When Vixen contributor Gia Mora earned a scholarship to study Italian Language and Culture, she didn’t expect a culture clash – over her complexion. Here she explores how her travels connected her to her Italian roots in a way that only the ancient Romans could.
Before attending the University of Pisa in 2009, my Italian grandmother Nonna proclaimed that I would only receive her buon viaggio blessings if I wore a hat, sunglasses, and SPF 1,000,000 sunscreen at all times of the day and night.
She got no lip from me. Because Nonna and my uncle both had several bouts of skin cancer, I’d become accustomed to covering up when going out since I was a kid. And, truth be told, I’m scared of getting cancer, but I’m even more terrified of getting old.
Besides, Nonna’s demands essentially required that I purchase a giant floppy sun hat and oversized retro sunglasses à la Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Imagining that my avventura nell’Italia would in no way be dissimilar to hers, I gladly obliged.
Upon arrival, it was immediately clear that Audrey and I shared nothing in common (other than good bone structure).
As handsome men zoomed her around town on the backs of Vespas, I got flashed by a weirdo. While Audrey flitted up the Spanish Steps, down below at Trevi Fountain I was aggressively offered cocaine. She had Gregory Peck; I had the number for Interpol.
Most surprising of all, in every seaside town I visited I was hounded by hundreds of little nonnas screaming at me to eat some meat and get some rays. These sun worshipping octogenarians were scarier than any horror film I’d ever seen.
Their faces looked like footballs from the 1920s, the brown skin pulled taught to the laces, or in this case the wrinkles. They stumbled toward me like zombies, their varicose veins halting normal locomotion. Pointing and gawking, they would shout, “What’s wrong with you, girl? Did a can of paint fall on you? Get her a steak! She’s so white, she might fall over.”
I happily played the dumb American, pretending not to understand, but whispering to myself, “Your jowls are so big that the underside of your waddle isn’t tanned!!”
Back at my makeshift university dormitory, the resident sex worker had no such trouble with her tan lines. A striking woman with a beautiful figure and a classic Italian summer bronze, she regularly arrived at the breakfast table wearing a string bikini, thong, and sheer sarong. The strings were tied extra tight on her shoulders so she could show ample top, side, and bottom boob (which, to her credit, were evenly colored).
Every night when I deferred the meat course at dinner, she would swoop beside me and growl, “Meat is how you look this good.” As if I needed any impetus to remain vegan, the thought of turning into that sad soul was enough to keep me vigilant for life.
But not everything about Italy caused me to, against my better judgment, hum Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA as I strolled down cobblestone walkways. I loved the public water fountains, clean and cool, making the 40° C heat bearable – modern conveniences courtesy of millennial old aqueducts. And I loved seeing Italy through the lens of my camera, capturing this sense of contemporary life among antiquity.
Most of all I loved meeting my grandmother’s family and connecting with my Italian roots. My family has lived in this same little resort town, Montecatini Terme in Tuscany, for as far back as anyone can remember.
My grandmother is the only person in her family who ever left home, so my two great aunts were very happy that Marisa’s granddaughter had finally come to meet her people.
When Zia Graziella brought me to the property Nonna grew up on, I learned that in the 1800s it had housed my family’s horse and buggy taxi company. Later, as Italy began to modernize, the horse stables became car garages, and now what was my ancestral home is a parking lot for a hotel.
Or at least that’s what I could decipher with my nascent Italian language skills.
It was time to say arrivederci, and my grandi zie were quite disappointed I could not stay another day. But they were even more upset that I wasn’t getting a proper Mediterranean glow during my time in Italy. I couldn’t win for losing.
Not until I reached Rome itself in the last two weeks of my travels did I find one Italian woman besides my grandmother who treasured my porcelain tone. She ran a little dress shop, and her face lit up when I walked in the door.
“La tua pelle!” Your skin, she cried. “È come gli antichi romani!” It’s like the ancient Romans! Whereas other people had made me feel like I had no right to even call myself Italian, this woman assured me that my ancestors treasured their soft, pale skin. They bathed in milk, she said, and applied face whiteners. Fair skin like mine was prized as the most important quality in beauty.
My ego fully inflated and my roots firmly planted, I thanked her profusely. The dress I’d tried on fit perfectly, and she let me wear it out of the store. I put on my sunglasses and floppy hat, proudly strutting down the street as only a true Italian woman could.