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One night, I overheard the following conversation between two women. In a hostel room in downtown London, they met for the first and last time, and they started exchanging polite questions and guarded answers as to their reasons for travelling. The older lady said she was there for work, visiting a company she might cooperate with and learning about their engineering processes. The Chinese girl was on her way back home after completing an exchange study programme, and when she learned that the lady was from Italy, she couldn’t help but say that she was heartbroken.
“But why?” asked the Italian lady.
“I had a teacher from Italy. I’m going to miss him so much”, said the girl.
The lady, who was folding her clothes on the bottom bunk, lifted her head for a second. “A good teacher, you mean?”
“Yes, a great teacher. Very handsome.”
The lady laughed, thinking she knew exactly what this was about. A young girl had fallen in love with her teacher. Who hasn’t been through this? The girl felt encouraged by the laughter, so she went on.
“I wish I could take him back to China with me.”
“I’m sure you’ll find another teacher there”, the lady said playfully. Then she tried to change the subject by asking the girl what she had studied, only to learn that it was economics and the teacher, Elio, had taught her English.
“I could look at him for hours. He is perfect.” The girl wouldn’t let go of her romantic contemplation.
“You mean, he is good at explaining – a caring teacher, an observer?”
“I mean, he is really good-looking. I hadn’t met anyone as attractive before. Are all Italian men that beautiful?”
At this point, a spark of national pride overtook the lady’s emotions. “Sure they are. But you should probably come to Italy and see for yourself.”
“Sadly, I won’t be coming back to Europe anytime soon.”
The lady then asked the girl what she would do when back home. She said she would continue to study economics and then get a job in the field. With no need for further encouragement, she went back to talking about Elio, who had advised her to study hard after she had expressed her feelings for him. The lady seemed to become baffled by whatever was so special about this teacher, so she asked what he looked like.
“Dark hair, brown eyes, very nice body,” said the girl dreamily.
“So you saw his body?” The lady appeared to realise that she might have just missed some point.
“He took us swimming once.”
The girl then remembered something, as if she had a password that always brought her back to reality. “But I heard Italian men are very fond of their mothers, perhaps too much.”
The lady seemed offended. “You should never listen to these generalisations. You must form your own opinion.” And then she looked at me – yes, I was there too – and rolled her eyes, obviously tired of the girl’s naivety.
I said that I had heard the same thing about Italian men.
So the lady turned to the girl and asked, “What else have you heard about Italian men? I would like to know what people say about us.”
“That they aren’t serious,” the girl continued, unaware of the change in tone.
“But I don’t believe it because Elio could have had so many girls if he’d wanted and he was on his own all along.”
The lady was startled. “You know what, I want to see this Elio, show me a picture of him. How old is he?”
The girl started to look through her phone. She scrolled through pictures she secretly took in classes, but couldn’t find any proper one, so she went on Facebook to look for one. She said he was thirty-something. The lady turned to me again and said doubtfully: “I am very curious to see what this Elio looks like.”
When the girl finally found the picture, the lady said there was nothing special about him, but the girl insisted the picture didn’t really do him justice. Now, the lady started to search for something on her phone. “Wait, I’ll show you my son. He is twenty-five and single. He is an engineer like me. You’ll see if he isn’t better than your Elio.”
The girl was interested. When she looked at a picture of the lady’s son, she admitted he was very handsome as well. Then they both went to sleep.
I stayed up for a little longer, thinking about how straightforward a person can be when unburdened by cultural filters and subtle social cues, and how funny it was that the lady couldn’t understand why being handsome was the most important quality the girl looked for in a teacher, and how innocent a girl she was. She had no idea she was being laughed at. I imagined her waking up next to a man one day. His looks will not be all that important and his body will be whatever it will be, only her pure notions of relationships will be gone.