Bari, Puglia, Italy, Summer of 2010
After an absence of almost forty years, I returned to Bari and hardly recognized the city I called home for 6 years. Nothing felt like the old days as I took a walk down Via Sparano, the city’s main street with my old friend, Anna.
Bari, Puglia, Italy, September 1959
I am walking down Via Sparano from my tiny apartment on Corso Vittorio Emanuele to the American Studies Center, or Centro Studi Americani, where I teach English. My students are all just about my age, in their twenties, desperate in their desire to learn the language that Mussolini prevented them from learning during their school years. It was forbidden to teach English during the fascist period in Italy, only French, along of course with Latin and Greek. The dictator disliked intensely anything to do with England or America which left these young people unprepared for the world ahead in which the English language would be used all over the globe. And they knew that: hence the huge enrollment at the Centro Studi Americani that fall of 1959.
Via Sparano is not only the main street of the city, but also the most elegant one. Only very well-to-do people have the means to shop in its expensive stores. It is the territory of stylish middle-aged ladies who frequent the classy fabric shops and then go to their dressmaker to have their clothes made. The most popular store is huge and gorgeous, with its mahogany interior and tall ceilings from which hang long ladders. The salesmen must scale the ladders to reach the merchandise which is stored high up there in wide brass-handled drawers. Those famous Italian silks and soft wools will be brought down and laid out on immaculate counters for the signora to peruse and to touch. There is no such thing as a department store on Via Sparano nor in all of Bari. Each shop is like an individual jewel, specializing in its own particular merchandise.
I am eager to get to my classes, beginning to make friends with my students, and enjoying my job. But to get there, I must face the daily terror of walking down Via Sparano where block after block I am taunted, teased, and made absolutely miserable by swarms of young men. I am unmistakably foreign, slim and tall at 5 feet and 7 and a half inches. I tower over most Baresi. It seemed that no one had seen a woman so tall – grattacielo, they called me – skyscraper. Then would come the lascivious comments which I did not understand at the time, new to Italy as I was, but knew had to be lewd and suggestive. Then, worse, were those who would reach out to touch or to pinch, or walk straight into me, pushing me off the curb onto the street.
I was a Manhattan girl, or so I thought of myself. After college I had gone to New York and lived in Greenwich Village. I worked uptown as a production assistant at the NBC office in Rockefeller Center, a place we sophisticates called 30 Rock. For me, coming from a waspy suburb of Philadelphia, Greenwich Village was absolutely the hippest place in the world. For the first time in my life I saw an inter-racial couple pushing their baby in a carriage. It was just about the only place they could walk around comfortably with the queers and fairies, as they were called then, and live in relative harmony. I never wanted to live anyplace else. I could walk down any street in Manhattan and feel pretty sure of myself, a college graduate, a cosmopolitan fifties career girl. I really knew my way around.
So when I found myself sobbing every day in despair and frustration after walking to and from the Centro Studi Americani, I began to fear I had lost all vestiges of self-assurance. No one in Bari had seen a foreigner since the American G. I’s came through in 1945 on their trek north from Sicily. And those were all men who, for the most part, were handing out chocolates and chewing gum to the children, those same little boys who had grown up to become my nemesis as each day they made my every step along Via Sparano torture.
As the months wore on, my students became more and more curious about me. After class they would stay to talk in their halting English mixed with my incipient Italian. By the end of the first term, I had become fast friends with about ten of them, and through these few, I met many of their friends until I had a large and wonderful circle of welcoming and caring companions. My best friend was Anna Capriulo, who later went on to marry Umberto Fiore, a fellow student whom she met in my class. As Anna and I became closer, I confided in her that I could not bear to walk the streets of Bari because the men would not leave me alone. She said they leered at all young women, and of course it would be worse for a foreigner. I had to understand what life was like for these men in southern Italy. It was a fact of life in the south of this country that a man wants only a virgin to marry and any respectable girl has to stay that way or she will remain unmarried. When young couples fall in love and get engaged, become fidanzati, they end up remaining in that state for years. You can’t get married until the man has enough money to support his wife, to buy an apartment, get the needed furniture and all the other amenities to make a household. It isn’t like in the States where you go off and live in a rented, even furnished, apartment until you have more money. No self-repecting Barese man would ever subject his wife to that mode of living. Therefore, the guys are all still living at home with their parents, as are of course the girls. And they must remain virgins all that time or risk never getting married at all. So, now you know why the streets are filled with exasperated young men who figure that a foreigner wouldn’t worry about her virginity so much and might represent an outlet for all this pentup frustration.
“Just ignore it,” said Anna, “I’ll show you how.”
And so, we went for a dry run one late autumn day. From the top to the bottom of Via Sparano we strode, arm in arm, looking straight ahead, never ever acknowledging the presence of any male on the street. Keeping up an animated conversation about nothing, we maintained a steady pace, occasionally stepping back to look in a store window. In front, in back, and on the sides of us, the looks and the gestures, the constant buzzing of the men continued. Anna never once wavered from her stance of total oblivion – for her it was as if we were the only two people on the street.
The next day I tried the walk on my own with complete lack of success. I simply could not abide the stupidity and relentless annoyance confronting me. Over the months that followed, I whacked one guy on the head with my umbrella, breaking his glasses, after which he had the nerve to get mad at me! I slapped others with my hand or with my books. And as time passed and my Italian got better, I let go with some of the basest and most unlady-like expressions in the language. (And they are many and extraordinarily delightful.) I made my point, however, as those imprecations totally stunned and silenced my tormentors, they having taken me for an ignorant, newly-arrived and naïve foreign girl. As the years passed, I learned to live with the affliction of the foreign girl in Italy although I never arrived at the stoicism that Anna and the other Barese women managed to achieve.
I left Bari in 1968 and went to live in Rome for a few years, finally returning to the States in 1976. I have been back to Italy many times since then, but only twice to Bari. And so it was in June of 2010 that I saw Anna and Umberto again and discovered how the city that had helped to nurture my love of Italy had changed monumentally.
As Anna and I walked arm in arm once again down Via Sparano, I saw blue-jeaned young men and women hugging and kissing each other. It used to be that young men only walked with other young men, and young women only with other young women. When those groups might happen to pass each other, there would be waving and talking, but never touching. And now I see them entwined in poses which would have been thought scandalous in 1959 and the 60’s. Not just scandalous but probably immoral enough for their parents to send them into exile.
There is a beer hall now in Bari, where throngs of young people hang out together late at night, so many that they spill over into the street, drinking from their beer bottles.
Via Sparano has been redesigned and is now a pedestrian walkway with beautifully landscaped gardens in its center. The elegant fabric shop is still there, alongside the Gap, Abercrombie and Fitch, and McDonald’s.
“You could walk down Via Sparano naked nowadays and nobody would even turn a head,” said Anna Fiore, as we sauntered arm-in-arm down Bari’s principal street that sunny day in the summer of 2010.