Margin Notes: Girl, Traveling Alone

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On one of our last nights in Bologna, my American friend and I went to a wine bar that we heard was the oldest in the city and, perhaps, in all of Italy. Turning off of an alleyway into an even smaller alleyway, we walked back and forth a few times before recognizing the nondescript entrance, naked without a sign.

rachael allenOver the course of five months abroad, both of us had taken up the habit of exploring, taking long walks around the city independently and, when possible, together. Tonight, we ordered ourselves our favorite red wines (newly discovered), then talked with the middle-aged British tourists with whom we shared the wooden picnic bench. After pleasant chatter (in English!) about our homes and our journeys, my friend and I turned to our own conversation, noticing a poster on the wall.

It was a black and white print photograph of a girl walking down a sidewalk. Nearly 20 men surround her. With downcast eyes, she looks anxious, hurried, vulnerable. One hand clutches at her shawl, the other, her bag. The image is startling because all of the men turn to gaze at her, as if by magnetic force. Old and young, they are dressed sharply. One sits at a table at an outdoor café, two hunch over a motorcycle, others stand. They are smiling, whistling, leering, or simply staring, blank-faced.

The image is Ruth Orkin’s 1951 “American Girl in Italy,” as the print says at the top. My friend and I snapped a photo, amused and disturbed at its relevance to our European journey. We are thankful that our own experiences abroad have been much milder.

At home, they tell us not to walk alone at night, and so we walk home with friends, as we would anyways. Abroad, they tell us not to walk alone, to travel alone, to reveal that we are alone, by day or night. We try, and yet it’s harder here. When I met up with my friend in another country for the weekend, I flew alone. When I made friends with people other than my roommates, I walked across the city to meet them for aperitivo. (They walked me home.) And when I began to envy those diners with the poise and confidence to eat a meal alone, I chose a restaurant and showed up by myself. Over three courses, I shed my self-consciousness and practiced taking up space at my own table.

Convenience and feasibility most often get in the way of “safety in numbers.” Yet, especially when traveling, the thrill of solo adventuring — and the improvisation and confidence that comes with it — gets in the way too. How can we become courageous, self-sufficient women if we always are running after a group? How can we be simultaneously safe and independent?

I later learn that the photographer of this print, Boston-born Ruth Orkin, was traveling alone. For Orkin, this journey wasn’t anything new; she had biked and hitchhiked cross-country by herself at age 17, simply for the adventure. In Florence, Orkin met Jinx Allen (also known as Ninalee Craig) at the hotel where they both were staying. Allen, also an American, had moved to Europe to study art. The two single girls chatted about their experiences and decided the next morning to have a photo shoot that played with the image of a woman traveling alone.

Though part of this impromptu photo shoot, “American Girl in Italy,” was not staged. Orkin envisioned the shot and asked Allen to walk up and down the sidewalk. My initial interpretation was technically wrong: Allen has said that her expression was not anxious. “I was thrilled. I was having the time of my life,” Allen told CNN. She brushed off the men’s stares as inevitable and understandable, especially considering her inconspicuous six-foot-tall frame. On one level, Allen’s nonchalance about the men’s ogling highlights the insidious way this behavior has become normalized. Yet, on another level, Allen’s “thrill” reveals how she and Orkin reclaimed power through this photo shoot. They were self-empowered, independent women traveling abroad; this photo shoot captured the good and the bad of that experience.

Copies of this photograph have made homes for themselves in college dorm rooms, alongside feminist posters like Rosie the Riveter’s “We Can Do It!” Orkin’s photograph is different, for the girl does not embody the masculine strength of Rosie’s flexed bicep and stern expression. Instead, Orkin’s photograph casts a direct spotlight on street harassment, unstaged, unfiltered. At first, the men’s gazes make me see the girl as vulnerable, weak, caught, but upon closer look, I notice the way her shoulders are pushed back and head held high as she moves forward, mid-stride.

Rachael Allen is a senior at Bowdoin College and a lifelong Canton resident. The recipient of several writing awards, she currently serves as the managing editor for Bowdoin’s student newspaper, the Orient.

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