It’s summer in Rome – and in this city, when the temperatures rise, the clothes come off. Which reminds me, time to play one of my favorite seasonal games: “Count the Putans.”
Some may have already guessed how the game works. It’s not a complicated concept, but it is nonetheless quite amusing. If you haven’t figured it out yet, by putans (the Italian-American slang for the word puttane), I’m referring to prostitutes, women of the night, hookers. Whatever you choose to call them, they are a living, breathing part of the scenery here in the outskirts of Rome.
I happen to live and work in Roma Nord (the typically highly-regarded North end of the city), and therefore use Via Salaria every day for my commute. La Salaria is a main vein leading out of the city. Throughout most of the year the area is your standard, four-lane business district lined with hotels, businesses (including my office), and luxury car dealerships. Continuing on after the commercial area, in about fifteen minutes you reach our suburb of Monterotondo. But something bizarre starts to happen once the warm weather breaks around May: spring fever hits, the weather heats up (along with libido, apparently), and the girls start their high season.
All of a sudden, a wave of putans hit the street – and as summer progresses and the heat scorches, they get progressively more naked. Yes, from May to September, the world’s oldest profession is alive and well on Via Salaria – so much so, the scene has inspired this impromptu game we’ve shared with friends and visiting family (and have had great fun with, I must say).
The game begins on the way home from Rome’s city center: once we reach the start of this 2-3 mile stretch of sex for sale, everyone in the car has to guess how many putans we’ll spot by the end of the road. At the moment, we have a standing record of thirty-four (and that doesn’t count those who may have been on “business” while we were passing). That’s pretty staggering for such a small area. If it’s true that supply reflects demand, then the numbers are quite telling.
So you just can’t help but wonder: who are these men who keep this business thriving? Every now and then, you get to answer that question in first person: when you’re lucky enough to be behind a car that happens to be dropping a girl off, and you use all your powers of peripheral vision while trying to pass and get a good look at his face without actually turning your head.
My colleagues and I have become so accustomed to it by now that we’ve actually started to be able to recognize the putans personally, since they’re usually always the same and in the same locations. It’s entirely possible to hear one of my colleagues say, “Anyone notice the blond with the 10-inch white boots wasn’t by the entrance? She must be sick today.”
And Via Salaria is only one of the areas where you’re guaranteed to get a show; let’s not even get into the “tranny” zone, which happens to surface after a certain hour in one of the richest neighborhoods in the city. Oh, che scandolo!
So, prostitution must be legal in Italy, you say? No, it’s not. But that’s clearly not stopping anyone. Sure, the occasional squad car pulls up to take record, and shoot the breeze – but rather than threatened, the putans always just look blasé and mildly irritated at best by police presence. Prostitution seems to be yet another of one of those “look the other way” laws in Italy – just another subject that stirs the usual response from most Italians when they feel powerless about something: “It’s always been that way; it’s just the way it is.”
While in the States there would probably be protests galore and a new organization formed within a week (perhaps MAS – Moms Against Sex – or something similar), here in Italy, everyone is so immune they don’t even pay attention anymore. After all, who are they going to complain to, the politicians who frequent the escorts (aka, higher-paid, more glamorous cousins of the puntans)?
So, when our child is old enough to ask, “Mom, why is that girl standing half-naked on the side of the road?” I think I’ll go with the answer my mother-in-law used to give my husband when he was little: “She’s just waiting for the bus, honey.”
Let the blind eye philosophy continue. After all, when in Rome…