I’m in basic brown Birkenstocks on a balcony in Rome.

B is for Birkenstock

The Piazza della Signoria in Florence seemed busy all the time. There seemed to be a healthy population of locals and tourists on any given day. For two months, I called the city home as I studied Italian.

After class each day, I stopped by a small shop for a cheap slice of pizza — nothing like the Little Caesars or Pizza Hut versions I ate at home. I sat, soaked in the sun and the environment. My daily chant included: Remember. You are here to study, to learn and to live.

The intensive language program featured an assortment of twenty-somethings from around Europe and our group from the University of Georgia. The Greek students from Athens and I joked about being from the same city. They were from Athens, Greece. I came from Athens, Georgia.

My Italian was OK. A brunette roommate seemed to think I got by mostly with my blonde hair.

“Biondina!”

Men shouted “Little blondie” from street corners. One man said it inches from my face as he grabbed me by the shoulders at a train station. Instead of helping me, a police officer laughed as I broke free from this man’s grasp.

As my hair lightened and my skin tanned under the Tuscan sun, I learned how to say, “What the fuck are you doing?” to the more aggressive ones. The strong language and a quick hand gesture startled these men enough for me to get away from them, so I could go about exploring Italy by trains, bus or the random ride on a motorcycle.

My hair color didn’t make me feel different there, but my shoes did. I wore chunky tennis shoes or Birkenstock sandals most of the time. During a trip to Pompeii, I was shocked to see Italian women walking about the ruins in high heels.

When I travel today, I continue to wear comfortable shoes. You won’t find me wearing high heels roaming ruins or an airport escalator. You may hear me explaining in English to the confused flight attendant, ticket agent or customs official that I am an American and not German — “No tedesca.”

My passport backs up my story, but their confusion reminds me that it really wasn’t that long ago that my ancestors traveled from Europe. It is a small world.