There are lots of differences between life in Brussels and San Juan and one day I will write a comparative post about those differences. However, there is one big difference that I think about every time I leave our apartment… and I have been meaning to write about it for a long time now. Last week Marianne in Cairo wrote about the issue of street harassment (in Swedish) and she received a very offensive comment from one man who apparently didn’t agree with her. Here is my contribution to the subject:
When O’s family was visiting in August, my [Spanish] sister-in-law came back from the local Walgreens (a pharmacy and convenient store a few blocks away) a little confused – she told me that a man had said Buen día to her in the street, and she had immediately thought that he was just a sleazy guy trying to get her attention [as you often do if you are a woman…]*. But then a woman said Buenos días to her and she got confused… I explained to her that it is common practise in Puerto Rico to say hello to people in the street, also to say ¡Salud! if you sneeze or maybe ¡Buen provecho!** if you happen to be eating something (also in restaurants when people walk past your table)!
Why did my sister-in-law react negatively to the first “hello”? Well, I guess that she has the same experience as I do that men who try to speak to you in the street don’t always have good intentions… and they don’t always mean to just say hello!
I learnt it the rough way when I was 18 and went to Paris on a school trip. My friends and I spent a week in the French capital, mostly on our own without the teachers’ supervision, and we were very excited to try out our language skills. One evening while walking along a busy pedestrian street, a man said Bonsoir to us, and I was quick to respond (hey, I understand what he said-kind of thing), but when he continued talking to us, we giggled and kept on walking… which the man and his friend did as well, after us! We tried to ignore them and thought that they had given up on us, but a little later when we ended up on a dark street corner, they jumped on us and started grabbing me and another friend. Our third friend tried to fight them off and we managed to run away from the scene… The three of us were very shaken, and I felt so ashamed and guilty as I was the one who had answered when the men spoke to us. I don’t know if they were really trying to attack us in any way, but it was definitely a rude awakening for three naive Swedish girls.
Since then I have made a principle of never talking to strangers in the street. I also quickly learnt why French and Italian women very often look very pissed off when walking down the street – they are wearing their “bitchy-don’t-talk-to-me-face”! Needless to say, I hardly ever smile either when I am out and about on my own in certain countries…
However, even without speaking to men in the street nor smiling, I have had my fair share of quite nasty encounters such as:
- A so-called flasher (exhibitionist) in Venice, Italy – twice with the same guy. Fortunately I wasn’t alone but when we tried to report it to the local police they laughed at us, and said that we should feel flattered!! The scary thing was that he continued to appear around the hotel where we were living (~50 girls) which wasn’t in Venice itself but in a small fishing village on the island of Lido – the walk from the bus was very dark and deserted. We did raise the alarm again but were told that exhibitionists usually just want to show off their private parts… Unfortunately we found out afterwards that during the week when we were on our field trip to Bosnia, he had physically attacked four girls and raped one – starting his attacks close to where we lived! I guess that this man was the exception to the rule of how exhibitionists behave.
- Walking to the taxi stand at La Bourse in the centre of Brussels from Place St Géry, a 2-minute walk along one of the busiest streets in the city, with my brother and another guy in the middle of the night. A walk that I have done so many times alone, but this time a group of 5-6 young guys came walking towards us and we had to split up – just when we pass them, two of them start groping me!! I was too shocked to say anything and just kind of elbowed them both to get away. My brother and the other guy didn’t even notice what happened and not until afterwards did I realise that they could have snatched my handbag and I wouldn’t have detected it until it was too late…
- Taking a taxi home from a party, sharing it part of the way, but being the one living farthest away ending up alone with a taxi driver that starts asking for my name (I made up a name), and suggesting that we should meet again. I explained that I had a boyfriend but when getting out of the taxi (of course not right outside my front door), I realise that the driver is not pulling away, so I continue walking past my building until I hear it disappearing.
- Having my bottom discussed by teenage boys walking behind me… In this kind of circumstances I wished that I could have spoken my mother tongue and come up with an apt choice of words! However, that can also backfire as it did to a French friend of mine who had a similar experience and actually told the boy what she thought of him, which made all his friends laugh.. A few days later she met him again and he physically threatened her as she had humiliated him in front of his friends!
The list goes on, of personal experiences and stories of other female friends being groped and harassed – in Belgium, France, Spain and Italy. Some people might feel that it isn’t such a big deal – I haven’t been raped or physically abused, not even mugged but the case in point here is that situations like these make you feel very vulnerable as a woman walking down the street on your own! When even walking home from work in broad daylight becomes an uncomfortable experience, when you feel the need to plan your route to avoid certain street corners where boys / men gather and you know that your appearance will be commented upon….
Or taking a taxi – I always used to prefer taxis to walking home alone at night as it [obviously] felt safer, until the above mentioned incident. A few months ago I read about a Swedish 19-year old girl who was found murdered in Paris, she had taken a taxi after a night out – and once again I thought of all those times when I have taken taxis in Brussels, initially with or without girlfriends but always the last one to get out of the car… What are women supposed to do? Always have sleep-overs if going out together to avoid that one girl ends up being alone with the driver in a cab? When I was a student in Lund, there used to be a special taxi fare for girls (tjejtaxi) but apparently that was discriminatory and has been abolished!!
Nevertheless, back to the surprise of my sister-in-law and myself to walking alone in San Juan – it is actually really hassle-free (or rather harassment-free); and it isn’t just walking down the main street in the tourist areas! On my way to the bus stop twice a week, I pass idle taxi drivers, a couple of construction sites, and into the not so rich area (where you shouldn’t wander alone after dark) and it is very rare that I get any remark my way except for maybe a Buen día and that is usually from the same old lady walking home from the supermarket!!
I actually had a similar pleasant surprise in Spain when I was travelling on my own from Madrid to Valencia to Barcelona three years ago. Spending a lot of time on your own in train stations and parks usually mean getting lots of unwanted attention, or at least if you are in Italy or France, but not in Spain. It was such a relief to be able to relax and just enjoy getting to know a new country without having to be on my guard all the time, especially in a country where I didn’t speak the language.
I am aware that there are probably lots of cases of street harassment also in Puerto Rico and Spain, but somehow it doesn’t seem to be as obvious as in Italy (after one year in Italy I was ready to punch the next guy who said Ciao bella to me) and Brussels…
*) and maybe he just was a sleazy guy who tried to get her attention…
**) Salud = Bless you (in Spain they say ¡Jesús!), Que aproveche = Enjoy your meal