By JOHN HENDERSON
Italy oozes with romance, from the turquoise waters of Sicily to the majestic snowcapped Alps of Alto Adige. The back-lit monuments, the love songs in the background, the warm nights, you can fall in love just walking with a date in one hand and a gelato in the other.
So why does Italy have a war of the sexes? It’s a war that matches anything I’ve seen on the news, if not in the level of casualties at least in intensity. If NATO stepped in, it would get destroyed by flying stiletto heels and wine bottles.
Since moving to Rome from Denver nearly three years ago, the conflict between men and women has baffled me as much as the language. They have a distrust on the level of North and South Korea. The DMZ is the bedroom. Italian women don’t trust men; Italian men don’t understand why Italian women aren’t nearly as sexual as their wardrobe.
You would think Italy would be a breeding ground for love, passion and relationships. It’s a country where the women and men have more sex appeal than Italy has art, where women could make even Michelangelo’s David aroused. Men’s reputation as Latin lovers reaches to all borders. Women in America come to Italy and, as my fellow expat Tom Shaker says, fall “in love with Francesco at Trattoria Yo Mamma’s Ass.”
Italians even have sex appeal in their names. My best friend is named Alessandro Castellani. Say that slowly. Alle-SANDRO castel-LANNI. It rolls off your tongue like honey off a spoon. Alessandro Castellani sounds like a guy who could who would make love to every woman in Cleveland, then prepare pasta carbonara.
John Henderson sounds like a guy who can get you a good insurance premium on your second SUV. I got no shot.
But I have one advantage. The evolving Italian woman fits me. The women’s movement that hit the U.S. in the 1960s came to Italy in the ‘90s. Women decided that if they remained single and childless, they can have their freedom, spending money and 10 days holiday in Sardinia every year. They developed independence, strength and confidence. That’s been my ideal woman since high school.
My girlfriend, Marina, is a 52-year-old, hard-bodied gym rat who’s a graphics designer for the Italian travel magazine, Plein Air, and a freelance photographer. She is not only beautiful and sexy, but intelligent, strong, independent, confident and a great contributor to my website, Dog-Eared Passport.
Meanwhile, the Italian man has remained in the Renaissance era without the painting skills. Seventy-five percent of all Italian men live at home until they get married. Called mamonas, many of these men look at women as a barista, lover and mother. They want them to look really hot when they serve them their morning cappuccino.
Thus, men and women here conflict over basic needs and goals. They approach each other from polar opposites, much farther than the distance between Sicily and the Italian Alps and only a little less frigid. In general, Roman women do not trust men. At all. They have been screwed, scarred and scandalized. The Italian man’s locomotive libido isn’t apparently cooled by a committed relationship or a bucket of iced acqua minerale down their Emporio Armani shorts.
I have had many female scambio partners, women who want to learn English and want to help me with my Italian. Inevitably, as we talk in two languages, we discuss relationships. Many of them, and other female friends, have been so emotionally poleaxed by past relationships they are petrified to enter another one.
I once asked a middle-aged woman if she didn’t trust men.
“I don’t trust ITALIAN men,” she said which is as damning a slam as a national gender could have. She said Italian men are way too interested in what a woman looks like rather than what she says or thinks. Besides, she said, “They all live with their mothers.”
Men, however, have their own problems. Italy is arguably among the top three countries with the most beautiful women in the world. I believe Rome has the most beautiful women in Italy. Thus, these oversexed, underloved Roman men are surrounded by women who discovered they don’t need men as their mothers once did.
Italians are insanely jealous, to the point where paranoia is in the forefront of every relationship, like a castle door you must break through to reach what’s inside. Laced with insecurity fueled by past experiences, women here can be highly possessive. Italian men wear a lot of scarves but they do not like to be strangled with them. After one first date after I moved here, the woman called me the next day. She didn’t ask, “What are you doing?” or “Where are you going?” She asked, “Who are you with?” Another after only a couple of meetings asked where our relationship was going. God, I don’t know, I told her. I don’t even know where we’re going for lunch.
One night I went to an aperitivo at the tony Radisson Blu, a sparkling, modern hotel near the train station with a round, space-age, front desk in the middle of the huge, airy lobby. It has the trappings of a summer night in San Diego. The aperitivo upstairs was put on by InterNations, an expats Meetup group catering to older, established professionals with disposable income and a desire to meet people from around the world. Many Italians attend to meet expats and practice their English. On this particular night, it was mostly Italians and I used it to hold casual, clandestine interviews about the battle of the sexes.
One man was about 40 with the typical olive complexion and slightly teased hairstyle of an Italian who reads fashion magazines. He had lived in England for two years. I asked him his opinion of Italian women.
“Italian women are disaster,” he said. “I much prefer English women.”
“Why?” I said. “Because they (sleep with you?).”
“Yes,” he said quickly.
I asked another if it’s true Italian men cheat so much.
“No, it’s not true,” he said. “American men cheat more than we do.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Because they have more opportunities.”
He may be right. While infidelity statistics are difficult to establish, the website Truth About Deception says up to 60 percent of all Americans have cheated. But in Europe, Italians are top dogs, pardon the expression. According to the French Institute of Public Opinion, which surveyed nearly 5,000 people in five major European countries, 55 percent of all Italian men said they’ve cheated. That ties France with the most. Keep in mind, that’s the percentage of men who admit to cheating. To be fair, 34 percent of Italian women also claim infidelity, second to Germany’s 43. Interestingly, only 26 percent of Italian men expressed regret afterward, by far the lowest.
Of course, I know happy Italian couples and friends who are proud of their wives and girlfriends for the independent forces they’ve become. The rest of the landscape remains a battlefield. I’ve dropped my sword. I’m no longer fighting.
(John Henderson has been a brilliant sports and travel writer for most of his adult life, although some would claim he never has become an adult. On Jan. 10, 2014, he retired after 23 years at The Denver Post and moved back to Rome where he lived from 2001-03 as a freelance travel writer. During his Rome stint he also wrote a light-hearted book about starting a new life in a new country — with a long-distance girlfriend — called “American Gladiator in Rome: Finding the Eternal Truth in the Infernal City.” Currently John writes a travel blog called Dog-Eared Passport (www.johnhendersontravel.com) that chronicles his life in Rome, and his travels around the world. In 2003, he was last seen in Rome kicking and screaming as The Denver Post dragged him back to the paper he first joined in 1990. In his second stint in Denver, however, he says he had some of the best 10 years of his career. He covered national college football, six Tours de France, swimming and soccer in the Summer Olympics and figure skating in the Winter Olympics. Don’t laugh. Figure skating got him to Russia three times. He also wrote a traveling food column called “”A Moveable Feast” based on John eating everything from caviar in Russia to fried insects in Cambodia. The insects are still preferable to the bacon cheeseburger at the Hooters in Tuscaloosa, Ala.) he covered the Colorado Buffaloes from 1990-95, the Denver Broncos from 1995-97, the Colorado Rockies in 1997 and Major League Baseball from 1998-2001. Henderson worked at the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 1980-90 and the mercifully defunct Fournier Newspapers in suburban Seattle from 1979-80. he is a proud 1978 graduate of the University of Oregon, which was just one mile from where he grew up in Eugene.)