Solo woman in Italy?
September 3, 2010 1:53 PM   Subscribe

Safety measures for a woman traveling solo in Italy?

My niece (mid-twenties, Pakistani, Muslim) will be traveling to France and Italy later this month. She speaks no Italian, and as far as I know, no French. She has, however, traveled to Paris before with a group.

In this case, she will be traveling completely on her own. She knows no one in Italy, at all. She has been in the UK for the past year, so it's not like she doesn't know how to handle herself in general, in a foreign country.

Her parents are particularly concerned that she does not know the language, and so, if she gets into any kind of jam, would not necessarily be able to get reliable help very easily. To that end, a friend of a friend has been located in France, just in case she needs an emergency contact person.

So first of all, given that she is fluent in English, to what extent will communication pose a problem in Rome, Florence, and Venice?

Second, given that no one we know is in Italy, who might be a credible source of help should the need arise? In Pakistan, for example, I would never suggest that someone who was in trouble should contact the police. Please don't suggest the Pakistani embassy; while I have advised her to register with them, etc., I wouldn't count on them being terribly helpful.

Third, are there any specific things she should be concerned about as a South Asian, Muslim woman?

Finally, any suggestions for safe and hassle-free vacationing in Rome, Florence and Venice?

And yes, her parents know that I am trying to help sort this out. So does she. I'm not just seeking answers to pass on unsolicited advice.
posted by bardophile to Travel & Transportation around Italy (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If your niece speaks fluent English, she shouldn't have a difficult time navigating Rome, Florence, and Venice. All three see a ton of tourists, and many people speak English quite well. It might be handy for her to learn a few Italian phrases for directions, places, and transportation (or pick up a quick phrasebook). How is she getting around between cities? I haven't been to Italy for some time, but trains within the country have been known to notoriously not on time. Make sure she plans to be at the station ahead of time if she's taking the trains. But language isn't really a problem. Most Italians communicate through their hands anyway :-)

As far as being Pakistani goes, it is true that Islamophobia is a big problem in much of Europe - Italy included. Particularly a concern that Muslim and South-Asian immigrants are contributing to a changing national identity. Generally though, a lot of the hostility is geared towards immigrants rather than tourists. Does she wear hijab? If so, she *might* experience some (unfortunate) harassment. On the other hand, a lot of older, traditional Italians are actually supportive of hijab-wearing. Something to do with restoring girls modesty. Religion is often a contradiction in Italy... But if she makes an attempt to appreciate places for what they are and enjoy herself, I sincerely think she'll be fine.

FYI, my dad is Pakistani. When he went to Italy, he regularly got mistaken for being Italian. My mom was Italian, but she looked more German or Dutch. Appearances aren't necessarily revealing.

As far as being a single woman traveling alone, some basic safety tips would be to not be out too late alone. Confidence is key. Keep a photocopy of her passport with family, and maybe in her luggage. Is she staying with friends? A hotel? Hostel? If she's staying at a hostel, a good lock (for a locker) would be a good idea. I haven't had much contact with Italian police, but they seemed (mostly) trustworthy. I'm aware of corruption of law enforcement in Pakistan, but I think she should be fine counting on the police in Italy.

All in all though, I feel like she's really going to be fine (and have a great trip). And I'm totally jealous :-)
posted by raztaj at 2:25 PM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

The biggest risk she runs is being pick-pocketed. Advise her to carry a purse that zips shut with a long strap that can go under one shoulder and over the other. If she is staying in shared accommodation (hostels) she could either rent a locker or sleep with her essentials under her pillow.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 2:30 PM on September 3, 2010

With a little survival Italian, she will be fine.

I don't know what she has access to, but there are free Italian language podcasts in the iTunes store. I used the Spanish counterpart to prepare for a recent trip to South America - most are 15 minutes long (or shorter), simple casual introduction to the language from a travelers' point of view. Highly recommended.

I've been to Italy twice - to Rome and the area around Naples both times. I was fine with a few key phrases ("please", "thank you", "good morning/evening", "where is...", "can I have...") and English both times.

If she is an English speaker who has mainly lived in Pakistan, she should be aware that her particular dialect of English might be unfamiliar - but all in all she should be fine, just go slow and be prepared to repeat herself or switch to a more "standard" word choice/pronunciation if possible.

People who work in tourism/travel tend to speak English to a degree, so if she gets into some kind of jam which doesn't involve murder or kidnapping, she should have no problem asking for help at her hotel (for instance). I believe the police are probably OK in Italy - I mean, it's an EU country. Unless she plans to get involved with organized crime or something, the standard developed country travel rules probably apply. That said, it is highly unlikely that she would have a problem where she needed to contact the police. Most embassies are not going to be terribly helpful unless it's a matter that specifically involves them.
posted by Sara C. at 2:41 PM on September 3, 2010

Once upon a time, my Italian teacher was pickpocketed. Now whenever he goes, he makes a fake wallet full of cockroaches to carry in his front pocket. I don't know where he got the cockroaches.

So yeah, pickpocketing is a big deal in italy. You might want to make sure she's wise to the big tricks, like having "warning, pickpocket" signs so everyone pats where their valuables are, passerby randomly offering things and then calling thief, and other things.

Is she an american citizen? I could see police being a problem if she has to see them for anything as, unfortunately, they're even pretty bad here. With citizenship she would have the extra security layer of the American consulate.
posted by wayland at 2:45 PM on September 3, 2010

Print important information up on a wallet-sized card.
Have one for HER, for emergency phrases.
Have one for Italians, so she can just point.

When I visited France in high school, a close friend of mine had a severe asthma attack. They just kind of...took her away. I had no idea what happened. I wish I could have acted better. But she was basically dumped into the arms of the French system. She was fine, but I bet she could've been more comfortable if she had simple emergency responses printed.
posted by carlh at 2:59 PM on September 3, 2010

have her bring a cellphone -- you can dial the police at 112 or 113. Pickpocketing can indeed be a problem, especially on public transportation. I doubt she'll have problems unless she starts getting drunk and doing pub crawls with other tourists (in case she drinks)
posted by 3mendo at 3:33 PM on September 3, 2010

Having travelled in France and Italy many times, I have never had problems with pickpockets etc. Of course, it can happen to anyone, anywhere, but if she is generally sensible she has no more chance of something happening than anyone else.

When I travel I wear one of these, the interactive version, and my son wears one too. I reason that since it links to a website as well as a phone number, if something happens emergency services who speak limited English have more chance of figuring out who I am, if I have health problems, and who to contact. Might be worth her getting, even if for peace of mind.

And on the mobile/cell phone - I have heard they are one of the most stolen items in Italy.
posted by Megami at 3:43 PM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've never been to Italy, but I started solo traveling when I was in my mid-twenties, so on the topic of women-traveling-solo in general, I think that if your niece can be comfortable and safe living in London, she can be comfortable and safe traveling in Italy. Living in a big city or traveling in the developed world, a lot of the same "street smarts" kinds of skills apply. Plenty of good suggestions here already.

Not knowing anyone makes things more difficult, but in general, there are a lot of people in the world who are happy to help strangers. And a lot of people speak English. I spent a few weeks in Turkey on my own last year (my first time traveling somewhere where I really didn't speak the language at all). There were hassles, and I got lost and couldn't find anyone to give me directions in English (more than once, argh), and there were times when I felt out-of-place or uncomfortable, but overall it was a great experience.

Specific tips: she should carry copies of any information she really needs with her whenever possible - prescriptions (including glasses/contacts if applicable), identification, visas (if necessary), and contact info for any hotel/hostel/whatever she is staying at or planning to stay at. I like to carry a paper copy and also email myself a digital copy, so that I can print out a new one at my hotel or an internet cafe if necessary. It's a good idea to program the phone numbers for your bank, contact info for people back home, and a couple of hotels/hostels per city you're planning on visiting into your phone before you go. And carry decent maps, even if your phone has GPS or whatever.

You don't say how long she's going for, but regardless - chances are nothing will happen that she can't handle. Yes, if she were injured and taken to an unfamiliar Italian hospital, that would be frightening for her, but she could get knocked over by a London bus and wake up in an unfamiliar hospital in London. In the highly unlikely event that she has any dealings with emergency services (police, ambulance, whatever), they will be able to get her an interpreter or an English-speaking policeman/paramedic/whatever. If her parents are nervous, she can phone or text them every day to let them know where she is, contact info for her hotel, etc.

But really - people in Italy, or England, or Turkey, or the US, or Pakistan, or wherever - mostly they want to help. Yes, there are pickpockets and dangerous drivers and murderers and terrorists (in varying proportions depending on where you are), but there are also so many good, helpful people who will help you when you're in a jam, even if you're a foreigner.

Oh, one other thing - what is your niece's accent like? She may find it more difficult to communicate with English-speaking Italians than she does with English-speaking Londoners. If that happens, my advice is to use small, ordinary words, and over-enunciate.
posted by mskyle at 3:50 PM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all your suggestions and reassurances!

No she's not an American citizen.

She's had a lot of public speaking practice, so over-enunciating is kind of ingrained. :) I'd be surprised if people weren't able to follow her accent, as long as they knew English.

Again, thank you, and keep the ideas coming.
posted by bardophile at 4:10 PM on September 3, 2010

Is she going to be distressed if Italian men speak to her in the street? If she's pretty, she'll get attention. When I was last in Rome, with a teenaged daughter, she got a lot of compliments, which flustered her, but no one pawing her, etc. ATM machines seemed to frequently be broken in Rome. Coffee costs more at a table than standing up at the coffee bar, all over Italy.

Every major religious site in Rome--Vatican, St. Peter's, etc. had lots of Muslim tourists, so I don't think she'll stand out or be singled out.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:43 PM on September 3, 2010

What is she planning to wear? Slacks with a blazer type jacket will make her blend better than jeans and t-shirt, especially in the fall. In Rome, Florence, and Venice one can see a variety of attires and people are rather used to tourists.

If she needs help, and I don't really think she will run into any trouble, actually the best place to seek it will be from any hotel: the concierges, even in the smallest ones, are bi or trilingual, with all kinds of information at their fingertips, with contacts everywhere, and experienced in dealing with their guests troubles.
posted by francesca too at 7:38 PM on September 3, 2010

I can only speak to part of your question, but here goes:

Solo, mid-20s female who lived in France and traveled to Italy for a couple of weeks alone last fall - the three cities you mentioned, in fact. Am a reasonably outgoing person and seriously, no problems. When men flirted it was pleasant and not often aggressive. Your niece might encounter the odd persistent creep, but so long as she's comfortable being politely firm, she'll be ok.

Language-wise, English signage was all over the place, far more so than I'd expected (bilingual signage in bus stations, etc). These cities are really well-touristed and have the infrastructure to support it. I'd learned some survival phrases beforehand, but although they were appreciated, they really weren't needed.

In general, I'd suggest your niece get a decent guide book for Italy to help allay some fears and plan out her time.
posted by nicoleincanada at 8:08 PM on September 3, 2010

I'm mid-20's, female, pakistani origin- traveled to italy- your biggest concern really, is her being seduced by incredibly charming men who are very good at making a girl feel special. Remind her not to trust anyone, and if she talks to anyone to keep it in very public areas. :)

There are a TON of people who speak urdu/hindi there- lots of South Asians of every origin so it will be very easy for her to find someone who will understand her if the English thing doesn't work out so well for whatever reason. They might understand her more in other ways too.

Really, as long as she has some extra money she should be ok- make sure she has a name of a back-up place to stay in every city she's going to in case the first one she chose. She can make a phone call if she needs to, ask someone to help her with a good-sized tip desi style ;) So if she has a purse, maybe she can keep some extra cash in her pocket so that if someone steals her purse (god forbid) she can still at least get back to her hotel where maybe she's cleverly hidden some cash in the lining of her suitcase (could get stolen, but unlikely, and the idea is to keep a little bit of cash in a couple places so if money gets unfortunately taken from one place she still has it in another)

as long as she sticks to public areas, is aware of her surroundings, and keeps cash on her, really she should be ok
posted by saraindc at 4:21 AM on September 4, 2010

Thanks for all your suggestions and reassurances. Her mom is "much reassured by people's comments." Should anything further occur to you, please do add to the list. :)
posted by bardophile at 1:46 AM on September 6, 2010

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