September 30, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The experiment

By |2018-03-21T18:40:58+01:00June 25th, 2010|First Person|
They don't have a clue how it is...

’ve been conducting an experiment. Visibly pregnant, I am a floating balloon on sticks and impossible to miss. Unable to ride my moped, I’ve had plenty of time to rediscover the Roman public transportation system, usually packed with people. My question: Would anyone offer me a seat?

For my experiment, I stand in the aisle of the metro observing the passengers through my peripheral vision. How many stops before someone stands up for an expecting mother two weeks from giving birth? I count the stops.

Most passengers look at my big belly and glance away, hoping I didn’t notice that they observed I was pregnant. Maybe someone else will offer their seat first, so they don’t have to? Certainly, a seat is a precious commodity. I remain standing in plain view between the facing rows of seats for an average of five stops. At two minutes per stop, this is approximately 10 minutes. At this point, usually someone concedes their seat.


My survey indicates that the person is usually a foreigner and a woman. The Chinese, Russians, and Eastern Europeans are the first on their feet. Older women are the quickest to rise, followed by younger women, and then foreign men. Only once in nine months did an Italian man offer me his seat.

To one tottering woman in her 70s who kindly proffered her seat among a sea of surrounding men, I said, “Thank you. It really should be one of them who gets up,” indicating the row of men in front of us, all looking away. “They don’t have a clue how it is,” she shook her head.

Yesterday, after I lumbered onto the crowded and sweltering 64 bus, a grey-haired man in his 60s smiled at me and stood, indicating that I should to take the seat next to his friend.

The man was unsteady on his feet and reeked of alcohol and sweat. For the rest of the 30-minute ride, he stood holding the metal bar for balance, chatting with his friend in Polish. Once the hot bus emptied out, they shared swigs of supermarket wine from a carton.

But what about the well-groomed man who sat behind me with his fancy red leather shoes and costly tie? Why didn’t he rise? Or the Italian woman in silver ballerina shoes and a crisp white linen outfit? Why was this drunken man, who was battling his own demons, the most thoughtful?

Next experiment: flying to the United States with a newborn baby.

About the Author:

Associate editor Katie McGovern is from Connecticut. She graduated from Harvard with a BA in English and American Literature, received a masters in International Affairs on a Fulbright scholarship in Germany, and an MBA from INSEAD on a Rotary Scholarship in France. She resides in Rome with her Italian husband and young son.