09 June 2008

Like Fine Wine, Affection Gets Better with Age

Couples are definitely open with affection in Italy. I have observed that the most egregious displays are mostly young couples, however. Are these public make-outs different from American teens, sneaking away from parents to kiss and experiment? Yes and no. The teenage desire may be the same, but it is more acceptable for more skin and more affection to show here. Shame and privacy are not needed. Kissing can happen in the middle of a park, as with this couple:

Or in the middle of the Via Appia Antica, as here:


Affection may not always be so public, and the beginnings of a real flirtation are more subtle. They are not obtuse, however, as they often are in the States. Mia observes that men who are interested here leave no doubt of their interest. Indeed, it is almost a palpable appreciation and interaction. This expression need not be (and is not, when done well) crude or demeaning. To be clear, the interaction has very little in common with U.S. American flirtation, and whistling, groping or touching, offering a ride, and "flirtation" in the U.S. American way is not at all what I mean.

Instead, let's consider the way that the gaze between couples in flirtation seems to work. Rather than a lean inward and prolonged, direct eye contact, the interaction might be an appreciative glance. Although this version of the gaze is no less objectifying than gazing at any beautiful object, the Italian flirtation gaze can express appreciation in the way one would appreciate paintings, statuary, or a nice window display (indeed, I have observed both Italian men and women arguing the merits of a display and the items in it more than once). Unlike the sweep of the eyes that undresses or focuses on hyper-sexualized body parts that often happens in the States, the Italian flirtation experience does not appear to wish away clothing or focus on a particular part of the body. The appreciation is one for the entire package, and the confidence, dress, and self-respect the other illustrates is an important part of that interaction.

We have seen this occur between a number of Italians, as well as between Italian men and those they appreciate. The interaction is subtle, but leaves no doubt of frank appreciation and interest. Couples gaze on one another, but do not check out attractive others on the street, in the way many U.S. American couples will. This appreciative gaze is a skill, and one that perhaps explains why those engaged in the wildly affectionate interactions in public tend to be younger.

With age comes the ability to indicate appreciation with a glance. Older couples walk hand in hand, arm in arm, and the gaze that passes between them is as affectionate and intimate as the gropings of the teens and new couples in the park. Perhaps like a fine wine affection is more appreciated as it ages and between those with a palate for the full experience.

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Works Cited

Fiona Wild, ed. Eyewitness Travel Rome (London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1993), 2007 edition.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Marble Faun. New York: Penguin Books, 1990/1860.

James, Henry. Daisy Miller. New York: Penguin Books, 2005/1878.

Powers, Alice Leccese. Italy in Mind: An Anthology. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1997.

Steves, Rick. Rick Steves' Italy 2007. New York: Avalon Travel Publishing, 2006.