A Year, A Broad

I’ve been working on a project I’d like to share with you.  Now guys, this is a portion of a book proposal.  The book is the hard copy equivalent of a Chick Flick.  You may want to avert your eyes.

Ladies, please feel free to send feedback – positive, negative, whatever you’ve got!  It’s a memoir called A Year, A Broad: Alone with Italian Men.

(If you like the whole idea of Italian men, you may also like this post I wrote when I first moved here: Like Art)

Here’s the book blurb:

Rebecca L. Self.  A Year, A Broad is Under the Tuscan Sun meets Bridget Jones’s Diary, with a few Four Hour Work Week mini-retirements thrown in.  It’s witty and slightly warped, full of adventure, with inspirational how-tos from the intrepid traveler at its core.  Who’s best to date – the French, the Italians or fellow American expatriates?  Turns out each tribe has its downfalls, as Self explains in delectable detail.  A Year, A Broad takes the reader through the tumultuous journey that led another mid-thirties American divorcée to live alone in southern Europe.  The road is bumpy but hilarious, and sometimes hysterical in not just a funny but more like an uncontrolled crying sort of way.  Nothing a side trip to a good Swiss chocolate factory couldn’t cure. 72% bittersweet is my drug of choice.

Here’s what you need to know to start:

I moved to Lugano, Switzerland after a heartbreaking divorce in Colorado and a short stint as a Professor in Idaho. The Italian border is about 15 minutes in three directions, and most people are of Italian descent, speak Italian, etc.  We’re in Switzerland and they’re Italians in many ways.

And an excerpt:

I’d like to think (Wouldn’t we all?) that I’m not just your average broad, but I’m a thirty-something, divorced American woman living alone in southern Europe.  There are so many of us!  It makes for lots of casual, transient friendships, and fun dinner conversations over red wine in piazzas – tables of divorced women all dolled up dishing about and watching the Italian men walk by. (The tall, rich, well-groomed Germans in town on banking business aren’t bad, either.  My friend Lisa prefers them over the shorter Italians.)  Still, it’s overdone now, trite, used-up, not even original, isn’t it?  After Under the Tuscan Sun; Eat, Pray, Love and An Italian Affair, what could I possibly add to the burgeoning literature by women finding themselves and love here in Italian culture?

I’ll tell you.  An edge.  Dad, cover your eyes… but the rest of you, did you know that women’s libidos peak at 37?  Well, I’m rapidly approaching my sexual highpoint, I’m still single and it’s not going well.  I’m not convinced right now that it’s all me, either, and I’m a little ticked off.  Only a little, and I’m exceedingly open to the power of suggestion, so should Mr. Right saunter up in one of those piazza cafés I may just take him up on anything he suggests.

The trouble is, many of the men here speak either French or Italian as their mother tongues and either way, as far as I can tell, that pretty much spells trouble for a nice, single woman looking for a good partner.  So far I’ve had brief encounters with two men.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

Encounter A is a B&B manager in Florence.  Is that a dream or what?  His B&B is steps from the Duomo, birthplace of the Renaissance, one of the most photographed buildings in the Western world.  Think A Room With a View.  He called me tesoro (treasure), which is exactly what an Italian suitor should do.  When I laughed he said (and you have to read this aloud with a very think accent), “Why are you laughing?  I give my words to you like loaves of fresh, warm bread.”  I kid you not.  I stopped laughing and tried to take him very, very seriously, but he’s a blue-eyed Florentine with soccer-induced rock-hard abs.  I could see them through his shirt.  I just couldn’t do it.

Here’s how it works in Italian culture:  If you make eye contact with them and you’re having a good hair day, they’ll talk to you.  If they talk to you, they’ll be intensely intimate and earnest and flirtatious, crossing over into your personal space as far as you’ll allow.  There don’t seem to be any laws against this; it’s not harassment, not assault.  They’ll do that with anyone who makes eye contact and is having a good hair day, though, so what’s the point?  Who’s to say there’s not already a wife and several mistresses making eye contact in more intimate settings all over town several times per week?  And they don’t seem to think they need to tell you this vital info up front.  On the contrary, it seems that “discretion” is the word they use for what I’d call lies of omission.  Then they argue that this is the kind, generous thing to do!  Not that I know this from experience, of course.  The trouble is, they want to look like good guys all the time, whether they’re wooing you or the woman standing next to you or both simultaneously.  This appalls me, though soon I might be desperate enough that I can’t remember why.

It’s no coincidence that the first thing many female visitors learn to say in Italian is, “Go away.”  I learned it three different ways, and they lie on a continuum.  “Vai via, per favore.”  is the casual, most polite way I’ve learned to ask a man to, “Go away, please.”  “Vattene.”  is for when you mean business.  It’s imperative, both the verb form and that they leave quickly.  The first way I learned to tell a man to go away my sister-in-law taught me as soon as I’d gotten off the plane in Rome fifteen years ago.  I didn’t know at the time that it translated roughly to something only drunken sailors say.  My sister-in-law was young and cute, married and living in the chauvinist chaos that is Naples, Italy, just so you understand where she was coming from.  I learned the phrase and accompanying hand gestures as she screamed it out the window of their tiny white hatchback.  I’d never seen her raise her well-bred Southern voice before, much less to curse like a sailor and insult someone with her arms at the same time.   Her transformation from young Southern co-ed to screaming Napolitano driver was breathtaking.

It’s not that they’re bad men, let’s get that straight up front.  Some are sweet, they can be stunning and charming, and funny, too.  They’re good to their mothers, even overly so. We learned early on, my girlfriends and I, that the rules for dating are different for Italian men.  There are conventions and terrain wholly unfamiliar to us and which we’ve decided to leave well enough alone.  That’s what I learned from Encounter A: Look elsewhere.

Encounter B is French.  You know how some places look exactly like the postcards from them — like if you’re looking at the Eiffel Tower from just the right spot in Paris and the light is good, it’s exactly what it’s supposed to look like?  Well, that’s this French guy.  He’s a Professor.  And a rogue.  He is precisely the kind of guy I should know better than to even think about at this advanced stage in my dating career.  When the flirting started I shouldn’t have even considered, not for a moment, an indulgent fantasy.  Not for a second.  I was 35 and divorced.  I should’ve known better.  I did know better.  I knew I should back slowly away from the French professor, but his first offer involved wine tasting and jazz in a cobblestone piazza.  He extended it with that yummy, thick accent and a smile that made me completely forget all the lessons I’d heretofore accumulated on men and relationships.  In fact, I could barely utter a response.

His head was stuck inside the door of my office, his body still outside, like he’d happened by and popped in to make sure I was still thinking about him. (I was.)  He asked me to go have wine and hear jazz with him Saturday night.  He said it in that smooth, silky, sexy accent.  He flashed his perfect grin, which makes the corners of his blue-green eyes crinkle just a little at the sides.  How could I not go?  He made me, practically.

We drank wine, talked a lot, listened to jazz, laughed a little.  It was easy and light and seemed normal, natural, good.  I must have forgotten that I should’ve known better.  His second offer involved five days in his little renovated artist’s garret of an apartment overlooking Lyon.  It also involved one of the finest meals I’ve ever eaten.

It was New Year’s Eve in the cobblestone vielle ville.  We ate foie gras with a solid stripe of apples baked in the center of it (I’m sorry about what they do to those poor creatures but it tasted so very, very good).  The brie was the best I’ve ever had, the veal so tender and sweet.  We capped it off with Crepes Suzette.  I believe there was a nightcap in there, but I was so drunk on his sexy speech I really couldn’t tell you.

He looked across the candlelit table and said, “The more time I spend with you the more beautiful you become.”  Recall the accent.  God, it’s hot.  He explained that if we decide to be a couple he doesn’t want to keep it secret.  “If we happen to meet in the hall on a busy day and we’re happy to see each other, I want to be able to stop and kiss you if I feel like it.”   Ooh.   La.    La.

He took me to great art exhibits; we went on long walks arm-in-arm through the streets of Lyon.  He bought me chocolate cake, my favorite food on earth, at his neighborhood patisserie.  It was the best chocolate cake I have ever eaten.  He said, “When you speak French, it’s so sexy.”  Okay, I knew that was a line, but by that time I didn’t care.  We were bonding over our mutual love of stinky cheese. (French men are proud of women who like stinky cheese.  I can’t explain this, but it’s true.)  He was a perfect gentleman.  By the end of the trip, I wondered how I could have so misjudged this wonderful man.

Turns out, he explained in an e-mail a few days later, his girlfriends (the plural is no typo) really complicated matters and he wasn’t even ever really interested in me.

What did I learn from that encounter?  Well, here’s the list I compiled of my top ten ways (in no particular order) to act around the handsome co-worker player you (This is much less painful if I use the second-person pronoun. Work with me.) actually fell for just before he said he’s not interested:

1. Still laugh at his jokes if they are genuinely funny. This implies, of course, that you will be willing to be in the same room with him, to speak to him… and that you develop the capacity again to breathe without coughing or sputtering when he is around.

2. Talk normally. Don’t hiss or mumble or blame or scold. You may need to practice this with girlfriends or a mirror first.

3. Try to smile, too, but leave this off if it looks stiff or so forced as to resemble a tragic affliction that’s befallen you while he was off wooing said Italian hotties.

4. Refrain from smack talking even when (no, especially when) hurt, angry, lonely or all of the above.

5. Still invite him to the dinners and outings you plan for the gang you both run with. Stop if he says he’d rather watch tv and eat carrots than have dinner with you. Then it’s just pathetic.  (FYI: Though much of the contents of this book are ramblings and musings from my own brain, I could not possibly have made up the TV and carrots thing — this actually happened and all subsequent invitations have been postponed until further notice.)

6. Call every smart, good-looking, funny man you know who might be even close to having ever said he loved or could possibly love you. Do this only with the ones who are still friends and will understand that you just need to know that such a man will again, one day, in fact love you for real. This may require careful consideration and slowing down the trigger-dial hand if said hurt, anger or loneliness reaches epic proportions, say, because you live in a foreign country and don’t speak the language.

7. Call anyone else you can think of who’ll tell you that you are a rock star, have everything going for you and the world is your oyster and who needs a French playboy flirt anyway? Don’t call too much; this will annoy even people who really do think you’re a rock star, have everything going for you and the world is your oyster.

8. Eat good chocolate. There’s something chemical that creates loving feelings in the brain and body. I swear to God that’s true. Eat lots. The finer, the better. If it’s the dark chocolate bar with whole hazelnuts that’s in your desk drawer and that he gave you, eat it very quickly so you can go on to another bar that didn’t come from him. Run later to deal with the caloric consequences of this childish behavior.

9. Plan lots of social activities and work projects. If you can wear hot little black dresses to any of these functions, even better.

10. Finally, just try to be nice. It probably won’t kill you.

So I’m back at square one, surrounded by Italian men.  Since I won’t make eye contact because you can’t trust them to tell the truth (or the truth they’d tell is so far from how I understand intimate relationships), it seems that dating and sex are unlikely to happen any time soon.  Damn.  Damn.  Damn.

One more thing about all this, while we’re on the subject of dating (or not dating, in my case) European men.  As far as I can tell, here’s the difference for actively-seeking-a-date single women between meeting European and American men.  I met prime specimens in one weekend, so we’ll use them as our examples.

I saw the first one standing on the platform waiting for a train in the main station.  He was hard to miss — tall, thin, gorgeous and impeccably groomed.  He had short graying hair, very cool sunshades, really tight, distressed khaki, painter-style pants and wild two-toned cowboy boots.  He is soooooo not American.  He followed me onto the train.  Really followed.  I even got up and changed seats and he followed me into another car and sat down next to me.  Not in a spooky kind-of way – he was being flirty and nice and chatty… after distractedly attempting to grade a few papers, I let the poor guy talk to me.  He was trying so hard!

He said about an hour into our conversation that he’d missed a flight connection in Milan, discovered his passport had expired the week before, taken a taxi over the Italian-Swiss border to Lugano and hopped the train there.  He’d been traveling from Sicily for something like twenty-four hours and he looked like a stylist had just finished with him when I encountered him standing there looking all Rico Sauvé on the platform.  How do the Italians manage to look all put together like that no matter what craziness goes on around them?

The American I met looked much more like… well… like an American.  Jeans.  T-shirt.  Flip-flops.  In the middle of Winterthur, Switzerland.  The boy/man look – more European than if he’d been in the States, because he bought all the clothes over here so they’re just not the same as back home, but the boy’s from Texas and it shows.  Cute as a button he is, with a big smile, and a lot of fun to be around.  Charisma to spare… he’s almost too outgoing.  So very American.

Now here’s the real difference between meeting an American and a European man.  I got home and called my friend Lisa all excited that I’d met two handsome, seemingly interested men in one day.  I told her about how Rico Suavé followed me onto the train, chatted me all up, how we work in the same field, how he stammered for my contact info at the end of our journey…. all of it.  I was so excited.  And she said, “Is he married with kids?”   Pause.  My heart sunk.  Ugh.  It never even occurred to me… because, and this may make me sound more naïve than I really am, men in the U.S. don’t act that way if they’re married with kids!

Lovely Brett, our American, bless his little Texan heart, found a pretty sneaky way to work into the conversation in the first five minutes that he is single.  It was a party at his house and most everybody had never been there.  As he showed us around his apartment, he started explaining the photos in frames on the walls and shelves.  He got very quickly to one of his girlfriend, no ex-girlfriend he stammered, correcting himself… they’d just broken up.  Thank you, Brett.

That is the difference between meeting American and European men.  The pitfall, I’m afraid, is that once the American men discover the new rules, once they’ve been here long enough to learn the tricks of their competition, they frequently adopt this free-love-for-all attitude.  Our American is no exception and is all into free love and dating around, but he is exceptionally up front about that too, which I guess in a very limited sort of way, is redeemable.  At least it’s not a secret.  I say get ‘em early if you can.  Meet planes or fly frequently.  Make friends with HR types who hire in fresh recruits.  Get yourself on search committees.  Form a Welcome Wagon.  Whatever works.

There’s a lot more where that came from; I’m not sure if I should post it.  I have a full proposal worked up and sample chapters ready to go.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. I LOVE it! Keep going… intimate insight from a woman who pays attention to both internal and external influences within herself and others. And who GETS the profundity of culture and the beauty and uniqueness of each human being at the core of those influences.

  2. Alyson, I know you left your comments on fb, not here… but THANK YOU! I’ll keep going with this and keep you posted.
    -R

  3. Fantastic reading, not only for women, great writing style, love it, did not judge you this funny when we met, sorry. Keep going.
    I had a look around your blog, led there by fb (I gave myself a push to start using it), well done, very good pictures of Stefan’s. Please pass my regards to him.
    Cheers, Erich

  4. Thanks, Erich! I was hiding the funny in Arabba, huh?

    Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I tried your https:// tips in Shenzhen, but twitter and facebook were both blocked no matter what I tried. Interesting, no?

    Love your photos from your many adventures!
    Thanks again,
    Rebecca

  5. Pingback: Yes, I mean YOU.

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