September hails the start of a new school year, and in this city it is not just the Italians who go back to school, but all the foreign students as well. As a matter of fact, Florence is the biggest American study abroad centre in the world and that’s not counting every other nation’s students who study here!
In my role as Programs Coordinator for various study abroad programs in Florence, I have conducted over fifty orientations for foreign students on various issues including harassment. Over the years, concern over unwanted or inappropriate attention has prompted me to invite students to consider that living in a new city often means adopting a new way of thinking and behaving. It’s important to keep in mind that Florence is no fairytale Disneyland. It’s a living, breathing city with roughly the same population as Washington DC in North America or Glasgow in Scotland. As with most cities, a bit of streetwise common sense can go a long way to ensure your safety while in Florence.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE THE APARTMENT:
1.) Think about your look. Locals can spot a non-local from 50 metres, and you’ll be an old hand yourself after a few weeks. Although there’s no need to change your hair or wardrobe, it is important to bear in mind the impression you are giving. Consider that in your host culture the way you choose to look, dress, and act may be perceived differently than in your home culture. Despite Florence being a cosmopolitan city with many different influences, Italians generally manage to distinguish themselves by carrying themselves a certain way and dressing in a quite unique, clean, and fashionable style. Students or tourists who are singled out as not knowing the ropes could be perceived as a target for harassment.
2.) Always walk confidently and look like you know where you are going, even if you are completely lost! If that’s the case, look discreetly at a map or ask in a shop for directions. Avoid eye contact with people and if harassed, pestered or followed, get quickly to a public place. If that’s not possible make a call (or even pretend to make a call) on your mobile phone, as this is a good deterrent to strangers trying to talk to you. For maximum privacy and freedom to stare, wear sunglasses!
3.) Don’t be “friendly” and “nice”! Italian women, for example, won’t think twice about elbowing someone in the stomach for leaning on them in an inappropriate
manner on the bus. Always draw attention to this kind of behaviour in a public place by shouting loudly or stamping on their foot.
4.) Alcohol mars your judgement. It is estimated the 95% of the critical incidents that occur in Italy are attributed to the victim’s lack of judgement stemming from the abuse of alcohol. Going out with friends and fellow students also means safety in numbers. Avoid annoying encounters, harassment, and fights in bars and clubs by not drawing attention to yourselves in the first place. Again, don’t be too nice. A look or smile on your part can lead to persistent unwanted attention for the rest of the night.
5.) There are two places to avoid in Florence after dark; the main train station of Santa Maria Novella and the Cascine park. As is the case in many major cities, parks that are considered safe during the day become a hang-out for drug dealers and prostitutes at night.
6.) Look after each other; make sure that everyone gets home okay and if you see that a friend is not able to make it home alone, either walk them home or call a taxi. Never walk alone at night, copy the Italian life style; you will notice that Italian women never go out by themselves at night. In any case, women are entitled to a 10% discount on their taxi fare, if they travel alone between 9pm and 2am.
7.) Practise safe sex. Condoms can be bought from machines outside most pharmacies in the city, night and day. If you become the unfortunate victim of exhibitionism, assault, violence, or rape, either tell someone at your school, call the police, go to the hospital, or call Artemisia, an association funded by the Florence Council that provides support for victims of violence or abuse. They have operators who speak English and will be able to address your issues.
Last but not least, enjoy your time studying in Italy. It’s an amazingly enriching personal experience made all the more rewarding by thinking safe and being smart.