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Chapter Three – Italian Men Past and Present
This  vacation in Ischia – a return to my roots – was as much about taking a break from that crazy job as it was about questioning my life’s choices and finding myself again. In addition to finding myself, I was hoping to find an Italian man, even if but for a distraction.
From the moment I put my feet on the plane that would take us from Rome to Naples, there were men surrounding me. First, there was Enzo, who was returning home from his engineering job for the Easter break. He was a typical Neapolitan with broad shoulders, bronzed skin, and wavy black hair. He chatted me up on the plane from the start. First, he asked about my work and life in America. Then, he moved onto how pretty he thought my eyes were. I had never met such a forward man before (besides the ones with whom I was related, who I witnessed picking up other ladies). It was like I had just landed on Mars, and this was a whole new species before me.
In college, I barely dated. In fact, I didn’t even share a kiss with anyone. I had many male friends, who came to me with the problems they were having with other girls. I’d nurse their broken hearts but witnessed few opportunities for love for myself. The few boys who showed the slightest bit of romantic interest in me either scared the hell out of me or had a back-up girlfriend on the side. Since I’d never be the other woman – that’s just not my style – they fell into the “friends” department, too. In those few years out of college, I lived at home with my parents and worked hard to launch my career at women’s publications. I had forgotten what men looked like all together.
Of course, my Italian relatives in the States were concerned I’d never marry. They’d say, “You miss-a the boat-a.” So, in their glorious wisdom, they’d try to fix me up. One of my cousins chose a guy whose family hailed from Naples because she thought he’d fit in great with the family. She would go on and on about how his parents had a house in Italy, and he was such a great nurse, and he was so cute, and he seemed like a real catch – until he was always unavailable for a date and my cousin ran into him and his boyfriend doing wheelies on a carriage at IKEA, where they were shopping for furniture for their apartment. Another cousin tried to set me up with a banker from China, who was cute and wealthy – and in love with my cousin’s sister-in-law. Another cousin brought me out to eat with the mushiest kid you’ve ever met; he might have cried more than I do. When my cousin’s mothers tried to get in on the act, I drew the line and headed to the homeland.
Italian men reminded me of masculinity, and I associated them with strength and dependability. Even though I knew there were good and bad people in every culture, I just assumed most of them, especially the ones from Ischia, would be like my papa’ and uncles and cousins and grandfathers. They would live for family and work harder than anyone I know. They’d be serious and committed. If one of them chose me for a wife, he would make me his number one priority.
Later on, I learned that life is not as simple as I made it out to be. Ischia had changed since my Italian men had left the island. This was a new breed of men in Ischia. They wore a mask that made them look and sound similar to my people, but there were subtle distinctions. It would take a few years for me to realize it, but there was something different and disturbing about this new generation of men in Ischia.
My peasant people in Ischia are all but gone. Replacing them are overgrown teenagers who work in the hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and travel agencies. While my father and his siblings made due with hand-me-downs and shoes that had leaves for soles, today’s islanders are decked out in Armani and Prada whether or not they can afford designer labels. If you want to do something special for them, you will bring them a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt from America. They zip around the island on their vintage Vespas in a rainbow of colors or Smart cars that carry with them a certain prestige but can’t transport more than two people at a time. They worship the sun and look like bronzed statues with not even a hair out of place. They’re often so pretty that it is painful to look at them.
Take Roberto*. From top to bottom, he is delicious. Despite his salt-and-pepper hair and being nearly 40, he seems forever 17. His wavy hair reaches the nape of his neck, and falls in front of his eye as he talks. It’s the kind of hair that has him always looking like he just got out of bed. It perfectly frames his tan face and that crooked smile. When he looks at a woman – any woman – with those crystal blue eyes, he has her convinced she is the only person in the room with him. On the beach when he takes off his shirt, he reveals just enough muscle to prove he is not trying too hard to look this good. In the winter, he wears a button-down shirt, American blue jeans, a scarf around his neck that drapes and dips into his chest, and a pea coat.
Roberto lives at home with his parents, brother, and sister, and their families. He works as a doorman at one of the hotels near his house. With little responsibility even during the high season, he manages to get one day off work per week to bum on the beach by day and dance and drink with his friends by night. His girlfriend of seven years is in no rush to get married because she’s younger and still going to university (many don’t graduate until they are 30 years old in Italy). Roberto is in even less of a hurry to settle down. Why should he? Mammina does his laundry and cooks his meals. And he comes and goes as he pleases.
While Roberto remains pretty faithful to his longtime girlfriend (barring a drunken kiss with an old classmate three years ago), flirting comes as naturally to him as making meatballs comes to Mammina. He knows not to cross the line despite the many, many temptations. What he doesn’t know is that his well-educated girlfriend with the parents who own three of the most popular restaurants on the island and who never seems to flirt, is about to get him embroiled in a love triangle with a carabiniere (considered to be like the fake, moronic police) that will have repercussions that no one in his right mind could imagine beforehand. By the time all is said and done, families will be split apart, seeds of doubt will seep into numerous relationships, and friendships will be over and done. And I myself won’t even want to return to Ischia, the island I once loved like home.
Meanwhile, we all should have been paying more attention to the gossip about the carabinieri on the island. It was like an alarm warning us of the dangers to come. The police officers sure do get around on Ischia, and they’re not fighting crime. Roberto’s friend Fernando has had two girlfriends who cheated on him with different carabinieri. Another carabiniere broke up his own marriage and ran off to Miami with his lover, who had been married to someone else, too. They both left behind their teenage children.
Frankly, however, no islander is a saint. For every Adam who bites into the apple, there is an Eve who helps convince him it’s a good idea. Women in Ischia are almost as beautiful as the men. What they lack in physical perfection, they make up for with…
*Some names and identifying characteristics of the real people involved have been changed.
Tune into this Web site, Two Worlds, every Monday for the latest installment in my blog about my experiences in Ischia, and every other Monday to ItaliansRus.com for the latest Our Paesani column about all things Italian. Di Meglio is also the Guide to Newlyweds for About.com.