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Almost “Taken”? It’s Not Just a Movie

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I pride myself on having two contradictory qualities: I am extremely cautious with safety but I am absolutely a risk taker. I believe you can never drive too slowly when it’s raining, but if you want to drive all night on a spontaneous road trip, then I’m your girl. Both of these qualities influenced my decision to take a chance and spend the summer before my junior year of college in Italy.

My cautious side told me to choose a school-oriented program. I had never traveled to Europe and I figured it would be safer to have access to adults in my program that could guide me through the cultural transition. The school factor also allowed for one of my best friends, Meredith, to join me on this month-long program.

As excited as I was about the opportunity to study photography in such a historical city, the 20-year-old girl in me was more than giddy about the idea of meeting an “Italian guy.” The adventurous voice in my head told me that I would have to get out and meet the locals. I wanted to completely immerse myself in this new culture.

Meredith and I arrived in Florence in the beginning of June. The first five days or our program were planned out for us by the school administration so that we could begin to feel comfortable in this new world. We were a little uneasy at first because we lived in a two-person apartment farther away from the school than many of the other students. One of the administrators encouraged us not to worry and told us that pickpocketing was the only crime to be concerned about in Florence. By the end of the week we were feeling pretty at home in our new surroundings.

Finally, a weekend of freedom approached. We got all dolled up and went out to a snazzy little bar. That is where I first met him. He was either the cutest Italian boy I have ever met, or a creep with bad intentions. It has taken me over a year to accept that the second was probably the right description.

His name was Francesco, or so he said. He had baby blue eyes and tan skin. He was not the typical tall and dark Italian, but handsome indeed. Perhaps I felt comfortable talking to him because he didn’t approach me saying, “Ciao Bella,” like 90 percent of the other males in Italy. He asked for my number and if I would like to go dancing. The night was already getting late and, after a few glasses of wine, I was quite ready for bed. I happily gave him my international cell number and left with hopes that he would actually call.

I awoke the next morning to a text that said, “I have remained fascinated of you. Would you like to go outside with me this week?” One can only imagine the giggles I got over his broken English. I had only been in Italy two weeks and I had already successfully met a cute boy! This was working out better than I could have imagined.

Francesco continued to text me for the next few days until we were finally able to arrange a time for us to hang out in a group setting. I was so enamored of his broken English and flirty texts that I wanted to overlook the fact that he was oddly persistent about wanting to pick me up in a car. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the caution sign was flashing in my mind. Still, it was only a caution sign, not a warning at this point, so I agreed to meet him somewhere that I could travel to on foot.

I was fully convinced that I was doing everything the smart way. There were three girls going to meet two guys. We had chosen a busy area and we all three kept a close watch on our drinks throughout the night. It ended up being a wonderful night. We exchanged stories about our different experiences growing up in different countries. We flirted. I received my first “Italian kiss” goodnight. In my mind things could not have gone better.

Francesco didn’t waste any time asking me out again. Only now he was quite adamant about it being just the two of us. I tried to explain to him that I wasn’t comfortable doing that so soon in a foreign country. I told him that Meredith would have to come and that he should bring a friend as well. It was after this that our communication grew less and less. Desperate not to offend him, I suggested we meet at a coffee shop down the street from my apartment. This was the only possible way I would go alone, because Meredith would only be a minute away. However, halfway through our phone conversation, the call dropped and I never heard from him again.

I was heartbroken. I could not understand how the same guy who sent me so many “sweet messages” would just drop me like that. Only two days before he had seemed as determined as ever to see me. I spent the next few days texting him and hoping there had been a miscommunication. I received zero response. Had I committed some kind of cultural offense that I was unaware of? I gave in to my disappointment and moped for a week about what could have been.

Sitting here tonight I have an entirely different perspective on this experience. Instead of contemplating “what could have been” I am mortified thinking about “what could have happened.”
Forget “cultural differences.” The movie Taken was more than enough of a wake-up call for me. Before that film, I knew very little about the sex trade. In fact, I had refused to see the film altogether for several months because I was afraid it would ruin my love for traveling. However, the film ended up increasing my interest in international safety and I took some time to research the sex trade specifically. I was alarmed to find out what an issue it is in Europe, including Italy.

Looking back on the group date with Francesco, I remember details that I must have blocked out at the time. There were peculiar things about him. He mentioned living in multiple countries, but he was only 23 and “without a job.” During the week I spoke with him, there was a time when he suddenly had to jet off to Rome for the weekend. The warning signs are ridiculously apparent to me now. He was way too smooth with the lines he fed me. And why was he so persistent about picking me up? He had even mentioned that there was a place “a little outside of town” that he wanted to show me.

As I think back to the night I met him, I must admit that I was more than tipsy. Perhaps he assumed I would be another “stupid American tourist.” Did he stop talking to me because he soon realized I would be a more difficult case than he had planned on?

There is a strong possibility that his intentions were not to kidnap me and sell me to some Albanian mobster, but I have decided you can never be too cautious. If his intentions were in fact evil, I am proud that I outsmarted his system of luring ignorant tourists. However, I am still frightened when I think that I considered, for even a second, going out alone with him. If we had met for coffee down the street from my apartment, he would have known where I lived. Before seeing Taken, that issue did not even cross my mind. What if Francesco had showed up outside our apartment with a group of big mobsters waiting in the alley?

Today I am very thankful that, for whatever reason, Francesco stopped talking to me. I still love to travel and have visited seven other European countries since my time in Italy. However, my priorities have matured past hoping to have some short-lived fling. Even if Francesco wasn’t trying to “take me away,” he obviously had some other intentions in mind. I would rather enjoy experiences that I will live to tell instead of taking my chances just because a guy is cute. From now on, flying across the ocean will be a big enough risk for me and I will never question my instinct for caution again.

I would encourage everyone to see Pierre Morel’s film, Taken, starring Liam Neeson. While the drama is exaggerated for entertainment, it will at least frighten you enough to be extra cautious while traveling abroad.

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About Jennifer Stuart