Rome feels quite different in the new year. It’s chilly (or arctic, if you’re italian) and the looming exams have given life and friends a renewed sense of purpose. Lectures and bars have been exchanged for libraries and study-groups.
In the spirit of revision, I thought I’d get back into jogging. An ordinary enough resolution, you might say. Not so in Rome. As someone who has become habituated to a life of running, for tutorials, trains and nearly-missed areoplanes, it has come to my attention that running is something that Italians simply don’t do. If they’re late, they’re late. Time for another caffe.
When I moved to Rome I had one clear aim: to become a Roman woman. I would dress, speak, eat and act Roman. My ecclectic Edinburgh thrift-store wardrobe was sifted through until all that remained was a well-cut (after a few alterations) beige/navy/black collection. I invested in a few good pairs of leather shoes. For the first time in my life, this self-professed exponent of individuality was eager to conform. Nothing would hold me back from the transformation. I would go brunette if I had to!
Things started out quite well last semester. I learned to order a cappucino with confidence, make a winning carbonara, dress like the mannequins in the Zara shop-front, serve-up authentic piadine and walk, very slowly, everywhere. Turning up at least half an hour late to every lecture, and not feeling guilty about shirking the library for an extra hour for yet another coffee and relaxed chat with a friend. Yes, progress was being made. By next June, I boasted to friends back home, just call me Anita Eckburg.
I’d been holding onto this sort of Audrey in Roman Holidays, Anita in La Dolce Vita feminine ideal. I hadn’t yet seen anyone who looked quite as glamorous as these women, but obviously they existed, tidied away in their elaborate villas or sauntering around the more upmarket areas of the city.
By November, still waiting for a glimpse of the Roman goddesses I was supposed to be emulating, the particulars of what I was trying to achieve were less clear. The reality of the average Roman woman, dressed in duvet-jacket, and what I can best describe as a nineties grunge style (think back to those Tammy/Etam days if you can) was giving me very little inspiration to draw from.
It’s really the men who dress well here. Particularly the old men. And, subconsciously, that’s where I’d started to pick up my references: quilted jacket, nicely-cut shirt, jeans and brogues.
So, after my well-worn heels caved in, I automatically ventured out to Via del Corso to purchase some of those suede lace-up boots I’d been admiring lately on the smartly-clad hooves of stylish men around the city.
As the small blonde shop-assistant waited expectantly for me to select a pair to try on (from the women’s section), it suddenly dawned on me just how preposterous the proposition of cross-gender dressing would be here.
What on Earth was I thinking?! I scuttled out of the shop and rang Sophia, my fellow Edinburgh exchange student and go-to in all times of crisis.
“Soph, I’ve just realised that I’ve started to dress like an Italian old man!”
“I noticed that the other day”, she replied casually. “It actually quite suits you.”
“But it’s not who I am!” I cried.
I dashed back to my flat, packed away the quilted jacket and went home for Christmas, exchanging shirts and belts for vintage floral dresses and wooly thread-bare jumpers. No-one could mistake me for a true Roman now. But my identity crisis has been resolved.
And, obstinately, I’ve started to run. In my t-shirt and leggings I provoke daily reactions of startled horror, cat-calls of “Americana!” and eyebrow-raising disapproval.
One woman at a pedestrian crossing just looked at me and burst out laughing. I couldn’t help laughing too. And for a few seconds, we were united in the mutual consciousness that I (a girl, with blonde hair, exerting myself physically, in the zone of Manzoni), looked absolutely ridiculous and, to her eyes, appeared as some sort of alien vision of a futuristic female species.
My italian flatmate is not yet aware of my new pastime. I tend to go quite early, and she doesn’t emerge from her room till lunchtime. I’m too embarrassed to tell her and see her reaction.
You see, running doesn’t fit with the italian notion of femininity. They never really had the Spice Girl/Beyonce girl power revolution here. And with such a strong sense of the family unit remaining, the male/female roles have evolved relatively little in comparison to other northern european countries.
Of course, the patriarchal tradition can work in an Erasmus girl’s favour. Women in Rome are looked after. I have often been collected and driven to and from parties and clubs. If I go out for a coffee with a boy, he’ll insist on paying. And when I go to a bar, even if I’m not accompanied by a male willing to buy my drink, there’s a good chance the barman will throw a freebie in my direction anyway, as a chivalric gesture.
On the other hand, if you find yourself an Italian boyfriend, you’re sure not to be his only girl. There is a strong notion that males have a ‘need’ to be promiscuous, whereas a girl with several boyfriends would soon be denounced as a slut. Women are expected to at least pretend to rely on the strength and income of men – even if the reality is often very different.
It all gets a bit tiring after a while. Sometimes I’d like to buy a round of coffees, as a gesture of friendship. I like to run. Around the Circus Massimus, in the footsteps of the ancient Romans. It clears my head and makes me feel good. I like to dress a bit oddly.
To be born Italian, is to be born into a club everybody wants to join. But you either are, or you’re not. I suppose I’m not. And anyway, I suspect, from the inside, it’s not quite so glossy for the modern girl as it at first appears.
I’m keeping the leather shoes though.