There’s a scene from “Roman Holiday” where Gregory Peck is wheeling around early 1950s Rome with a pretty, 27-year-old Audrey Hepburn holding him tight on the back of his scooter. The sight of him tearing around Rome’s cobblestone streets is one of the signature symbols of Italian romance. Two people in love, carefree, exploring a beautiful city and each other.
If “Roman Holiday” dealt with true romance in Rome, the scene would have Peck ogling another woman on the sidewalk, Hepburn performing a fair imitation of the Heimlich maneuver and Peck careening his scooter right into the Trevi Fountain. They’d surface scratching and screaming, two soaked, soon-to-be ex-lovers wondering why they keep putting up with each other.
I retired to Rome in January 2014. I am single. I am 59 years old and have never been married. Lord, I get nervous walking down a movie aisle. That doesn’t mean I can’t make a commitment. I just don’t need to make it binding by law. In the year and a half since my arrival, I have thrown my neck, adorned with the requisite Italian scarf, right on to Rome’s dating chopping block. I have survived. My head remains, pivoting repeatedly like I’m at Wimbledon while, yes, ogling Italian women who could make Michelangelo’s David even harder than he already is.
With those same eyes, and a 40-year career as a journalist, I’ve made nearly two years’ worth of observations about modern romance in Rome. What’s happening is a war of the sexes that has both sides wearing full armor – and I’m not talking about condoms. The women say the men can’t be trusted; the men say the women are too jealous. Both are generally true.
A 50ish friend named Pierfrancesco told me the problem is the two sexes in Italy don’t relate to each other.
“It’s like having a Mac and a PC trying to communicate,” he said. “No way.”
After a first date with a woman in my first spring, she called me. She didn’t ask what I was doing or where I was. She asked, “Who are you with?” After two or three dates during an abbreviated summer romance, another woman asked of our relationship, “Where are we going?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I don’t even know where we’re going for lunch.”
Much of it is the Italian man’s fault. They are stuck in the Italy of “Roman Holiday.” They don’t want a friend. They want a mother and a lover and a barista. They want the woman to look especially hot while making him his cappuccino. I dated an executive of a cell phone company and she said her ex-husband never knew what she did for a living. I asked my best friend, Alessandro, why he can’t be friends with women.
“Because they don’t trust us,” he said lifting his arm in the air, the Italian gesture meaning Whattayougonnado? “If I tell a woman I’m with a friend, she’ll never believe she’s just a friend.”
Many American women now know this. I can’t count how many I’ve met who followed this scenario: Vacation in Rome. Fall for a swarthy Italian with long hair and an accent out of central casting. She returns to the States where she quits her job and moves to Rome, chasing la dolce vita with her Italian stallion. Never mind that he’s living with his mother. She marries and soon she learns he’s paying more attention to his mother than her. Soon she learns he’s paying more attention to old girlfriends — or new girlfriends — than her. They divorce and she’s seen brooding over a caffè macchiato in a scruffy bar while speed texting her equally bitter friends.
I belong to InterNations, a meetup group of successful people interested in fine wine, good food, fun music and, well, successful meetups. It’s a melting pot of testosterone and estrogen from around the world but many Italians attend. Like a Serengeti where the lions and lionesses wear Gucci and Prada, it’s a perfect observation ground for Italian mating habits. One beautiful, chestnut-coiffed Italian woman qualified her attitude toward men by saying, “I don’t trust Italian men. They all live with their mothers.”
A well-dressed Italian man in his 40s with a chiseled face seemingly off an olive oil ad said he lived in England for three years. Many Italian men say Italian women aren’t nearly as sexual as their wardrobe would indicate.
“Italian women are disasters,” he said. “I much prefer English women.”
“Why?” I said. “Because they f***?”
That was a quick response.
I asked another if it’s true Italian men cheat so much.
“No, it’s not true,” he said. “American men cheat more than we do.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Because they have more opportunities.”
These are all generalizations, of course. I know many successful, happy Italian couples. Still… while infidelity statistics are difficult to establish, the website Truth About Deception says 60 percent of American men cheat. In Europe, Italians are top dogs, pardon the expression. According to the French Institute of Public Opinion, which surveyed nearly 5,000 people in five major European countries, 55 percent of all Italian men said they’ve cheated. (Remember, that’s of the men who admitted it.) That ties France with the most. To be fair, 34 percent of Italian women also claim infidelity, second to Germany’s 43. Interestingly, only 26 percent of Italian men expressed regret afterward, by far the lowest.
Myself? I’ve had fewer problems than my Italian friends. Some Italian women say they like that I am not Italian. Although one woman who spent the night wondered why I didn’t want to spend every waking hour of the weekend with her, “like most Italian men,” she said as she stepped inside the subway station. I also put independence atop my dating checklist and truly value the modern, independent Roman woman who loves being asked about her job and what she wants me to cook for her that night. Also, being 6-foot-3 may help. The average southern Italian man is 5-foot-8.
I have recently left the battle to settle into a peaceful, wonderful relationship. My girlfriend, Marina, is a 50-year-old photographer/magazine and book creative graphics designer/fitness nut who never married. Her past relationships were predominantly with Italian men who wanted her for what she could give them. Like me, she has traveled the world, loves exploring new Roman trattorias and dining on my terrace. We met the Italian way — through friends. Singles bars really don’t exist in Rome; Internet dating here remains in its infancy.
I have emerged from the war unscathed. My lone vows will be to not wind up head first in the Trevi Fountain.
This post first appeared in the Fall 2015 Magazine . Check out our magazine archives for more great stories: http://www.insidersabroad.com/issues.
John Henderson retired to Rome after a 40-year newspaper career, including 23 years at The Denver Post. He writes the travel blog, Dog-Eared Passport, at www.johnhendersontravel.com .