An American girl in Italy (aka the time I got spit on)

I got spit on once. I mean, like really spit on. It’s funny, that story is always one of the first ones to come out when trading old travel stories with friends, but until now, I’ve yet to mention it on this blog. Anyway, today’s the day. Today’s the day I tell you about when I was grabbed, screamed at, laughed at and spit on. It wasn’t my best day.

First, I would like to say that I have no photos of this day. To counteract the emptiness that this post would have had, I got this grand idea that I would take a page from How the Light Gets In and attempt to create little comics to go along with my tale. As it turns out, that’s really hard. Read on and you’ll see what I ended up with; they’re not that great.

Anyway, here’s how it all went down.

Picture a cool spring day in Rome. It’s late March, just a week or so after the official start date of the 2003 conflict in Iraq. Picture a young Julie, just turned twenty a few weeks prior, in Europe for the first time. Her feet hurt but beyond that, she’s feeling pretty good while returning from a successful day of solo sightseeing.

Julie at the Pantheon

“I feel pretty good!”

She’d been traveling with a friend (and doing totally amazing things like buying wine) but now she was alone in Rome for a few days. This is her first time traveling by herself and so far she’s feeling really, really courageous, excited and proud of herself… and a little scared… but mostly just really stinkin’ proud of herself.

Stick figure Julie in Rome

“Oh if my friends could see me now!”

Can you picture her? She’s from a small town and hasn’t ever spent much time in a big city, but look at her now, facing the world alone. She’s feeling really super awesome and brave and independent. She’s probably humming the Mary Tyler Moore theme song.

Mary Tyler Moore Hat Toss

Just like Mary, except I was in Rome, not Minneapolis. Also, I was an unemployed student, not an independent working woman. Still, I was feeling this good.

There’s still a bit of winter in the air and the time hasn’t sprung forward yet (that would happen a few days later) so it’s going to be getting dark soon. That’s all okay with Julie though because she’s a smart girl and is already headed back to her hostel. For dinner, she grabs a sandwich from a nearby shop and plans on enjoying it on the walk home. She’s not used to cities but she scans her surroundings and concludes that the area is indeed safe; the streets are bustling with businessmen, shoppers, tourists, families and students.

Julie with sandwich

“Yeah, I’ll be just fine. This has been a good day and this will be a good sandwich!”

But then, out of nowhere, a guy starts yelling in Italian, of which Julie speaks none. She flinches and the guy jumps up from where he’d been seated with some friends on a bench. He grabs Julie and knocks her sandwich out of her hands and onto the sidewalk.

She isn’t feeling quite so courageous any more.

He’s still screaming in Italian but there are some choice English words thrown in for her benefit. His accent is thick and his English is broken but it would be pretty hard to muss up the things he was saying and she understands every word.

Sidewalk attack

“F*** America, F*** Bush and F*** you!!”

All of his friends are laughing and Julie starts crying but the man still doesn’t let go of her. Finally he finishes his rant and spits at Julie’s tear soaked face. He misses her face but not her neck. He lets go and Julie leaves her sandwich on the stupid sidewalk and runs all the way back to her hostel.

Sandwich on sidewalk

“I don’t feel courageous or proud of myself anymore.”

Julie doesn’t feel very awesome anymore. She feels stupid and lonely and scared and hungry. Back at the hostel lots of other travelers are in the common area making friends and making plans. She doesn’t want to talk to anyone so she changes into her pajamas, buries her face in her pillow and cries silently until she falls asleep. She’s thankful her bed is in a corner.

Julie wasn’t very tough back then. Since then, Julie has wised up a bit and understands that unfair as it may be, that’s just the way the world works – sometimes the world sucker punches you even if you don’t provoke it.

And that, dear readers, is my story of the time I got spit on… and also my very frustrating attempt to illustrate my own blog post.

You’re probably feeling pretty sorry for young Julie right now but don’t worry, older and wiser Julie is pretty much over it. Sometimes harassment and mean people are just a part of life. As an old, jaded, thirty-year-old, I’ve learned to accept that.  Thankfully, my skin is a bit thicker now and good heavens, if I still cried every time a crazy person yelled at me, I get committed myself. I mean, come on, I live downtown.

That being said, there is one part about the whole ordeal that irks me more now than it even did at the time. I don’t have a word to describe it but it mostly boils down to, How dare he? How dare anyone?

I’m not particularly maternal but the latent mama bear in me can’t help but picture all the young, hopeful twenty-year-olds who are just setting out to see the world for the first time. Is someone going to yell at them on their first trip? Is someone going to needlessly make them cry and feel stupid? Is someone going to throw their dinner on the ground? The answer is maybe, and that answer sucks.

For the most part, I subscribe to the belief that while we, as a planet, are without a doubt doomed, there’s still a lot of good to be found while we wait to implode from too many people, too much garbage and too much pollution. There is lots of good in lots of people – just not all people, all the time. Let’s all try to be some of that good. I don’t really have an end game for this post other than to encourage you all not to scream at people and spit on them. So stop doing that, will you?

And, lest you misinterpret this post as being anti-Italian and are gearing up to leave me a nasty comment, I’ll say this: I fully understand that stuff like this happens everywhere. I’ve been harassed both in my own city and all over the world. To quote Liz Lemon, and to blatantly contradict my previous statement about there being good in the world: “All God’s children are terrible.” I mean, I once got robbed in Switzerland.

Switzerland, people!

One last note: if you like the idea of illustrated blog posts, check out How the Light Gets In. She’s brilliant and her clever illustrations put my attempts to shame. Complete shame.

7 responses to “An American girl in Italy (aka the time I got spit on)

  1. I feel like liking this was the wrong thing to do, but the way to described your story was genius. What an awful thing to have happen though!

  2. You were super awesome and brave and independent – and I’m glad you felt stinking proud of yourself! I love the way you describe all those feelings, and the fear that was mixed in with that on your first trip. Even though it was a horrible thing to happen, you were really resilient and put it into perspective beautifully!
    I enjoyed it a lot. Thanks for the shout out, too!

  3. thanks for sharing the raw honesty and feelings…I tend to think, only because I cannot believe that people are like this…that there is something you did not know, that provoked this behavior…not that you provoked him, but there was something else gong on and you were the victim of all of this….at the end of the day, we all need to be mindful of our surroundings, to trust our inner gut….but also to keep travelling, keep exploring, keep finding the good that is all around us

    kudos to you for leading the way

  4. Dang.

    Thank you for sharing this, Julie. Might I just add a hearty “Amen!” to the Liz Lemon sentiment. The sooner we realize we’re terrible, the easier it is to give grace to the spitter-onners when we need to.

  5. Pingback: Travel Triumph: The wild extremes of the traveling family (part I) | See Jules Travel·

  6. Apparently getting spit on is a “thing”. I was walking alone toward the colosseum when a friendly young Italian man speaking English offered to be my tour guide. It was his day off from his restaurant job and he didn’t mind. He seemed nice enough, we talked a bit ourselves (he was 29, I was 32 and MARRIED) until he kept mentioning going to get a drink, getting on a bus, and started to lead me down a via that didn’t have any tourists. When I quickly turned around and explained I wasn’t comfortable walking down that street, he got mad, yelled, and then spit in my face. I don’t know if it was just a cultural misunderstanding or if he had bad intentions… but all the emotions you mentioned above feeling when you were 20 feel the same when you are 32. Being a female traveling alone almost immediately makes you a target. It’s hard not to feel sick to your stomach in such a predator/prey situation.

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