It was late in the afternoon and I had just returned from an 11 mile hiking trip across Cinque Terre. Before heading back to the hostel apartment, I stopped by the building owner’s place to use the free wifi, a rare commodity in Cinque Terre. I noticed the man that cleaned my apartment was there as well but didn’t think anything of it.
When I arrived at my hostel, I was excited none of the other hostel mates had returned and I was ready to eat my food, shower, and take a nap in solitude. But just as I was about to get comfortable, the door opens. The cleaning man, an Italian about my age but twice my size, walks through the door.
“Oh are you going to clean right now?” I asked. He shook his head and spoke in broken english. His english was terrible but he was able to say “You are very beautiful.”
I started to feel uncomfortable. This man had a key to my apartment and could come and go as he pleased. We were also alone. As he continued to make terrible conversation, I grabbed my bag and told him I was going to meet friends.
Unfortunately, this kind of violation of privacy and the discomfort that accompanies such occurrences are common for female travelers. Everything from cat-calling and groping occurs fairly regularly. I’ve had bad experiences with locals and with fellow travelers in hostels.
For example, I met a friend, Helen, from Australia at a hostel in Venice. We both made friends with a Canadian guy that was sharing our room. One night, the Canadian bought a bottle of wine and offered to share it with me. I make a lot of friends in hostels and figured this would be the same situation. It wasn’t until he kept trying to make out with me that I regretted the decision. The way he constantly had his hand somewhere on my body was disturbing and I quickly found a way out of the situation. He kept begging for a “Venetian romance.” The next day, I was telling Helen everything and she said that he had tried the same thing with her.
This trip has taught me a lot. I’ve just learned to be extra vigilant when it comes to men. I’ve been offered so many free drinks, especially in Europe, and have rarely paid for any of the alcohol I’ve consumed. But a lot of times, I’ve realized that such acts of kindness are strung to a web of expectations and ulterior motives.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of unfair oppression against women. It’s not always blatant but it’s there. For example, I was in Switzerland rock climbing with a couple of male friends. We were talking about hitchhiking, something I’d never have the guts to do. One of my friends from Slovenia turned to me and said, “It depends a lot on how you dress. If you dress revealingly they will obviously have the wrong idea.” He then eyed my shorts insinuatingly. I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts for christ’s sake. That didn’t count as revealing in my book. How can people still believe these age-old misconceptions. When will I be able to dress how I want without having to worry about a million other things. I often feel objectified. Men can’t control themselves when objects are placed in front of them. Why is that my fault?
It can be difficult to separate yourself from everyone, but for me it was necessary. I had to realize that I didn’t owe anyone anything. I was traveling for myself. This was my trip and I was not supposed to fulfill someone else’s dreams of a “Venetian romance” or “Parisian affair.”
Sometimes it sucks to be a girl traveler. It attracts a lot of attention, some wanted, some not. Walking alone at night in dark alleys, hiking in solitude, and even just running around major cities was scary at times and I’ve experienced everything from shouts of “bella” to an occasional grope. But women should not let this get in the way of heading out alone. When I try to explain the struggle to my guy friends, they just laugh. They don’t and never will understand because they are not constantly viewed as a piece of meat. But the struggles have made me a wiser and stronger person. And perhaps more than anything, it has made me appreciate the good men in my life.