On our first trip to Rome as a married couple, we took a city bus to visit my aunt and uncle in a part of the city that was unfamiliar to me. When we descended from the bus, we were unsure of where to find the street we needed (this was on the eve of the smartphone era).
A group of lively teenage girls on the sidewalk waited for another bus. I asked them for directions. They glanced at each other and, instead of responding to me, directed their responses at my wife.
As we went on our way, my wife was indignant. She asked me why I wasn’t upset by the girls’ refusal to engage with me. I shrugged. Sometimes females are reluctant to speak with unfamiliar men who approach them. But it is also true that I get the same kind of evasiveness from my own gender.
The little incident in Rome came on the heels of something that had happened in my parents’ house a few days earlier. People who had not visited my folks in ages started dropping by, curious to see the American who had married me. My wife knew what was going on; still, she greeted them politely.
One old guy, a former neighbor, thanked my wife for “taking on someone like me.” She stiffened but said nothing. When he left, she was livid. “So you’re a charity case? And marrying you makes me what, a missionary?”
This type of insensitivity is new to her. Me? I realized long ago that being viewed as “different” often means being considered a sitting duck for rude, cruel, and offensive shots.
From Rome, we took a train up to Florence. Contrary to my wife’s preference for planning, we arrived without a hotel booking. It was the off-season, so I figured that it would not be hard to find a room.
Before we did, we hatched a plan. My wife would pretend not to understand Italian, and I would pretend to speak English better than I did.
We entered a beautiful 19th century building and took an ornate but rickety birdcage elevator to the second floor. We walked up to the main desk where a man and a woman in matching blazers stood. I asked about a room. Immediately, they started speaking in Italian to my wife. She shook her head and looked at me. I said that she didn’t speak the language.
The hotel people proceeded to give me information about the available rooms. Since I have trouble writing, they even had to fill in a form for me. Then, they asked us for government-issued identification. I turned to my wife and mumbled something about “identity” and “card.” She said “Yes, of course” and produced her passport.
In Italian, the woman exclaimed, “You speak English very well!” while the man said, “Sir, well done!” I pretended to be gracious and thanked them. Lucky for us, they didn’t seem to do so well in English themselves. From then on, my wife and I made sure to “chat” in English whenever we passed the front desk.
Maybe it’s my slight slur that makes some people think that I’m incompetent and of low intelligence. I have never figured it out.
I wasn’t really aware of being “different” until I started school at age 6. The teacher took one look at me and assigned me to the end of a row, so far from blackboard that I could barely see the chalk scribbles. Pens were unwieldy objects in my hand, so I could not take notes or write answers to tests. Seeing my resultant poor grades, the teacher lamented out loud that I was no better than a seat warmer.
Sometimes I think it could be fun to go through life pulling more Florence capers, staging ways to make others trip over their own prejudgments. But, on second thought, forcing people to confront the inner ugliness that we all have but that we must always suppress is a thankless, heavy burden – for anyone.