Imitation is the highest form of flattery. And so we shall be flattered that Italians have adapted the American tradition of celebrating Valentine’s Day. They call it the Festa degli Innamorati, a holiday for lovers and sweethearts. Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet, is celebrating big time:
Amore is abundant in Italy, in many forms. For example, there’s the Art of Italian Flirtations–one of the country’s many pleasures, celebrated in an excerpt from my book, “Letters from Italy: Confessions, Adventures, and Advice”.
“I know a shrink in New York who sends women who are suffering from low self-esteem to Italy for a month,” Heather whispers, as we clink glasses at a wine bar near the Campo dei Fiori in Rome.
My amica Carol nods toward a handsome Italian signor at the other end of the room, who’s been staring at us since we walked in the door: “Men like that are better than Zoloft,” she says. Il Signor’s stare washes over us, blending in with the deep rich taste of red wine, the sharp pecorino cheese, the warmth of the rustic wood tables.
I have to admit the stare feels darn good.
I flashback to 1976 when I was 18 and arrived in Rome for the first time, when the flirting game was more primitive, played in the Me-Man-You-Woman-Hubba-Hubba style.
My “American Girl In Italy” experience began as soon as I stepped off the train, just as it was captured in the famous Ruth Orkin photo. There, a young woman walks in Florence while 13 men–-from a guy in a T-shirt on a vespa to a group of older gents in suits–give her variations of the leering eye. The American Girl steels herself, looking like a frightened doe. The photo was taken in 1951, but in that sweltering August of 1976, things in Italy hadn’t changed that much.
According to my Catholic upbringing this reaction was all “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” I was supposed to be behaving and dressing with “Mary-like modesty” so my body would never be an occasion of sin to others.
Varieties of guilt flogged me. I felt guilty for wearing a halter top, but it was too hot for anything else. I felt guilty for lying to the men who stopped and asked if I was lost–-of course I was, but I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, right? I felt guilty because I’d read The Sensuous Woman and wasn’t FRIGID the worst thing a woman could be? I felt guilty because Gloria Steinem had ordered me not to be objectified–-should I be kicking these guys where it hurts?
At a loss, I assumed the American Girl in Italy walk, with my mother’s mantra in my head: “Don’t encourage them.” This strategy became futile in The Forum when a man who’d been stalking me, hissing behind every pillar, finally lost control at The House of the Vestal Virgins, ran up and slung me over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry, squeezing my behind like a ripe tomato. I beat on his back and hollered till he dropped me and ran off laughing.
Shaken to the soles of my feet, (I remember I was wearing what we called Buffalo-sandals), I brushed myself off. Did that just happen to me? Me, the high school drama club geek? Me, the one who stood watching the girls with their flawless Farrah Fawcett hairdos get smooched up against their lockers by the cool guys? I scurried for my guidebook and squelched the confusion by reading about how the Vestal Virgins served Vesta, the Goddess of the Hearth, by keeping her flame continuously burning and maintaining a vow of chastity for 30 years.
But that moment of being airborne, pinched, and that laugh–-particularly that laugh–kept playing back. As if it was a grown-up game of tag and I’d just had my initiation.
Thirty years later, Italian men have refined their flirting style to an art form I rank up there with the country’s many masterpieces. I’ve watched it evolve over many years coming here. It’s as if they were all sat down and ordered to view Marcello Mastroianni movies, memorizing his looks and moves to perfection. Now what’s in their in their genes, in their historical legacy from the days of Casanova, has come to full flower. Women are adored here–from precious baby principessas to mammas and everything in between.
And who doesn’t adore being adored? Having reached that certain age where attention back home is waning, here it comes at me with every encounter. The barista at the café brushes my hand with a smile as he passes me my morning cappuccino. The shopkeeper who bundles up my postcards gives me a wink. At dinner, a cameriere pulls out a chair for me whispering “Buona sera, signora,” in a low sensuous voice, keeping a firm hand on my back.
When I return to Los Angeles and report these flirtations to my husband, he laughs it off with, “Unbelievable! That stuff was beat out of us guys in the seventies. I held open a door for a woman once back then and she read me the riot act. And now with sexual harassment, I could be sued for reckless eyeballing if I turn my head towards a female for two seconds longer than I’m supposed to at work.”
I ask him to stare at me and he gives it a try, but it just results in mutual giggles. Decades-long marriages and the enticing mysteries of the flirting game go together like a bowl of minestrone topped with tiramisu.
So I go to Italy and play the soft, subtle version of the game, now that I’ve grown from signorina to signora, knowing the strategy is to not take any of it seriously. It’s a harmless way to get a little lift, simply accepting being appreciated for nothing more than being a woman.
Walking along Rome’s Via del Corso there’s so much to admire–-from the guy with the slicked back hair and leather jacket speeding along on his moto who brings back memories of bad-boy high school heartthrobs, to the elegant set who stroll with their suit jackets slung behind them off their index fingers, displaying tempting torsos in crisp white shirts. Mix these visions with church bell gongs, gushing fountains, naked thick-rippling-muscled statues and a street violinist playing Besame Mucho and I am oh-so relaxed as we catch each other’s eyes.
I realize my style differs from how other American women play it when I sit with Mario, a bar owner in Positano. Suddenly, a table of American women of a certain age, having had one too many limoncellos, zig-zags by to give Mario their buona nottes. One of them, a bleached blonde, squeezed into white jeans with silver studded pockets, turns to present her rear to Mario. He pats and pinches obligingly, sending her giggling away. As soon as she’s out the door he throws up his hands, “Aagghh! American women! They don’t understand the affair is an affair. The European woman, she knows it’s just what it is, she can take care of herself, and let us men be. But these Americans!”
Fabio, a handsome, deeply tanned boatman, joins in: “I’m exhausted. All summer I bring the American women from here to Capri. We have the sun, the wine… Then one of them has a top off, another one a bottom off. I am a man, what can I do? But it’s too much, too much–-they come here, they expect!”
Back in Rome, the trend becomes even more obvious when I walk by a Piazza Navona caffe and see a group of females ogling a businessman in a well-tailored suit. He puts his head down, avoiding entanglement. It all adds up to the inverse of Ruth Orkin’s masterpiece. Now it’s The Italian Boy In Italy who’s being leered at by gangs of American women.
Ladies, please stop!
Is this behavior going to ruin my game? Will the cougars with their blatant expectations scare off the signori? I have an urge to start a campaign to end this, like the Italians did when a McDonalds was opened beneath the Spanish Steps and they started the Slow Food Movement to preserve the country’s culinary culture. Their symbol is the snail, posted on all establishments that play by Slow Food rules.
I imagine plastering Rome with symbols of the Italian Stare, setting up enclaves where none of this breed of American woman tourists can trespass, so the delicate tradition can be preserved safely, and these men won’t become an endangered species.
I finish up my glass of wine and turn to look at the staring signor. He raises an eyebrow to add just the right mischievous element. It’s as if he’s beckoning words from the Roman poet Ovid’s advice to men in the Art of Love: “They may cry, naughty, but they want to be overcome…”
Could he be the one who slung me over his shoulder in the Forum those many years ago?
“Buona notte,” I say to him, as I head out the door, tossing my scarf over my shoulder.
Now in the Roman night, I realize the shock that rocked my world 30 years ago has transformed to a flutter, that whispers enchantingly:
We are men, you are women. We are alive! And what a fun game we play!