I'm an annoying Italian man, please just ignore me," were the words I planned to teach my English language class made up solely of young men from the Naples area. Since the day I had arrived, I had seen such men in action. "Where are you from?" "Where are you going?" "Do you need some company?" were the phrases they recited by heart as they followed foreign women through the streets.
In the classroom, they were attentive, polite students, eager to learn. "Why do you feel English is important?" I asked. Receiving a unanimous response involving the seduction of foreign women, I realized that English wasn't the only thing they needed to learn; they needed to be brought up to date on the workings of the female mind.
After four years of language study at university and two years of TESL training, I felt ready to do some serious teaching. At a small private school in Sorrento, forty kilometers south of Naples, I planned to put my expertise to the test. The key to successful language teaching is using topics of interest to your students. My students were only interested in chasing women. (Great. The possibilities for field trips are endless!)
Outside the classroom, I inquired informally about the hard sell pick-up method. I explained that, in North America, a woman who is followed relentlessly and badgered by incessant questions (grammatically correct or not) is unlikely to warm to the perpetrator. I was told that, although a southern Italian expects an initial negative response, he believes that persistence is the key. And the fact that he rarely gives up easily must be an indication of some rate of success.
In fact, there is an Italian comedy sketch where a man approaches a woman alone on a beach and asks if she would like some company. When she answers "yes," he doesn't know what to do. It's all a big game.
If you're a woman who wants to be alone on a beach in southern Italy, you can forget it. You may find a few initial moments of peace, but then you will sense a presence just behind you. It will move in to your left or right and sit down at a distance that says, "I'm in your space--you have to notice me." After a period of anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes, he will speak--whether eye contact has been made or not. I became adept at judging the situation and would either chat (if his language was good and I could learn some Italian), or move away and hope not to be followed.
The good news is, not all Italian men are annoying. I met my Neapolitan boyfriend at the beach, but it was only through mutual friends that we dared to speak to each other. He wouldn't have approached me, for fear that I would walk away, and my conservative North American background combined with a good dose of solo female traveller defensiveness would never have allowed me to approach him. (Don't cultural differences just make a relationship fascinating?)
Although I taught English in Sorrento for five months, it was I who really did the learning. The male-female relationship is only one of the many intriguing aspects of a cross-cultural experience. There's also the role of the family, the woman/mother, politics and economics, to name a few. But those are other stories...
This was Sheila's first published story, appearing in the hard copy edition of Journeywoman magazine in 1996.
The Neapolitan boyfriend she met on the beach is now her husband.
Sheila's love of travel is limitless, even if most days she really enjoys living the simple life in the small village of Warkworth, Ontario. She loves beaches, horses, pugs and sweaters. A published author, her book Amare recounts her adventures in Italy while teaching English in Sorrento. Amare is available online at Amazon in hard and soft cover as well as ebook. The book is also sold at Chapters, Barnes and Noble and other bookstores.