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By the side of the Road

She looked so out of place on the side of the road. 

Olives and Vineyards and old towns … but no Prostitutes here
on this tourist route in Chianti
But then again, she had a padded chair and an umbrella for shade and she was sitting in an area that was safe from traffic. 
At first I thought she must be selling something, but there were no items nearby.
And then I learned what she was selling by the side of the road out in the country miles away from the city walls … she was a prostitute.
Prostitution is legal in Italy.  Which surprised me since Italy is such a strong Catholic country.
And due to a series of court rulings, prostitution is practiced not in the cities or homes or brothels but out on country roads.
Country roads, of course, are where I have been spending a lot of time on my bike.
There seem to be agreed-upon roads for prostitution – though the “red light” road designation is not showing up on my maps of course.  But clustering makes for easier shopping if you are taking advantage of these services.
The first prostitutes I saw were outside the city walls of Lucca.  They were all African women – maybe Somali immigrants or possibly Nigerian women trafficked in with the sex trade.  They were all ages and sizes.  They were dressed in bright colors, but generally simply – a short skirt or leggings but generally without the revealing/blingy clothes one thinks of when you visualize a prostitute.  They sat under umbrellas to stay more comfortable from the sun.  Other times I saw African prostitutes gathering together to share lunch together.  These women always give a waive and friendly “Ciao” as I pass by and greet them.
I have been told that most of these African women around Lucca are married.  That their husbands drive them here and drop them on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere to work.  
I imagine that these are the same husbands who are selling umbrellas and sunglasses near the big tourist sites trying to scrape out a living, but I don’t know that this is true.  I do know that these immigrants take the worst jobs and many seem to scrape to make due.  Most begging I’ve seen have been by African immigrants – usually men – often in front of churches or in tourist areas.  
I’ve also read about organized sex-trafficking of Nigerian women who are essentially trapped in the sex trade and that this is a huge problem in Italy.  I don’t know if the African women I see are Nigerian.
I do know these women sitting alone by the side of the road don’t look sexy.  They look poor and desperate and most look like they wish they could be anywhere else.
Yesterday as I rode into Bologna I saw a different kind of prostitute.  These women were white and tall and dressed in the stilettos and tiny clothes and sparkles.  Many were truly beautiful.  Most looked quite young.  Most had long shiny hair and clearly a lot of time put into their appearance.  And none were particularly friendly when I greeted them as I pedaled by … their looks back were suspicious and hostile.
I don’t know who these white women are or how they entered the trade.  Are they local students earning an extra buck?  Or exploited women from Eastern Europe?  Many had features that did not look local.  Even though they looked more stereo-typically like a prostitute, I found them in some ways more disturbing.  These women – most who were beautiful and young and more expensively dressed –seemed more afraid and harder and – in many ways – more compromised than the African women I’d seen earlier. 
The African women still had obvious shared community and humanity.  They sat on chairs under umbrellas to stay more comfortable.  They laughed and visited together.  I would guess they are not treated as well by their customers or paid as well as the white women for services rendered, as there are clearly racial and class structures alive and well in Italy.
My impression of the white women was of obvious fear.  That they were out there with a force behind them that was profiting from their bodies – and maybe watching them.  The white women seemed to be merchandise. They seemed afraid.  Then again, perhaps they have learned to be afraid and wary to survive and be safe.
I  read about prostitutes are protesting the government for a legal way to pay taxes.  Apparently the government is monitoring bank accounts and fining prostitutes for not paying taxes, but there is no way for prostitutes to pay them.  And many want to pay taxes so they can collect pensions.  The trade is caught in a middle ground where it’s legal but not integrated into society.
The roadside prostitution hints at a complex undercurrent in Italian society that touches on deeper issues of immigration and poverty and exploitation and racism and probably organized crime.  It’s at odds with the pristine images of antiques and masterpiece art and beauty most visitors see, which is no doubt why these women are relegated to desolate country roads to ply their trade. 
Of course it’s hard to know what is happening beneath the impressions of these women standing alone in the sun beside a lonely road.   It’s not like I feel like I can stop for a chat in my terrible Italian.  
I would be interested in learn more to understand what I saw.

Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate is a writer, former political consultant and two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate living in Seattle, WA

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