"God bless the milk your mother fed you at birth" was what a young man told me while passing by on a street in Rome. It was a beautiful summer day and that sentence was a joyful verse of poetry. I wasn't at all offended by it: it felt more like a serenade rather than a perverse intrusion.
In the United States (and now that I think about it, in all the non-Mediterranean countries of Europe I've visited), men don't really look at women in the street. People in general don't look at each other. I've been living in NYC for seven years now and when I go back to Italy, I'm surprised at the way men and women distinctly check each other out. It is a quick but thorough look and after a few days I get back into the old habit and I do the same. I don't know what it is, but a great Spaniard writer, Javier Marias, in his book All Souls wrote about the different quality of eyes and looks, according to different latitudes. It must be that: latitude.
Don't be offended by Italian looks (sometimes people look at you so insistently that you might even have the feeling that something is wrong, like you are walking outside in your slippers). Of course, be rightfully offended if men cross the line, if poetry becomes insult and a look or a word of comment feels like sexual harassment (in Italy you can, unfortunately, hear much worse than poetry). Since I was a little girl, I thought those comments came from men who needed to be taught how to behave, and since I can remember I've always openly scolded them, hoping other women would do the same. Please join this small group in an era in which we need champions in the quest to reset the social equilibrium with the Italian Man (just look at the Prime Minister we have).
Also, touching is a big thing where I come from: first of all, we kiss on both cheeks when we meet and when we depart (many times in the US, I catch myself half-way through the second kiss, while the other person has already finished), and men hug each other when meeting. The most shocking of cultural shocks for me was going to Los Angeles and realizing that tables for two are not quite squared, but rather rectangular, almost as if they don't want even knees to touch under the table. Among strangers, in general, bumping into somebody in a public place is not an enormous deal (my Italian friends who visit the States are always very impressed by the politeness of Americans, who apologize profusely when touching by mistake).
The interaction between strangers through eyes and hands is quite a sensitive subject: you can't really see when the line is crossed. I'm not here to draw that line: I'm just noting the differences. Of one thing I'm grateful: in New York City I can go about dressed the way I want and nobody notices it, maybe because nobody looks at anybody. Still, it's a very refreshing feeling. Maybe because we look at each other so much, in Italy people tend to watch their appearance much more (do I have the right accessories for my outfit?). It is so much pressure, but is it worth a daytime serenade?