Wishing to Be a Boy

11/19/2010 12:06 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I grew up resenting the fact that, as a girl from a good family, I had so many obligations that didn't seem to matter when it came to my brother Paolo. To begin with, Paolo could wear trousers. Granted, they were horrendously short until he was a teenager and the sight of his scrawny knees became too much even for my parents, but I had to wear a monstrous red kilt with a golden pin. Was I not the obvious winner in this unfashionable contest?

It was clear that life was unfair and that it presented problems for us girls. Boys were taken much more seriously and had many more chances to have fun. We had to wait to be invited to dance; they could choose.

Having been told that I couldn't be a ballet dancer, I asked my mother to allow me at least to take fencing classes. Horrified by the idea, she replied that it wasn't a dignified activity for (here we go again!) a girl from a good family. I was beginning to despair and realize that, after all, being a girl wasn't such a good deal.

In order to prove that I was different and as good as any boy, I relied on physical strength and exerted the brute force of my muscles on anyone who crossed my path with the ill-fated idea of challenging me. I fought, and when I say fought, well, I really mean it. One day my father, at that time a young officer in Sicily, was summoned by the admiral commanding Augusta Navy Base. "You should restrain your daughter, Lieutenant," the admiral said. "She's way out of control." My astonished father discovered then that I had divided the officers' children into two big groups and declared an all-out war. Not for nothing, I was the best at school, and I had devoured all available information about the Roman Empire. Carried away by my profound knowledge of assault tactics, I had established two factions: the Romans and the Gauls. I, of course, captained the first.

The detail that had profoundly irked the parents of my cohorts (hence my father's command to appear) was that I had built powerful bombs of mud, dried under the mighty Sicilian sun. Those dangerous weapons, once hurled with the vigor of my seven years, could cause real pain. And I'm afraid they did. I won't go into the details of my punishment. I pursed my lips and endured it as the great Roman warrior I was.

A couple of years later, however, while walking in Livorno with my mother, I met that same admiral. To my complete mortification, he looked at me, asked if I had been "tamed" and winked. I turned as red as a tomato and hid behind my tall mother. It was not until I was 16 that I was allowed to wear trousers. The reason still escapes me. After all, they covered the body more efficiently than those silly skirts and didn't fly up at the first gust of wind; moreover, boys couldn't lift them from behind just to annoy you.

Obviously I found effective ways to circumvent this nuisance and was known to change into jeans as soon as my parents were out of sight.

And I loved to shoot. When I was 16 a couple of officers, friends of my father, taught me to use their regulation Beretta gun. They took me to the convergence of the strongest currents in the Messina Straits and showed me the millions of bobbing items that passed in front of us. "Shoot it!" they ordered. And I did. Electric bulbs, boxes, oranges and all the waste of Sicily floated in front of our eyes, perfect targets for a wannabe-boy.

Around the mid '60s, a magnificent Italian movie came out and confirmed me in my quixotic dreams. It was directed by Mauro Bolognini, and Catherine Spaak was its star. Inspired by Théophile Gautier's book, "Mademoiselle de Maupin," it told the story of a strong-willed girl who went to war, masquerading as a young gentleman. Still starving for real, romantic kisses, I found the erotic tension between the fake-mustached, beautifully androgynous Mademoiselle and the handsome Chevalier d'Albert, played by Tomas Milian, irresistible. D'Albert, poor thing, had no idea why he was so attracted to another man. A delicious trembling shook my entire body every time that sexy actor was on the verge of kissing Catherine Spaak. "Please kiss her, be brave! Love is love. Who cares if she's got a tiny mustache? Can't you see that it's fake?" I mumbled, holding on to my seat.

I must have seen that movie at least four or five times. And it always made me dream. I was a good rider, a good shot, I had wanted to fence (of course that by itself would have given me a natural advantage), I loved to disguise and was pretty courageous as well. Perhaps if I just donned a mustache, all my dreams would come true!

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