was down or maybe my hair was mussed. He didn’t go with it. “No, it’s because you’re black.” Very straight forward, that.
Best of all was Louise, the American girl I met at the train station in Cagliari. She was from Georgia, and had been traveling in Italy for a bit. She’d apparently had some pretty unpleasant aggressive male attention in Naples and had run away to Rome only to find it not much better, so she’d come to Sardinia. She went on and on about how crazy Italians were about blonds and how her being white was clearly really appealing to everyone. I held my tongue because I thought maybe she meant something I hadn’t understood. We went for coffee in Pulia and in the middle of our drinks she stopped and asked if I’d noticed that everyone was staring at me. I said yes, I had noticed.
“It’s so strange, don’t you think?” she asked.
“Not really. People have been staring at me since I got here.”
“I don’t get it. Usually people are staring at me.”
“Well, you know, I look a little different after all.”
She gave me a quick once-over then shook her head. “I don’t get it. I mean, you’re dark and they’re dark, so I don’t see the big deal.”
I was dark and they were dark? She couldn’t see that both she and the Italians surrounding us were all white and I was clearly something different?! But she was serious. She saw the Italians as being as black as I am. Utterly insane. I know, I know, there’s the whole ugly history of Italians being seen as the same as blacks because of their dark hair and olive skin, because of their proximity to Africa, blah, blah, blah. I’m sorry. That’s an old, old trope that was surely retired long before I found myself in that cafe in Pulia with Louise from Georgia. Anyone can see that Italians aren’t black. Anyone should be able to look at me in a room full of Italians and start humming that bit from Sesame Street: “One of these things is not like the others … one of these things doesn’t belong … ” Or so I’d have thought.
* * *
Of course, thinking about this is reminding me of another story … one that took a much less friendly turn and could have ended quite awfully. I was In Orvieto with J___, a girl I’d met on the train from Spain. We’d been traveling together for a couple of weeks by that time — we’d hung out on the French Riviera before crossing over into Italy. We’d gone to Pisa, gone to Siena to see Palio, spent a couple of days in Florence and then we took off for Orvieto. I’d read that the city was crumbling and wouldn’t be around for much longer, and I wanted to see it while it was still see-able (don’t worry, it’s alive and well and still quite see-able … whoever wrote that note for Let’s Go was, thankfully, mistaken).
We arrived on a night train and one of the station attendants walked us to a diner to get something quick to eat before trying to find a place to stay. As we ate our panini, J___ asked if I’d noticed the staring. I had. She said it didn’t feel right, that she was uncomfortable. So we paid and the guy who’d walked us to the diner had found us a room in a small guest house near the diner and offered to walk us over. We were going to say no, but he pointed out that it might be safer for us to be walking with a man, so we accepted. We got to the house and met the really lovely older woman who ran the place. She showed us to our room and we started to settle in for the night.
Which was when we heard shouting outside. J___ looked out and saw that a pretty large crowd had formed outside the house. A crowd made up entirely of men, many of whom had been at the diner. There was an iron fence around the house and it had a big gate at the entrance and they were all staying on the other side of it, but we’d just walked through the gate, so we knew it wasn’t locked, and the men didn’t seem likely to keep respecting that flimsy barrier.
What were they shouting? “Give us the black girl.” Yes, I’m not kidding. They wanted the old woman to just hand me over to them. J___ was ready to defend me: armed with the beautiful handcrafted umbrella she’d just bought in Pisa, she took an attack stance by the door. She would, I’m sure have cracked that thing over a couple of heads if given the chance, but that wouldn’t have done much to save me from whatever gruesome fate those men had envisioned for me.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to hand-to-hand combat. The old woman told them to go away. They said they would go as soon as she put me outside. She scolded them. They got louder in their demand. So she called the police. That’s supposed to be an ‘of course’ thing, but I really think it could have gone another way with a different inn keeper. The police came and dispersed the crowd. They even left two officers behind. I don’t think they stayed outside all night, but long enough for J___ and me to feel safe enough to fall asleep, long enough for the men to remember their humanity and go back to their lives.
“Give us the black girl.” Just like that. Like a piece of meat. Like a mail-order blow-up doll. What the hell was that?
Ok … not exactly where I thought I was going with this memoir, but there it is. Hasta pronto.
is hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.