I like traveling alone. Generally, I tend to dress like a bank robber when I am alone in a foreign country – muted, dark colors, nothing too noticeable — so as to blend in and observe the place and people without calling attention to myself. In Italy, as a blonde woman nearly 6′ tall, trying to blend is somewhat of a losing battle on the best of days.
On a recent trip to Umbria, I spent a lot of time in train stations, on my way to or from the various small towns. At the end of one particularly pleasant day strolling around the gentle hills, I let my guard down and decided to practice my Italian with a tiny little old woman while I waited for my train.
She began by asking me where I was from (natural enough), how old I was (a bit rude, but she was rustic), and if I was married (based on a blue plastic ring the size of a goose egg on my left hand). I was able to respond to these questions with accurate Italian answers and was feeling rather pleased with this quaint encounter.
However, when she found out I did not have children, she proceeded to lecture me at length about how I was leading an empty life and would never be happy. Then she told me how she never saw her son, but she had him when she was in her forties, and she was consequently not able to nurse him. As Italians speak with their hands, this statement was accompanied by graphic breast-grabbing gestures (at least she only grabbed her breasts, not mine).
She finally wound down a bit, and I thought I was in the clear, but then she started the entire interrogation over again, as though we had just met. No one has ever questioned my life choices as much as this woman in one conversation. She also kept laughing at my height as though I was a fairytale giant. After about the fourth go-round, I went back into the station.
Yes, I ran away from an elderly Italian woman. And what’s more, when she followed me, I hid from her. Finally she wandered off, and I snuck back around to the platform. Luckily, my train arrived soon, and I didn’t talk to anyone else for a good 24 hours.
So that’s what happens when I talk to people.