Last June, I took a trip to Pietrasanta, Tuscany. My friend Elena spent half of her year there, and I finally capitalized on an open invitation. One day, we decided to decamp from the quiet hillside town and enter a guidebook. We packed small backpacks and set off for Cinque Terre, which the ever-helpful Rick Steves describes as “the lowbrow, underappreciated alternative to the French Riviera.”
The five towns that comprise Cinque Terre are “underappreciated” no more. Elena and I were muscled off a crowded train into Riomaggiore — one of the five towns — by swarms of British and Dutch tourists whose sweat we had inhaled in the crowded train car. It was probably close to 95 degrees outside. The tops of every lip were moist.
I was seized with a desire I’d never indulged in the U.S.: to take my shirt off and feel the breeze on my skin with only a bikini top. In Montauk, I judge women (and men) who waltz into stores and restaurants of beachside towns sans shirts or footwear (I also dress nicely on airplanes). On my home turf, I’m empowered to be a judgmental snob.
I’d promised myself when I decided to take my freewheeling friend up on an invitation to visit her home in Tuscany that I’d leave my inhibitions behind. I would release my hair from chignons and breasts from bras. In two months Yale would begin — whatever that meant — and everything would change. I love plans and lists and deadlines, and college promised more of the same. But I was always being told to chill, to let loose.
So I did. I drank White Russians at clubs with low lights so I could make out with diminutive Italian teenagers who spotted an American girl a mile away. I wore borrowed dresses and squeezed into borrowed shoes because Elena told me I owned nothing “slutty enough” for an Italian club. I biked drunk at 3 a.m., and tried to tell myself to enjoy it all.
I indulged my desire to disrobe like it was another mark of newfound Italian spontaneity. Given what I’d seen on Italian beaches the day before, I doubted I’d be baring the most flesh by any means. I peeled my damp t-shirt from my chest.
I’m sure my pale Irish skin glowed with its luminescent whiteness in a sea of bronzed beauties. The stares I felt were, I assumed, the natural response to a freckled vampire with bright red hair.
I was wrong. A young woman tapped my shoulder as I was fingering white dresses hung outside of a clothing store. “You speak English?” I nodded. “You are American?” The question I never want to hear, a reputation I never want to fulfill. I nod.
“You can’t walk around here like that.” She gestured at my negligible cleavage, my bared back.
Apparently — Elena would later explain — in most beach towns, there are ordinances that shirts must be worn. The woman flounced away with a final contemptuous glance that was reinforced by my struggle to juggle gelato and my still damp shirt. My face burned with embarrassment. I hoped only that my percolating sunburn would conceal the shame.