“Maybe we should open the door a little bit, otherwise I think it will get way too hot in here tonight,” she said. Her roommate agreed, and she cracked open the door to the outside. She laid back down and felt a slight breeze wash over her, but she was still quite warm. And she was the one laying close to the door. Her roommate, she imagined, might not be feeling any of this.
“Maybe we should open it up all the way,” she said. Her roommate agreed saying, “Whatever you want to do. My only concern is that YOU are comfortable.” She smiled. “I want you to be comfortable too,” she said. But she knew her roommate genuinely meant that his happiness was dependent on hers. After all, he was an Italian man. And she had learned a bit about Italian men in her travels.
The first time she went to Italy, many people in the US warned our heroine about the forwardness of the men there, especially since she was a mere 23 years old and traveling alone. Indeed, she found them quite to be just that, but not in a way that she found offensive. It wasn’t as if they were making cat calls and whistling. It was mostly compliments. Still, she just smiled and said thank you despite their attempts to continue the conversation. Which she was amazed they did even after she told them she didn’t understand a word of their language.
Six years later, our heroine found herself in Italy once more. This time she was with her 82-year-old grandmother, her brother, and two female cousins, the latter three all in their 20s as well. This time, it was our heroine’s turn to warn her cousins about the way Italian men approached women so easily and freely. But she was in for a surprise. She now knew to expect and accept the attention, but she didn’t realize that it would not be initially directed at her nor her cousins but at her grandmother.
Her grandmother wore her tour group name tag everywhere they went. In large capital letters it read “Angelina,” and then, in slightly smaller letters below that, it read, “Gallo.” Countless Italians stopped to talk to her– they knew the tag indicated she was in a tour group, but she had a very much Italian name. The grandmother, fluent in a dialect of Italian that is dying off with her generation, delighted everyone. And the men? They were smart. They saw she was traveling with three 20 something brunettes and thus they always began by complimenting Angelina on her beautiful granddaughters. Then, they would have further conversation with her, and only after charming her would they ask about the marital status of her three granddaughters.
It was during this trip that our heroine realized that the Italian men were not forward just to pick up women. They had a genuine appreciation for the opposite sex. Like they were thrilled to death God had put them on the planet, and they wanted women to know just how thrilled they were.
In 2005, our now 35-year-old heroine was walking the Camino to Santiago (a network of thousand-year-old pilgrimage trails across Europe). In one small village, she met a German man who was a diplomat in England. After their introductory conversations about their respective journeys, he complimented her on the dress she wore, but then quickly apologized. “I just remembered you are American. I was merely saying that you look nice in your dress, and I don’t mean anything more by it.”
“I didn’t think you did, “she said. “And thank you.”
“I’ve traveled enough to know that American women don’t like compliments from men because they always think men want something more,” he explained. They talked about how sad this was. And our heroine explained that she actually enjoyed how freely some European men complemented her.
But when our heroine arrived at San Antón to begin two weeks of volunteering along the Camino de Santiago, she had forgotten all of this. She had initially been told that the other volunteer would be an Italian woman. But then learned it was actually a little unclear. Correspondence had been over the internet with someone with a woman’s name, but the picture identifying the person was that of a male.
So when our heroine walked into San Antón for the first time, she was surprised to see it was indeed a male volunteer she would be working with. She learned a female friend of his had set up the volunteering on his behalf.
He was very kind, and in that magical way of things on the Camino, she knew they would work well together over the next two weeks. What she didn’t expect–or remember initially–was how many complements she would receive throughout the day. On her cooking. On her cleaning. On her ideas. And on that same dress she wore on our first Camino.
And she knew Stefano didn’t mean anything more by it. She freely talked about the wonderful things her boyfriend Michael did for her. She told Stefano about the surprise 40th birthday party he had thrown for her, and as they sat at the kitchen table Stefano said, “Tell me about it.” So she did. And then she showed Stefano a picture of the painting Michael had commissioned of her on the Camino. Stefano was certainly impressed.
And then a pilgrim stopped by, and they went out to greet him. Stefano explained that they were the hospitaleros (volunteers). “I am from Italy, and she is from the United States,” Stefano said, pointing to our heroine. “And she’s the best hospitalera I could ask for.”