Dare to stare back.

In my travels, I have heard numerous tourists bemoan the inter-cultural stare: that intimidating, creepy continuous eye-balling that follows and probes the unwary traveller on their travels.  But, after decades of travelling in a myriad of apparently non-staring countries, I have, after just two days of wandering in Italy, finally experienced for myself how unsettling a dose of the serious stare-down could be.

Italian staring

At first I just found the gawks offensive. Their stares were not just swift ocular once-overs, but thorough visual appraisals, from my pony-tailed hair to my havaiana-clad feet. Lewd Italian men living up to their reputation, I thought.

Then I realised that actually it wasn’t only the men staring at me, but some women too. Rude people, I murmur to myself. Then as I became trapped in yet another couple of fierce undeviating gazes, I started to think I must actually have something stuck to my forehead. So I pretended to window shop, while surreptitiously reassuring myself that the mozzarella from my lunchtime piadina had not worked its way into my hair. It was all starting to get a little unnerving.

Why were all these Italians staring at me?  Was it just because I was a tourist? Possibly. But of all the countries I’ve travelled in Italy is where I least stand out. Sure, I don’t dress like an Italian (I’m Australian, we couldn’t win a style contest with the Brits in Ibiza, let alone the Italians), but I’m not blonde, not tall, not fat and not pasty white. In fact, when I travel people often assume my dark features have a Mediterranean origin (they don’t). So to be goggled at like an alien life-form in Italy was the last thing I was expecting.

Feeling more than a little self-conscious and uncomfortable by all this visual interrogation I retreated back to my pensione to be greeted by the friendly woman at reception.

“How was your day?” she asked.

“Well, the city is beautiful, and the food is delicious,” I reply, “but I felt like everyone was staring at me.”

“Oh, they’re not staring at you,” she says, with a hearty laugh. “They’re staring at everyone! You know, Italians, we just like to stare at people, you’ll get used to it”.

Italian staring

You see, in Italy people watching is a sport and openly staring is both entirely acceptable and completely expected. To be honest, I never really became completely used to being incessantly stared at. But I did thoroughly enjoy taking full advantage of the unique opportunity to scrutinising passers-by without moral or social consequence. So my advice: next time you’re in Italy don’t be stared down, just dare to stare back.

2 comments on this post

  1. David B on said:

    So true! The Germans are the most avid starers i’ve found…

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