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An American’s view on relationships in Italy

Italian Style, Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren[Article written by Rick Zullo (here you can find an interview with him in Sul Romanzo), author of several books on Italy viewed by an American]

Italian guys get kind of a bad rap. We’re all familiar with the stereotypical Latin Lover, which unfortunately continues to be promoted in silly romantic comedies and the wistful memoirs of Elizabeth Gilbert. Italian men are usually portrayed as smooth-talking, sex-crazed, anti-feminists. But I’d like to suggest that what is generally viewed as misogyny might actually be chivalry in disguise.

What? OK, let me start over and I’ll try to explain this from my point of view.

For American men, figuring out the latest politically correct protocol for relating to women can be a confusing, if not paralyzing, conundrum. Should we open the door for her or would she see that as an insult? If we pick up the dinner check does that imply that she’s incapable of paying for herself or is it a nice gesture? Should we assume the top position or offer to be on the bottom? Such are the woes of the American dating scene and it’s a landscape fraught with peril.

It appears to me that, traditionally, Italian men aren’t burdened with such dilemmas. Gender roles have been well established and there’s little room for interpretation – or misinterpretation –, especially from Rome, to the south. When romancing a woman, a man’s directive is to be as aggressive as possible. Period. Not in a threatening way, but if you don’t shower her with compliments and profess your eternal love and admiration, then how could she possibly take you seriously?

Meanwhile a woman’s job is to resist as aggressively as possible. To do otherwise would put her virtue in question. The would-be Romeo is rebuffed, scoffed at, or else just ignored outright. If you want to gain her favor, then you’d better try a little harder. Smooth talk alone doesn’t warrant her attentions – she gets that from every ragazzo in town, so what makes you so special?

However, the discussion goes beyond these obvious gambits of courtship and permeates into the cultural mentality at large. To put this dynamic into high focus we should venture down The Boot a little further to Naples and the Amalfi Coast where we can witness the action in its purest, most elemental form.

Last April, I was vacationing in Sorrento with my Italian fidanzata. I foolishly left her side for a moment to grab a bottle of water a nearby bar. A middle-aged man and his young son passed by as my girlfriend was slowly sauntering back towards our hotel, wearing only a sheer beach wrap over her bikini. The man stopped, turned his head, and said to his seven year-old son, «Fatte l’uocchie, bell’a papá!» Roughly translated, he was saying, “Fill your eyes (enjoy this feast for your eyes), daddy’s boy!

There was no embarrassment in his voice, no hushed conspiracy between father and son – I clearly heard his words from 10 meters away. He was instructing his offspring on the ways of the world, using my girlfriend as an opportune example. It was like watching one of those Discovery Channel documentaries where a lion is teaching his little cub to hunt. The fact is, the second I stepped away she became fair game. Had we still been walking hand in hand, he wouldn’t have been so bold. Probably.

[I servizi di Sul Romanzo Agenzia Letteraria: Editoriali, Web ed Eventi.

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Rick ZulloThis reminds me of another occasion when we were trying to get a table at a pizzeria in Naples. My Italian language skills are often reluctant to emerge before Happy Hour and so I allowed my girlfriend to speak to the owner/host. The man was courteous, but even though Jessica was asking him the questions, he looked squarely at me when he answered. Was he disrespecting her by turning away? Now before we answer, we must consider his cultural reference points. Social norms are not absolutes so we must tread lightly before imposing our puritan criteria on folks who weren’t subjected to the same indoctrination. In his mind, he was being polite as possible: polite to her for not “troubling” her with the rigors of such a mundane task; and polite to me by not “flirting” with my girlfriend right in front of my face. To do so would suggest that I was cornuto, which would certainly call for fisticuffs, if not a knife fight (Pistols are only appropriate when actually caught in the act). It’s a certain code of chivalry, if you see what I mean.

I’m American and too old to change my stripes. While I admire some aspects of an Italian man’s overall relationship with women, I know that I could never comfortably subdue the politically correct puritan that lurks inside all of us americani. But let’s be clear: just because we Americans might appear more “well-mannered” on the outside, doesn’t mean that our thoughts are any less lascivious within. I think there’s an admirable brand of honesty in the Italian man’s treatment of women. Indeed, they don’t treat them as equals – they treat them better than equals in many ways. Every virtuous woman is to be revered and respected as if she were Mother Mary, especially your own mother and your wife. (Then again, that’s also a man’s excuse for having extra-marital affairs, as Robert DeNiro’s character explained so eloquently in Analyze This: «I can do things with my girlfriends that I can’t do with my wife. She kisses my children with that mouth!»).

So in the end, where does that leave us, the poor American traveler or expat who’d like to meet a nice Italian girl? My friends, I’m afraid that the news isn’t good. You’ve got no chance. Come visit the sights, savor the food, and look at the girls. Take their pictures, if you’d like, they won’t mind.  They might even pose for you. But that’s as far as it’ll go. Don’t even bother entertaining your post-modern Sophia Loren fantasy because it’ll never happen – just give up now and save yourself the disappointment and heartache.

Hold on a second – the astute reader has detected a major contradiction here. Didn’t I mention earlier that I have an Italian girlfriend myself? Yes, that’s right – in fact, now she’s my Italian wife. But sorry guys, this was an anomaly, really. Right place, right time, sort of thing; like seeing Haley’s Comet. I must have caught her at a very precise moment when she’d heard «Principessa, sei l’amore della mia vita!» one-too-many times. Instead, I came along and did the only thing that I knew how to do: I simply asked her out on a proper date. We watched Shakespeare in the park. I even paid for dinner and opened the door for her. (And the rest of that night is nobody’s business.)

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Commenti

I concur with your assessment, Rick, and can break it down for you from the perspective of an American woman living in Italy: After reaching a certain age, I found that I'd become invisible in America. In Italy, I certainly don't get wolf whistles or pinches on my behind - that's not okay in most cultures - but in Italy when I pass a man on the street, there is a subtle look, an acknowledgment that he sees me and perhaps appreciates my female form. I'm a woman, after all, and sometimes it's just nice to feel like one.

I totally agree with Toni on the differences in male perceptions to females in North America vs Italy. I experience the same thing in Canada. Gli Italiani know how to make a woman feel some self worth even if it is superficial and for a short moment. Why not!! At a certain age we women still want some attention showered upon us.

Of course there is a difference between your situation Rick. You, the man, is the straniero and from my experience I've seen more raggazze being open to getting together with the foreigner than the other way around. Or perhaps it is mamma's influence with the figlio's choice of a partner!

Great story and I love it all the more because I was, in some way, part of it in a small way :)
Un bacio.

"I’m afraid that the news isn’t good. You’ve got no chance."

I have to disagree with your assessment above. Many Euro women, including Italians, love a generous American man.

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