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Continental Drift cover story, spring Scarlet poppies, emerald spring grass and golden sunshine saturated the Via Appia, the ancient and venerated path into Rome. Here was Antiquity, the monuments, the irregular flagstones, the cyprus trees. Crusty bread, goat cheese, plump tomatoes, white chocolate. This day, it seemed, would blaze on forever, perfect. And so she was. Stiletto heels protruded from an open car door, as the little Fiat churned and thumped.
In broad daylight, on a very popular road, amid ancient splendour, she was turning tricks. Yet this was not a happy hooker. This foul-tempered temptress was my first and most memorable encounter with an Italian prostitute, though certainly not the last. They girdle the city like sirens, unmissable, unmistakable in their gaudy scraps of clothes and crude makeup. Little subtlety is employed: women pose among the dry grass and roadside litter, flashing breasts and pubic hair at oncoming traffic.
Their trade is carried out peasant-style on a blanket in the fields or, if lucky, in a small trailer nearby. Customers cheerfully button up their trousers alongside the highway, nonchalantly. After all, this is Italy. This is life. And this is love, of a sort.
Every culture has traces of the Madonna-whore complex, but none more than Italy. Gentle-eyed icons of the Virgin peer onto almost every street, as prostitutes stalk beneath.
Italians must cope with two Marys quite contrary: the Holy Mother and the Magdalene. The resulting confusion, unsurprisingly, boils over into everyday life, expectations of behaviour and feminine identity. The government considers prostitution an epidemic, and frequently lures women off the streets with promises of aid and legal residency, or simply deports suspicious characters. Neither bait nor brute force has much effect, however.