Since practically the moment I arrived in Italy, my friends and family have been asking me, “So have you met any cute Italian boys yet?” I guess it’s a natural and fully-warranted inquiry, given that I’m studying abroad in one of the most stereotypically romantic countries on Earth.
Don’t worry, folks, there’s no bubble to break here; the stereotype is true — romance is in the air. It’s also on the streets, in the piazzas and loitering in front of my apartment building. Let’s just say that romance comes in many forms, but the most noticeable is in the form of public displays of affection. This handy PDA acronym exists in our Anglo-Saxon culture because kissing in public is less socially acceptable. And while I thought PDA was mainstream all over the world, it turns out that PDA lacks a direct translation in just about any of the Romantic languages because the concept of not outright showing love and affection when you feel it is foreign to people. In countries like France, Italy and Spain, kissing and/or full-on making out is not considered to be crude or not for children’s eyes; it’s totally normal.
Coming from an average, modest American family, all of the touchy-feely-ness kind of grossed me out at first. I didn’t really understand why they couldn’t save all that affection for behind closed doors or at least hold off until after they’d made it through the check-out line at the market. It took me a long time to get used to the lack of proximity awareness that Europeans have — something that many Americans so greatly value and expect.
Slowly but surely I started letting people come into my “hula hoop” space, as my mom used to call it. The first step was learning the double-cheek kiss and then, eventually, before I knew it, I too was displaying affection publicly. I felt like the girls in the movies, flirting in Italian and being charmed by broken English, like the time when an Italian told me my eyes were beautiful because they’re the color of hazelnuts — “nocciola come Nutella” (hazelnut like Nutella). I think he was trying to say my eyes are beautiful because they’re hazel, but I’ve learned that sometimes there’s no point in trying to find a literal translation for things because some things just don’t translate well. I don’t get offended or creeped out when someone compares me to food or something else that sounds awkward in English; I just smile, say “thank you” and assess whether or not I need to walk away.
Traveling and meeting people from all over has made me realize that I love the thrill of meeting a person and not knowing which language they speak. It’s also made me realize how lucky I am to speak English because it’s really the common tongue of travelers. At the same time, speaking only in English has become a bit dull for me, and I’ve learned that I love the challenge of texting and conversing in Italian. It’s really empowering to get out what you want to say in another language — something that I’m definitely going to miss when I get home.
I guess what I’ve learned is that, at the end of the day, it’s the human connection that matters. Flirting with a foreigner is fun, but if there’s no connection, it doesn’t matter what language the other speaks. And if it’s nothing more than just a little international curiosity, play the California card. From my experience, it almost always works.