Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Hearts & Lives of Italian Men

Northern Male
Is the Southern Macho Male a Myth? Intrepid (mis)anthropologist Jonnie Falafel concludes his three and a half year study down among Tuscan men.

Shiny skinned and freshly showered they filed to the top table trailing the faint scent of soap and hair gel. Happy, healthy lads probably all under twenty five sporting designer wear - Lacoste, D&G and Hilfiger - but nothing too flashy. Smart skinny fit low-slung jeans revealing underwear waistbands and polo shirts in pastels with the collars turned up. Six guys comfortable in their own skins, quietly confident. They're talking about food and they're talking about their mothers with that Tuscan growl so low it emanates from the testes and not the diaphragm. Think forty a day for twenty years. That's the effect. Friends begin to arrive.

"Hello my dearest boys!" exclaims one holding out his left cheek for a kiss. One looks at his reflection in the mirror and begins preening his delicately coiffed locks. "How does it look Marco?", "Carino, molto carino," sighs his friend. This doesn't really have an English equivalent, but I suppose it would be something like 'it looks lovely' - in the way you might say a puppy looks lovely. Once everyone is assembled a strange thing happens (to English eyes). Twelve men are all touching each other and talking - hands on knees, chests, around shoulders. Nobody has yet drunk a drop and - I kid you not - one of these angelic looking young men is sitting on the lap of another and they are talking with their hands on each others shoulders. Nobody comments or thinks this is any more unusual than another lad who is rubbing his mates back.

You might imagine this is drag night at the Bearpit Club, Sansepolcro, but no... this is our local pizzeria and this lot are all part of a local football team and odds on at least ten of them will be 100% conventionally heterosexual. (One will be gay all the way and the other won't know if he's in Debenhams or Lewis's!)

Now I've heard - nay I've seen studies on the behaviour of young British men and apparently there are similarities these days. The way male lives are played out has changed enormously over the past twenty years all over Europe. Masculinity is morphing, becoming 'sissyfied'. British men of my generation are still generally uncomfortable witnessing this sort of behaviour, but it's normal to younger men. The difference here though, is that older Italian men are just as kissy/touchy-feely . In my first week in Italy I had my British three foot exclusion zone breached on several occasions by over-friendly men. Now I'm quite used to a neck massage while engaged in conversation about the outrageous price of tomatoes down at the local co-op. I've come a long way since since the extreme discomfort of a conversation with a neighbour who had one hand over my solar plexus and the other on my coccyx.

You'll be familiar with the cool unapproachable metrosexuality of the Milanese male - sartorial sharpness, manicured geometrically razored precision sideburns, eyebrows 'threaded' to within an inch of their life, moisturised and polished – the first time I stepped off the train in Milan I felt like Wurzel Gummidge and as far as the locals were concerned I might as well have been. I am so low maintenance!

You see the same sort of thing in Manchester and Soho. It confuses the gaydar - you can't tell the gays from the straights any more. But just like their rougher Tuscan compatriots they drink cocktails for aperitivi. The main aperitivo is called 'spritz' (but not as we know it, Captain) a day-glow orange concoction of aperol and prosecco drunk through a straw. It's looks hideous, it tastes worse and is a criminal waste of prosecco. But talk about camp. You see scores of men sitting in bars in the early evening lifting straws to their lips. I wonder if anything as effete as this happens on Old Compton Street or Canal Street where the last time I looked they were all swilling bottled Czech beer at all hours? Maybe I'm out-of-date and pink gin's in.

'Man dates' figure big here too. It's not uncommon to see two men having dinner together. Bars are populated by posses of men. You may argue that Britain was the same when it had pubs, but British male pub culture seemed more driven by misogyny, and bonds of affection - if there be any - well supressed. Italy really is a homosocial culture where men maintain very tactile and affectionate friendships over a lifetime. I don't know what young British men talk about in pubs these days, but it used to be a limited range of things – football, women, cars and how to get from A to B. The Italian repertoire embraces much more... Food figures big, cooking and eating. Their mothers (There is absolutely no stigma to being a mummy's boy at 45! Sadly the economic reality is that many stay at home especially if unmarried). The latest haircut. Fashion... and of course they do follow football too but it doesn't dominate discourse.

Gay Map of Europe
Yanko Tsvetkov's gay map in the mapping stereotypes series characterises Italy as "Straight Homos"! I don't know if the supposed 'homoflexibility' of Italian men is mythical, but the only evidence I have to go on is an ostensibly hetero neighbour who turned up in budgie smugglers and sat there legs akimbo in something like normal conversation, occasionally scratching his groin. The signals were ambiguous because furtling around in the nether regions is a pastime among Italian men – who, by the way, also see nothing amiss in just peeing at the roadside. Let it all hang out, anywhere! Maybe the fault is in my receiver rather than their transmitters?

Evidently a Southern Man
So is the Southern Macho Male just a myth? Well, not entirely. The gay one's are bucking the trend. Muscle bound and moustachioed they wouldn't be seen dead supping a spritz or doing anything else so suspect. Maybe in Milan or Turin gay men are confident to express exactly who they are, but it seems to be different down here in Tuscany. Along with a 'hyper-closetedness' – i.e. Don't mention the war within earshot of anyone – there's a tendency to signify traditional masculinity in appearance and behaviour. Bears have cornered the market in this little bit of Italy. Body bulk and body hair are what count. Given the amount of time spent in the gym I don't know how anybody has the time or energy for sex.

A bear friend was showing me his profile on Scruff the day (Scruff is one of those geo-locational apps for chaps who like chaps that helps you root out where other bears are hiding in the Tuscan woods). You could list yourself in a few categories, 'Bear', 'Leather', 'Althlete/Jock' and 'Geek'. I asked him what category I'd be in. "Geek" he answered without a moments hesitation, a bit to quickly for my liking. Oh well, for a pasty Northern European with a body as smooth as a baby's bum, I suppose it's a niche.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Owls Eyes Everywhere - Trip Advisor Tyranny

What's Trip Advisor for? Is Trip Advisor simply a benign review site? Is it too big for it's boots now? 

The conversation went something like this.
"We're thinking of booking, but I've read about the insects. Will there be insects?"
Biting my tongue I resisted, "It's Italy, it's August, 36 degrees as we speak, we live on forested hills. You don't need a crystal ball..." opting instead for, "insects, good or bad in your book?"
"Can't stand creepy crawlies. On Trip Advisor it says there are lots of insects."
And do you know what? It does in fact say this on Trip Advisor - but in one of the most glowing reviews we've received from a wildlife enthusiast who loved to photograph butterflies, moths and beetles. One gleans what one gleans from any review I suppose.

Tenuta Savorgnano: Mattia Marzotto
Trip Advisor has been on my mind a lot lately for one reason or another. Guests all mention it. It's review season and sometimes it feels as if a Trip Advisor email lands in the inbox hourly. Our reviews are universally good so there's nothing to complain about there. It's the other emails urging me to become a star reviewer by writing just one more review. Or asking me to apply for window stickers to announce to the hordes that happen to be passing our mountain hideaway that we have a Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence. Mmm. Or sending me code to put a Trip Advisor logo on the website, blog or embedded in emails. The owls eyes are everywhere. Almost every restaurant, shop, B&B and hotel I pass! What next? A Trip Advisor logo tattooed on my forehead? And now it's linked to Facebook, so I'm informed whenever one of my contacts updates their Trip Advisor travel map or writes a review!

Some emails 'update' me on places I've merely perused on Trip Advisor. Their algorithms are set so that if I click on other reviews by guests who've reviewed us, they update me on that place everytime it gets a new review! Confession time. I occasionally check out the competion or places run by folks I know. My curiosity unearthed an intersting fact. Unfair negative reviews are common. How do I know they are unfair? Because they breach the Trip Advisor guidelines for reviewers. Reviews that actually state the reviewer never stayed. Reviews that compare one establishment unfavourably with another in it's locality and poor assessments based on factors proprietors have no control over such as the weather.

For example, one review of a Yorkshire B&B was based on a enquiry phonecall by someone who called again to actually book but had been pipped at the post by subsequent caller. (How often we get enquiries from people who say they want to book but don't follow through. How long should one hold dates for people who simply don't respond?) It accused the proprietor of lying in order to accept a more lucrative booking! Another review of a place on the Italian Island of Ischia rated it two out of five because it rained during the stay! These are clearly unfair and yet Trip Advisor allows them to stand.

I spoke to the Yorkshire owner who told me she'd given up trying to get Trip Advisor to acknowledge that this deliberate attempt to damage business and cast aspersions on the owners integrity, was unfair within it's own guidelines, and remove it. For big businesses with large guest numbers the odd unfair review is easily masked by more favourable ones. The result for smaller establishments can be devastating. Little places like us are only as good as the last review.

The average punter doesn't know this. Once the first reviewer has dobbed you in, so to speak, Trip Advisor then asks you to claim your listing and pay for the privilege of being able to respond to reviews – more than £400 a year! What choice does an owner have? You either pay or lose the ability to manage your own reputation on the forum that's rapidly becoming the only game in town.

So what do we get for our money apart from the right to reply? Well not much really apart from a million ways to create more publicity for Trip Advisor... badges, posters, certificates, stickers – not sure if there's a T-Shirt yet! There are mugs. In more ways than one! We do get to put extra information about our place on our listing but it's obscure and not obvious where to find it. What you do get when you alight on our listing - a bit of a cheek when they're charging us – is assailed by adverts for other inns around us with price comparisons! Often these are linked to other booking engines like or Expedia. These natuarally favour the big guys since they're commission based and won't even touch you unless your volume of trade is enough to make them a bob or two.

Jonnie Falafel contemplates Trip Advisor
Trip Advisor owns other sites too. Check for the ubiquitous owls eyes at the bottom of web pages. These are often booking engines where places like us also pay for listings. No conflict of interest there then! I can see the day coming when Trip Advisor has all ends of the travel and leisure industry sewn up good and proper. And we provide the free content egged on by status rewards like Pavlov's dogs.

Our reviewers have all been so kind. I appreciate the efforts people have gone to and reviews have helped establish us. But it can so easily work the other way. Like lots of people I used to think of Trip Advisor only as review site a source of information. But you have to raise a sceptical voice when it's becoming so dominant. What's Trip Advisor for? It's to profit Trip Advisor of course. 

For more information on the views expressed here see Trip Advisor Watch You can post reviews on other sites. For us sites like Happy Cow or Veggie Places are relevant.