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.

1 comment:

  1. Very funny. Loved the map! One thing I noticed in Tuscany was the lack of bars, clubs organisations etc. Maybe the apps have replaced them?