I was reading an article by Mark Steyn on Iraq, and, Iraq aside (if you can, for a moment, at least), he said something that resonated with me,
I strongly dislike that veteran-foreign-correspondent look where you wander around like you’ve been sleeping round the back of the souk for a week. So I was wearing the same suit I’d wear in Washington or New York, from the Western Imperialist Aggressor line at Brooks Brothers. I had a sharp necktie I’d bought in London the week before. My cuff links were the most stylish in the room, and also the only ones in the room. I’m not a Sunni Triangulator, so there’s no point pretending to be one. If you’re an infidel and agent of colonialist decadence, you might as well dress the part.
Back in the late 1970s my husband worked for a few months for an Italian company in a small town in northern Italy that tourists never see, and of course I tagged along. The first thing I learned about the Italian north in the Fall is that it is not sunny. Rain poured from the skies with enough energy that Noah would have been drafting blueprints and interviewing contractors. Luckily I was prepared, and had brought my trusty red trenchcoat with zip-out liner.
I stood out like the proverbial sore thumb.
My grandparents came from Spain, so I expected Italians to be of the same approximate size as Spaniards. They weren’t. At least the northern Italians weren’t. Northern Spaniards tend to be tall — my mother’s father was 6’2″ or so. I’m 5’9″+ and the average local Italian man was at least 6″ shorter, the women nearly a foot shorter. Often I stood out a full head above the crowd. There was also the matter of clothing. The locals wore high heels all the time. Intent on sightseeing, I wore comfortable sensible shoes, which luckily I had brought with me since back then Clarks of England hadn’t made it to that area of Lombardia. The locals also wore black. Black or charcoal gray clothes were the uniform, topped by black wool coats or black raincoats.
I would stand tall in my red coat and flat shoes at the train station and people would circle around me and stare. The first day or two I wondered if there was anything “off”, such as stains, nasal matter, dandruff. After that I decided that they felt I had landed from another world, so I brought something to read while waiting for the always-on-strike trains. The staring continued but I had better things to think about.
As a tourist, I did go to the local clothing stores and took a look at the clothes. Unfortunately they didn’t have anything in my size, and even if they had had it, the prices were astronomical. Another visitor, Marisa, a Mexican woman that was working at the same company as my husband, was not tall but was in a better financial situation, and propelled by the shopping bug got herself a full-Italian black outfit, trying to blend in. She didn’t blend in, but her black clothes looked nice. She was stared at all the same.
Once I decided people were going to stare anyway, the red raincoat became my insignia from then on. Years later when I replaced it I invested in a red Burberry trench that really catches your eye in any crowd. It nurtures my inner Western Imperialist Aggressor, as Steyn put it.