The Italian stare. You might have heard about it from those who have visited Italy. But is it real or imagined?
“I have no answer,” one Italian woman told me after I found the courage to ask about this phenomena in the tiny Salento town of Otranto where I studied Italian for a month. “It might be that you are overly sensitive.” She was my teacher, a local, and as she stared at me across the desk she seemed unsure how to take my question.
Granted, I come from a culture that seems hyper sensitive about everything these days. We’ve even coined terms such as “microaggression” and “mansplaining.” Maybe I was just mansplaining it.
I first experienced “the stare” at Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport, a few minutes after stepping onto the concourse. It was my first trip to Italy, the homeland of my father. I figured everyone stares at people deplaning, as do I. I will ask myself: Who are these people? Where did they come from? Why are they here?
But the stares followed me down the terminal, after I grabbed my luggage at the carousel, and into Terminal 3, the domestic terminal, where sometimes the workers seemed to outnumber the passengers.
Surely these airport workers had seen foreigners lumbering around the large international airport before, even those who were likely American. People always say Americans stand out like a sore thumb, although during my three months in Italy I had been mistaken for German and British many times. My father is full Italian, but I had inherited the light brown hair and blue eyes of my Irish-American mother.
So were they staring at my hair? My eyes? My clothes? The jet-lag induced puffiness of my entire face?
Rome was not my final destination. I was awaiting a flight for Brindisi, a city on Italy’s southern coast on the “heel” about two hours north of Otranto. But I ran into one of Italy’s infamous scioperi, i.e., strikes. Strikes are so common in Italy that the government regulates them. This time, the transportation strike and any concurrent sympathizing strikes could only be staged between noon and 4 p.m.—the exact time frame for my connecting flight. My four hour layover turned into eight hours.
As I moved around Terminal 3, where the red, green and white Alitalia jets came and went, with more than seven hours to kill, onyx eyes locked onto my every move.
And when Italians stare, they really stare. It’s a non-blinking, expressionless, penetrating stare. It was impossible to judge what they were thinking. I didn’t look particularly attractive or unattractive after my eight hour flight from Philadelphia. But the staring continued, from nearly everyone, but particularly men, men of all ages.
In my typical American fashion, I’d catch the stare as long as I dared, but usually I’d turn away. Those staring never blinked or broke their gaze embarrassed at having been caught as one would expect.
In Salento, the staring did not abate. If anything it seemed to grow, and with a more fierce look. A friend from Brindisi, who also seemed uncertain of my opinion Italian men stare, called it fissare negli occhi, fixation of the eyes. If it’s real, he said, it’s probably a good idea not to return the stare, “especially in the south.”
There weren’t many non-Italians in the south. It was January, and travelers seeking Italy’s sun from northern parts of Europe wouldn’t arrive until March or April. It’s winter, it’s off season, they aren’t used to seeing foreigners, were my Puglian friend’s attempts at an explanation. Yet how did this explain Fiumicino airport?
One time I decided to hold the stare as long as possible, defying my friend’s advice. While eating alone at an Otranto restaurant the sous-chef stared at me through the pass through every chew and swallow and I matched him eye for eye. He never backed down. I eventually broke into a chuckle. He did not crack the smallest of smiles. I left feeling a bit unnerved.
I was so intrigued with the “stare” I did some research on the Internet. Apparently I was not alone in my experience, although most people insisted it was imagined. I never imagined it anywhere else but Italy though, and I’ve been to 18 countries. One blogger suggested that Italians communicate through their eyes. They are conversing with you, the writer went on to say. Italians use their eyes to speak. Others said that the stare was universal throughout the Mediterranean, and that it was worse in Greece and Spain, neither of which I had ever visited.
Stateside a friend of mine suggested that they may seem to stare at you but really they aren’t. They are staring into space stuck in their own thoughts, he said. My friend is a full-blooded Italian raised in Argentina, and suggested Italians like to daydream. I didn’t buy the explanation. They were staring, and I knew it. Or did I?
Real or imagined, I learned to smile and nod through tight lips but mostly I tried to ignore it. If I was close enough to the looker, I’d say, “Ciao!” Only one time did I receive a reciprocal greeting. This was at the gym I joined in Rome where on some days I felt the staring was so intense I often abbreviated my workouts. I found myself going during “off hours” to avoid any ogling.
I grew accustomed to the fissare negli occhi but I was always aware of it, like lurking flies hovering close enough to see but not to swat. I asked a few more confidants, and I received more half-hearted explanations. Mostly no one really believes the stare exists at all. Perhaps they are right. Or perhaps they simply never noticed?
What do you think?
One thought on “Fissare Negli Occhi – the Italian Stare”
Hey Gugino, nice article.
Maybe we should assume they are just “admiring” us — and we should admire them in return? Ironically, I have been told that I intimidate people because I stare directly into their eyes. I didn’t know it might be cultural — maybe our Grandmother taught us that. I do not feel the stare when I visit Italy, but my wife and blonde daughter do. At the time, I thought I just blended in more.
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