Is Italy a Man-Free Dream?

Kylie Flavell A life romantic

So the editor of Italian Men’s Vogue got in touch with me this month to ask if I could write a piece for his next issue. I have a weakness for men’s publications, and L’Uomo, with its leaning towards the arts, business and culture, is a particular favourite. So of course I’m excited. Of course I’m flattered that he considers my Italian of a level he could publish. He wants interviews with a portfolio of “cool young Australian males living in Italy”… we’ll do a full photo shoot with the interviewees… it will be similar to features they’ve done in the past with astounding emerging talent in China, Africa and New York. There’s just one problem: the total dearth of foreign males in Italy, let alone ones with talent. I contacted universities and acclaimed schools in the area of design, fashion, gastronomy, architecture, literature; I spoke with the Australian embassy, friends, ex-colleagues… the response was always the same, “Ah, but if you were looking for a talented female expat, it would be so much easier!” Google turned up artists who were on the pension, middle-aged men with kids and wife renovating a farmhouse and some vaguely talented media types who had done a ‘stint’ in Italy but were now cozily ensconced in Sydney suburbia.

Are we so starved of this type of attention in Anglo-saxon countries?

So why is this? It’s by no means limited to Australians. Every week it seems a new dreamy but driven female steps off the plane at Fiumicino, whether in her late teens or middle aged, whether American, British, German or Swedish, but I can count on one hand the number of foreign males embarking on the same adventure – and almost all of these have simply ended up here after being transferred by a multinational. I suppose the most obvious attractions of this vita italiana include food, history, art and a slower pace of life – all of which I wouldn’t class as being gender-specific pleasures. Allora? I must admit that whenever someone asks why I decided to move to Italy they all knowingly grin and pre-empt my response with “it was an Italian boy you fell for, no?” Okay, there are indeed many cases of the girl-holidays-in-Italy followed by girl-meets-Italian-boy followed (sometimes even decades later) by girl-is-convinced-she-can-learn-Italian-and-move-to-Italy-to-live-happily-ever-after-with-holiday-crush. Just this month in British Harper’s Bazaar was yet another article of a woman now married with kids who felt compelled to return to Florence after being haunted by a brief but life-changing time spent in Italy in her youth. Certainly, this country does affirm one’s femininity in ways that are thrilling and abstract. Are we so starved of this type of attention in Anglo-saxon countries that when on a two-week language course, a brush with the intoxicating (yet to locals almost banal) call of ‘Ciao bella’ from a stranger in a street can inspire women to leave partners, march into offices to hand in resignations and haul suitcases into a foreign-speaking country where the chances of even a menial job are quasi impossibile. We’re not talking about aimless unaccomplished wallflower women who don’t know what to do with their lives. Almost every female I’ve met who’s moved here has a Masters degree, was earning unprecedented money for her age in her respective industry, and physically, isn’t the type who needs to play the ‘exotic’ straniera in order to be admired. And if it is the Italian boys who are unwittingly perpetuating the ‘Italian Dream’, doesn’t it make you wonder – while Andrea and Lorenzo are kissing Kate and Helga – what the devil have the Italian girls been doing? I know readers get upset at generalisations but Italian women are arguably the most seductive in the world. Why hasn’t there been an equivalent mass exodus as starry-eyed male graduates and soul-searching old codgers depart for Italia with hopes of meeting their Sofia Loren or Monica Vitti?

Whenever someone asks why I decided to move to Italy they all knowingly grin and pre-empt my response with “it was an Italian boy you fell for, no?”

So much of the allure of Italy for me is about living in this melodious and ancient language. Whether you love Italian for its lyricism or your linguistic pursuits are from a desire to deepen your relationship with an Italian, why is it that females seem more inclined to work at becoming fluent? Are many men just lazy and would prefer to move to an English-speaking country? I remember when I lived in Japan I was constantly surprised by the number of Anglo-saxon males in relationships with Japanese women who didn’t even attempt to learn the language while their girlfriends would suddenly become fluent overnight to maintain the relationship. I know, I know… there are always exceptions. However, researching this topic, I found articles such as one by Anne Merritt for The Telegraph that substantiated this seemingly indiscriminate claim that women are better at languages than men. According to linguistic studies “girls’ brains show greater activity in the areas used for language encoding” and across Europe, East Asia, and Latin America “all studies have concluded that female foreign language learners tend to use more varied study methods than their male peers.” Meanwhile a language learning site found that “female users are four times more likely to chat with native speakers of their target language.”

Kylie-VespaI have so many male friends and ex-boyfriends who are magnificently romantic. They’re the types who book international flights the night before to show up on her door and profess their love (sometimes in song). They’re the types who are right there beside me grinning and hoping and dreaming after watching some romantic film narrative where the guy gets the girl with that final hyper-eloquent one-liner in the rain. They want to risk everything and be foolish and scared and bankrupt all to find the girl they were meant to kiss. So why aren’t there more of them trying to do all of that in Italy, the ULTIMATE land of reckless romantics? Chissa’.

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  • Hmmm, interesting! The first thing to mind when I think of Italy is gorgeous men, so the sex appeal from a female perspective is undeniable. But I’m curious, what is the general climate of dating, sex, romance, and marriage among Italians in their own country? Is it really that romantic? Doesn’t Italy have one of the lowest birth-rates in world, and people get married, if ever, in their 40’s? I just wonder if there isn’t some degree of cultural baggage that affects our love lives. It’s not fashionable to discuss, but I can’t help but feel like the historical realities of extreme sexism, nepotism, Catholicism, corruption, and aggressiveness/ stronzo mentality affect the social climate for both men and women. In my experience in Italy, I am a woman first and always, then a person. Gender is never not an issue. But honestly, aren’t sexuality and sensuality two of Italy’s most attractive traits? I feel like it’s male-dominated hypersexuality, though, deepened by a strong gay and bisexual subculture (shocking the level of denial and hypocrisy about homosexuality in Italy still). But it’s obvious that foreign women love Italian men. What do Italian women think of foreign men? It’s not that Italian men have set the bar so high that it’s hard for an outsider to compete, but still, maybe it’s a challenge to attract the attention of a beautiful Italian woman. Italy’s a tough country to be sexually frustrated in. Sex is in the air, and if you can’t partake in all the fun and all the mystery, it can be tortuous. There is also the reality that doing business in Italy is totally different than other countries. I guess I’m saying…maybe it’s not easy for a foreign guy to do business in Italy, nor to fit into a very hierarchical, machismo, competitive culture.

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful response, Giulietta. I agree with so many of the points you raise… I love the hyper-sensitivity I feel regarding my own femininity in Italy. Foreign women romanticize Italy for sure. The way I perceive love and dating and sex in Italy is inevitably coloured by the history I’ve consumed through film and literature. And I love this fact. Like you, however, I’m quite curious to hear from foreign males in Italy about their experiences. Like women anywhere in the world, my Italian female friends sit around and ask why good men are so hard to meet. I imagine they’d be intrigued by a guy who had the courage and curiosity to live abroad. But the fact remains that Italy is so much more than just sexuality and so, as I wrote, I’m puzzled as to why the food and lifestyle haven’t inspired more foreign males. Maybe it comes down to trends. We like to think that travel is inherently personal but it’s also dictated by social approval. It’s fashionable for an Anglo-saxon male to say he’s off to Mexico or Thailand. It’s fashionable for a girl to choose Paris or Rome…

    • Italy is to women what Thailand is to men. Rome has been a female sex tourism destination for generations. This is largely due to Italian women who, for reasons I cannot fathom, have decided they would rather be alone and sexless than make concessions to men, and in particular Italian men.

      • Is it still? I kinda of agree in the 60s, 70s and 80s respectively from the Scandinavian countries, continental Europe and North America, but nowadays?

        I thought Casablanca, Capo Verde and Cuba were the new Rimini, Rome and Sicily.

    • In response to Giulietta, doing business as a foreign guy can be hard, but not for the reasons you think. The relationship side is relatively easy. If you provide even a modicum of reliability and seriousness, Italians are extremely appreciative. The trouble with doing business here stems from unreliability both by private operators and the government.

      I’m not sure what Italian guys you see, but the ones I know and go to the gym with have to blowdry their precious hair lest they catch a cold, pluck their eyebrows, and seldom get into fights. So not the hyper-masculine uber men you seem to have access to. What Italian guys are, though, is sex starved, due to the withdrawal of Italian women from the sexual market place, as I outlined in my other post.

      Foreign women in Italy remind me of white guys in Viet Nam: scarse assets in high demand due to local market shortages.

  • in my opinion italian women are very demanding and hard-headed, they know what they want but at the same time they are very complicated…they are not “easy”. italian men on the other hand appear as absent-minded if not lazy and spoiled mamma’s boys…so italian men probably find it hard to meet (too) high expectations of italian women, it is easier for them to get a foreign girl who will fall for italian accent or a motorino ride…again these are generalizations but as for my personal experience, italian men think that merely being an italian is enough to attract a women. plus they sure know how to appreciate a woman, even if only superficially and just awhile 😉

  • I don’t think women flock to italia because of romantic pursuits at least this is not the general reason.
    i think it is more because she wants to find her own identity, and that will happen by leaving behind, her surroundings in which she had been moving for ever, the rules of a society which stagnate and suffocate her life, which prevents growing into something better. Or at least HAPPIER!.. To experience all these changes, you will not go to a place where it is worst than where you are. There is something about Italia, that allows you to fullfill these dreams, this desire to acknowledge ourselves. To give us importance, a place and a reason in this planet If a guy is met along, great! But that is not the main reason. Regardless where you are if your happiness is based on meeting someone, you will never find fulfillment. We have to find love within ourselves, and it seems that Italia has the perfect scenario, there is something in the air, the people, the history, the culture, the food, the lifestyle, the monuments, the piazzas, even the traffic in Rome that inspires a woman to be courageous and leave the comfort of a ‘no land’ situation. Look at all the movies that are there: Under the Tuscan Sun, Love, Eat and Pray, Enchanted April ( I have read the book, seen the play and watch the movie!!! Four women who escape to italy for wisteria and sunshine, to escape from their boring lives!!! 1921 England. So the flocking to Italia has been going on for a long time., yeah to Enchanted Italia. Oh! and there is another movie, one of my favorites ones with my absolute beloved, admired, best actress in the world, Judy Dench, ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’. She didn’t go to Italia, but to India. Another woman, an older one, left everything to find finally her own individuality, her own skin and during this she found love and a safe place to live in
    As why men don’t do this?, I think they are quite happy under their own skin, at least in general. They don’t compromise as we compromise. So I can’t see men leaving their ‘content’ life for another ‘better’ one. Again, there are exceptions to the rule.
    I think women take the leap when their mind and soul tell them, something is wrong, find an answer.

    • I am an American woman in Rome, Italy, and I agree entirely with this comment. It wasn’t a man, or the hope of a man, that brought me to this city. For me, it was the hope of a new start in a country with red blood still afire in its veins, with love for art, and pulsating passion, and where I could tell somebody “I direct film” instead of “I make movies”. The fact I spoke Italian already was helpful. But why did I already? Because I took Italian in college and high school, so there must have been some deep connection to Italy lurking there, percolating, even then.

      I was warned by every Tom, Dick and Harry (and Lisa) in the book, “Don’t go there. It won’t be different from America. You’ll be disillusioned. Don’t have stars in your eyes.”

      I did not come here with stars in my eyes. My feet were firmly on ground, and I was stubborn as a preteen several times when Those Moments occurred… you know the ones… the twilit, magical ones when Italy does something incredibly Italian to beguile and seduce you, those things you never experience in America, and are almost stereotypically Italian like out of a Fellini film. I recognized them, went “Bah humbug” and turned my eyes away, refusing to be “seduced”.

      Italy seduced me anyway and I intend to stay. Is it a man who’s doing it? No way; I left a shattering, failed American crush on an American when I came here, I feel immune to men now, and I turn down Italian suitors with an indifference bordering on cruelty. Is it the films, the cigarettes (and freedom to smoke them), the wine, the fresh meals, the scooter culture? Nope. For me, it’s more delicate but powerful things: how the sky looks at dawn in Rome; the kiss of the air on my arms at sunset; the attention to style and fashion; the safety to wear a beautiful feminine dress (I never wore dresses like this while in the USA! It never felt safe to!) or pearls or high heels; the society, the liberty, even the politics.

      I hope this won’t sound insulting, but Italy reminds me of America before 1980. You can get any high tech gadget here, and my internet service is fast and strong, but just something about this place makes it gorgeously trapped in amber, captured in time. I enjoy Italian life for these and many other reasons. But a man frankly isn’t one of them.

      I’m slightly kind of hoping I never meet someone. I do not want this fragile peace altered.

  • “what the devil have the Italian girls been doing? ” Ah.

    Allow me a comment from the other side, that of an Italian man who, after a half dozen of foreign girls, is probably (knock wood) getting married with a Czech wonderful girl soon.

    Expectations is the problem. The Italian relationship world was based on a kind of social pact (and I’m sure I will be labelled as a chauvinistic retrograde pig soon) exchanging the level of attention, romanticism and financial and personal care an Italian man could (usually) brilliantly provide for a given level of domestic pampering (cooking, a higher, if not absolute, assignment of domestic chores.. the “momma” thing someone commented above). Some might call it an arrangement that brought to the oppressive subordination of women, I’d like to think about it as a division of roles, but whatever. This pact created expectations that have ruled the day for decades, probably centuries and have initially resisted the entering of the women in the labor market, which in Italy happened more slowly and gradually than in other places (in particular, it’s not a case that women initially took over the “lower education industry”, becoming teachers and professors en mass, whereas earlier male teachers were common, by the 70s they had became a rarity).

    But society eventually changed and, as it happens, individuals are slow to react to changes, especially when alternative to change are available.For a number of reasons, which may or may be not rational, are unwilling (or unable: truth to be said, if you are working full time -which is often a necessity- you can’t be reasonably expected to then work full time in the house) to keep their part of the “deal”, and not fault of their! Deals are always renegotiable. However, that would call for a renegotiation of the whole deal and a switch of the role of the man to a more anglo saxon, “split the bill, we are equal for the better AND the worse”, kind of approach. BUT, Italian women do still expect the romancing and attentions and all (in fact, it is my experience that they take it for granted and, worse, they make it clear they do) and that produces a short circuit with Italian men which creates (that’s my own experience with myself and my close friends) an endless state of tension.

    Enters the market (and some more chuavinistic retrograde comments, sorry). In a closed Italian market tensions and (relative, of course) lack of choice (and economics, of course, but let’s take it as another variable for a different analysis) brings less weddings, higher age at marriage and increasing divorce rate. But we have an open market! Italian males meet foreign girls who still openly and genuinely appreciate the little attentions because they are novels to them. ALSO, the foreign girl moves to Italy, finds it hard to get stable, full time jobs and, by necessity, ends up with part time jobs and therefore getting into the role that the Italian social pact of old assigned to them (and, free not to believe me, from what I can see, happily so, after a while). That’s even more true with specific group of foreigners (East Europeans, Far east Asia), while less true with other (Americans, Northern Europeans”. in my own experience, I’ve seen two italo-american marriages crash and one survive against 5 Italo-Eastern Europe marriages survive against one crash. In all three crashes the lack of a career for the wife was the main problem, but that is undoubtedly more felt by the Americans than by the, let’s say, Ukrainians. of course, the smart Italian man (of which I hope there are more) will know that something that worked in the 50s will not work in the 010s and will try to make the necessary adjustement to make her partner’s life as wonderful as possible, but the fact that culture and necessity converge towards a result that is generally more acceptable for him helps a lot.

    On the other hand, that’s tough for Italian women: they also have an open market, but for how wonderful the specimen can be, the initial relations tend to start with less nice premises (the split the bill on first date problem) and the start of a relationship tend to be very important for the continuation of it. Not to mention, that in the 20 to 30 category, even the best of American and Northern Europeans tend to have other priorities than a committed relationship with a woman (career, for instance. Binge drinking with friends. Having as many sexual partners as possible as well).

    So, lots of generalizations and I’m a possibly a chauvinistic pig, but that’s how I see it.

  • And a word that jumped in my text (my fault) made it pretty hard to understand what I was saying.

    “For a number of reasons, which may or may be not rational, WOMEN are unwilling (or unable: truth to be said, if you are working full time -which is often a necessity- you can’t be reasonably expected to then work full time in the house) to keep their part of the “deal”, and not fault of their! Deals are always renegotiable. “

  • Having lived in both Venice and Rome, I can attest to the notion of the women who move to the Italy filled with allure of “romance” (in every sense of the word, not just in terms of a relationship). What’s interesting is talking to these women after a few years of living here, and the harsh reality of life in a foreign country where modern feminist thinking isn’t welcome, with a grindingly dull career path available, and the romance has faded a little. And that’s without even mentioning what they think of the Italian men!

    As to why expat men don’t come here for the same reasons as the women do, I suspect it is because they don’t get that same romantic calling. I certainly didn’t; I came here as a tourist, and met a beautiful Italian woman, and here I am. I would never have chosen Rome as a home – there’s a reason why it’s so low on Mercer’s list of livable cities. If you’re wealthy, life here is good (but that’s true everywhere) – but if you’re not, it can be really a grind. Try Berlin if you want to meet interesting men!

    • As to why expat men don’t come here for the same reasons as the women do, I suspect it is because they don’t get that same romantic calling
      Are you sure about that? Ask British and German men who come to Italy….

  • How many stupid shallow thoughts and stereotypes. Who the hell has ever asked you to come to Italy looking for a boyfriend: stay home.

    • Anytime we begin to talk about culture, the disclaimers- “oh, we’re risking vague generalizations,” etc. are understood and we’re reminded that there a million variations of how culture shapes our lives. But that’s what makes discussion essential. We can air our stereotypes, disagree, prove each other wrong, and actually get to the juicier bits of how differently we view and experience the world. Italian women are totally, wondrously beautiful and I think quite warm! They are only cold when Arnaldo Mazzini is unavailable and there are no hot foreign men to sweep them off their feet.

      The moral here for men around the world is that women in Italy are waiting for you to take your inner romantic to the most inspiring setting in the world and create your own gran belleza.

      By the way, if you could get to the interesting foreigners working in fashion in Milano, they could be good subjects for your magazine article. I don’t know any personally…but I know that they exist 🙂

  • ” I would never have chosen Rome as a home – there’s a reason why it’s so low on Mercer’s list of livable cities.”
    As a Roman son of a Roman son of a Roman all they way back at least 3 centuries, I’m sad to say it’s true.

    My city was a pretty lovely place in the 90s, but things have really gone south over the last 20 years and catastrophically so over the last decade.

    Only, Berlin isn’t actually such a nice city by German standards, I’ve been living in Mainz and Karlsruhe and both are leap and bounds more liveable places than Berlin. I suspect, most middle size cities are much better than large ones, with the bonus, in Germany, that they have a pretty intense cultural life as well (which, actually, is true to Italian cities as well, assuming you do not go southern than Lazio).

  • Thank you to everyone for such interesting comments. You wouldn’t believe how many times this article has been viewed around the world in the past week! I don’t think there need be blame put on Italian men, Italian women or foreign females who come to Italy. I have written many times about how the stereotype of Italian men being mammoni is not always true. As I said above, the Italian women I know are both beautiful and open-minded. And if a foreign woman has a dream of living somewhere with history and culture, even if it is rose-tinted, and she’s willing to give up a well-paid job in her native country and attempt living in a foreign language, then what is she guilty of but optimism and perseverance? Foreign women don’t come to Italy searching only for a boyfriend or lover – I don’t know any straniere in Italy who haven’t taken an interest in learning the language, the cuisine and the history… and if, in addition to these cultural pursuits, there is the subconscious hope of falling in love, is this so bad?

  • My personal “two cents” on the issue. I think it’s related to the fact that competition here is very hard for foreign men. Not only beacause italian men (on average) are quite nice to see, but also because they (always on average) are very social, forthcoming, well mannered and… well trained in “the game”! Women here get used to this standard. So “darwinianly” speaking… it’s a tough environment! Not so attractive for males expatriates! ; ))

  • In the 1890s, Anglo-saxon women invented sex tourism in Rome.
    No wonder that Northern women still flock to Italy to find a Latin Lover.
    So, is Italy a man-free dream? On the contrary, the dream would not exist without (Italian) men.

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