The Dark Side of Living Abroad

** trigger warning for sexual assault**

“I lived in Italy for three years” is a phrase that inevitably comes out of my mouth at parties in order to sound more interesting and cultured. Responses usually include the awe that I suppose I am seeking, and something along the lines of, “How did you like it?” I cherish my time in Italy, but the truth is that, as with anywhere else, living in Italy had its problems. Lack of dryers and 24-hour supermarkets were big ones for me, as was the soul-crushing loneliness. I had felt lonely before, but it was never as severe—or as it turned out, as dangerous—as my first month in Milan.

I ended up in Milan on a kind of teaching fellowship after I finished college (due to a hilarious series of events that I will save for another time). The program was “organized” by the state, meaning it was in a barely functioning form of chaos. Unlike fun-centric study abroad programs, there were no other interns in my city and no support from the program after I arrived. My housing placement was with a 38-year-old woman, her pre-teen sons, and a 30-something married chemistry grad student who rented another room in the house. I taught at a high school across the city where the kids were closer to my age than any of the teachers. I had no idea where to even start making friends, and after two weeks in the apartment I was going stir crazy. They were all lovely people but I was 22 and had been partying hard in San Diego—watching cartoons was not how I wanted to spend my evenings.

Broadband and wi-fi were still mysteries to Italy at the time, so to get my precious Facebooking in I had to go to an internet café around the corner. It was a typical mom and pop shop, and their son who helped out was about my age. We exchanged pleasantries each time, and I think the son walked me home once. When I came in after that second desolate week, he asked me what my plans for the weekend were. Disheartened, I said I didn’t have any and that I hadn’t been out in Milan since I’d arrived. “No!” he said, shocked. “Questo weekend, andiamo al’Old Fashion. Okay?”  This guy was not attractive—he was skinny, shorter than me, and his pointy face resembled a rat. However, I figured it was possible he had cute friends (“andiamo” means “we go,” so I figured it was a group thing) and, as previously mentioned, I was lonely. So I gave him my number and he arranged to pick me up on Friday night to go clubbing.

Darlings, I joke a lot about being an old fogey—but it’s because I have the hindsight to see that when I was 22, I was a f*cking moron. Learn from my mistakes—never get into a car with someone you do not know, especially in a foreign country.

When he came to pick me up on Friday I was unpleasantly surprised to find that 1) he was even more unattractive in the dark (how is that possible?) 2) he sported a greasy ponytail previously hidden under a hat and 3) it was only him in the car. We struggled through conversation on the way to the club (my Italian was still barely passable) and when we got there I realized with horror that no friends were coming. After one drink, I tried to make the best of it and get out on the dance floor, but personal dancing zone was not a concept he understood. He spent the night grinding down my leg like a stripper. I tried escape in the bathroom, but he followed me and waited for me outside. I tried to ask girls in the bathroom for help, but they had no advice. I thought I couldn’t afford a taxi, I knew the public transport was closed (not that I knew where I was) and I was just completely stuck without an exit plan.

I went back out to the dance floor, where an attractive guy was holding eye contact with me. This seemed to be my only hope. When my “date” went to get yet another drink from the bar, I took one step towards the guy and he turned to me…then I felt myself get yanked by the arm and dragged towards the entrance. Ponytail had a death grip on me and said that we should go, so I got in the car.

Once in the car, he seemed less angry, and said that we should go to his apartment. I said no, I wanted to go home, but he was insistent on going to his apartment just for a minute, because he had forgotten something. I thought I had no choice, so I found myself standing in his living room, arms crossed, with Romanian television playing while he made another drink. He tried to coax me closer, but suddenly ran to the bathroom and started to throw up. Now I was pissed that he had driven me home drunk, and finally found the balls to tell him that he needed to take me home immediately. He reluctantly agreed. I walked towards the door, relieved at imminent escape, when he pulled me into a room and shoved me down onto the bed.

I am 5’7 and have strong soccer legs, but this scrawny little rat man had me completely overpowered. He pinned me and tried to kiss me as I twisted my head to avoid him. Struggling, I started to yell, “NO! NO!” over and over again.

Fun fact: most unmarried Italian men live with their parents. The only time this was ever a good thing for me was at this moment.

Apparently my yelling woke his mother, and Rat Face had to attend to her while I ran out the door. You know that moment in movies where they have the choice between the elevator and stairs, and you always think they’re a moron for choosing stairs? I had that thought before running down six flights of stairs—I needed to move, I could not stand and wait. I can only imagine how he could have possibly explained why a girl was screaming in his bedroom, but he soon came charging down behind me. As much as I hate to say it, it was a good thing too, because once I got on the street I was completely f*cking lost (remember—second week in Milan). I got my grad student roommate on the phone as Rat Face led me home, pleading and trying to apologize, and I just repeated over and over again, “It’s fine, just take me home.” When I finally stepped into my apartment at 3 a.m., my roommate was waiting for me and gave me a hug while I started crying and gasping for air. And that was the last sympathy I got for what happened to me.

When I told the mother I lived with, she laughed and said that the people who run internet cafés are not good people. The head teacher at the school had the same response, but added something racist. Although he hadn’t even been able to kiss me, I knew I’d been assaulted—but I had unknowingly violated some social code and apparently should have known better. Had something worse happened to me, it’s clear that I would have gotten no support.

When trying to enjoy your time abroad to the fullest, it’s difficult to strike a balance between being adventurous and being safe. What happened to me was a series of fairly normal decisions that spiraled out of control—it’s only in hindsight that they seem dangerous. Although I know I was not completely at fault, I view the world differently and put more effort into protecting myself. Example: always have an exit plan/money for a cab. I thought cabs were expensive but there’s no price on your safety.

Two years later I was on a plane to Athens by myself and befriended the man sitting next to me. I had a 5 a.m. flight the next day and had planned on sleeping in the airport, but he offered to show me the best of the city until dawn. Here I had two choices: see Athens with a local and perhaps have one of the most memorable nights of my life, or spend the night slumped in the airport, uncomfortable but safe. Please, darlings, always do what you can to keep yourself safe—because when you are not home, you don’t know the rules.

Scroll To Top