Month: February 2013

Chivalry, Sexual Harassment and a matter of latitude

Image“Speeches are like women’s skirts: the shorter, the better”. This is how a few days ago an Italian diplomat welcomed the guests of one of the many Brussels’ institutional gatherings. Someone I know was there and told me he was shocked. “You know – he said – it’s not that he actually said that because the world’s plenty of fools. It’s that EVERYBODY (all the Italians  I mean) laughed, men and women. I looked around for a sign of embarrassment, of uneasiness, of anything but NO. People laughed”. This story and the latest Berlusconi stunt made me wonder when did sexual harassment kill chivalry and who’s going to tell that to the southern part of the world.

Last week I was watching for the second time a truly beautiful film (do watch it if you haven’t done it yet), “El secreto de sus ojos”. It’s an argentinian film which was awarded the Oscar a few years ago. Knowing the story already, I was able to enjoy the details. Courting women, complimenting them and mild flirting  – even at work – was (and probably is, I don’t know) part of the local culture. So it is in Italy, Spain, Portugal and generally the latin world. When you are born in that, you don’t even realize it. Compliments are part of the social interaction between sexes. The pursuit of beauty is on the bill of rights. It is widely common, in these countries, to congratulate someone on his/her looks, clothes, sunglasses and sometimes beautiful spouse/children. As a woman, you sit at a meeting and suddenly the guy sitting in front of you will tell you how nice is your green blouse or how radiant you look. He’s not flirting, not yet. He’s just being polite.

Of course, there’s been the occasional incident. It happened to me and to a long list of girlfriends that you would call a man for business purposes and he would turn down the business part and offer you to have a drink together instead. If he was interested in business, he would go play tennis at the local club with your male colleague. It was humiliating and unnerving. But I never saw it as part of something bigger. I just thought I had stumbled on a moron.

It’s now that it scares me. Because I realize that it wasn’t normal. The line between chivalry and sexual harassment in the south of the world is very thin, and can apparently be crossed at any time. Men will play with that blurred line, ready to back off and say they were only being polite, in case you take it bad. After the first few years of Brussels, where you could walk naked in the street or wear a bucket of mussels on your head and NO ONE would even look at you I went to a meeting in Italy with a guy I had seen only once before. He was nice, not flirty. But he greeted me saying: “You look so pretty today”. Well, I almost bit his head off. For the first time I felt how out of place it was.

What is the way out? Mass reeducation? A new cultural revolution, chinese style? How do you educate women not to mistake chivalry with sexual harassment? And…if sexual harassment is always a risk, do we have to give up what’s left of chivalry? What are the rules? Chivalry is ok in private situations but not in business?

I find a certain charm in the kind of gallantry shown by some southern men: opening doors, offering flowers, treating a woman as someone special. But where should this stop?

How is this perceived in your country? And how do you feel about that? How do we do to keep respect and courtship? I’d love to know more.

Five things I learnt about love

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I spent more time thinking about love than probably Elizabeth Darcy (née Bennet). At the age of 6 I engaged myself to a boy named M. without him being aware of that. I would take him by the arm to show my classmates we were close and I would leave messages in his duffle coat pockets every single day. He was shy and initially complacent but after a while, when the other boys in the class started mocking him and he heard about my engagement story, he publicly dumped me with a note his fellow classmates had previously agreed on. It said more or less: “I think our engagement is off. Please stop bothering me”. It was the end of the world.

If this makes a cute childhood story where all the characters can barely read and count to 100, things got a little bitter later on. I was determined to find the love of my life but I didn’t have the slightest clue on the following points:

1. How to find him

2. How to recognize him, admit I would actually cross him at some point

3. How to get to know him and to look interesting

4. How to make him fall in love with me

I thought falling in love was the necessary and sufficient condition for anything else. And so love I pursued. For YEARS!

It hasn’t been bad. Looking back now, I wish I had more fun on my way to perfect love. I wish I took myself less seriously and were able to laugh more. But, you know, I have now made peace with my limits. There’re a few things, though, that seem now so normal and that I wasn’t so sure about then. And they would have saved some tears and some end-of-the-world drama.

  1. Give guys the thrill of the chase

Risking to sound as old-fashioned as the Dowager Countess of Grantham I really have to warn any good-willed young lady out there. Please, don’t play the conqueress. It may seem to you that the pale, skinny, smart boy you spotted the other day at the workshop is too shy to ask you out. Don’t help him. There’re not really shy guys. Not so shy they can’t ask a girl out. They can be goofy, or embarassed. They may even flush when looking at you. But there’re no interested guys that won’t go great lenghts to propose something. Anything. A cup of coffee, a movie, a walk. Even time sitting together in a library. Studying.

Of course, there’re tons of women who decided on marrying a man and eventually did. They imposed themselves and got their way. You just have to be fine with the idea that in future quarrels you will always be the one that forced him into the relationship. I always found that annoying.

2. Forget everything you’ve read and/or watched about love and marriage

Do you know the all-consuming love we all hope to live at least once in our life? The kind of love that makes you lose 10 pounds in a week, sleep 2 hours per night, feel every heartbeat as it was the last one and yet look gorgeous and young and bright? Well, let’s hope you never marry that guy. Because that is not love: it’s passion, madness, desire, a total eclypse of the heart brain.The minute you start doing the laundry or scrubbing the bathroom sink or – even worse – the minute you have a child together and experience the Guantanamo year(s) (sleep deprivation + house confinement + falling asleep by exhaustion on floors or sofas or wooden chairs) you will need more than butterflies in your stomach, breathtaking sex or cosmic connection. You will need a good laugh, then. Believe me.

Passion is a thing. A crazy, sublime, unforgettable, necessary thing we need to live at some point in our lives. Even more than once. It’s great. But married love is another thing. And it’s more precious, and rare, and longer lasting. It’s the kind of love that comes with time and it’s made of time spent together, intimate knowledge of each other families and friends and secrets. Yesterday I watched with the boys the video of my wedding day. I barely knew my husband then and yet I had this huge smile stamped on my face the whole time. I was crazy. And lucky. Because I had no idea of what life was going to be made of. I couldn’t think much further of having breakfast together or travelling or having friends over for dinner and watching films. I didn’t know that real life is made also of less glamorous things: losing one’s parents, battling illnesses, caring for other people, spending hideous Christmases with families who’re not yours and whom you don’t even feel connected to, having children and wanting to kill your husband because he is looks useless and you need so much a shower and a 7-hours uninterrupted night.

3. If he gives you goosebumps, then check that he can laugh as well

I loved bad guys. Complicated, smart, dark characters. Ideally with a troubled past. It looked SO sexy to me. No wonder I am crazy now about Damian Lewis/Nicholas Brody and Homeland. But I bet the moment I’d start cooking Congressman Brody his dinner or waking up with a migraine in his bed, I’d love him to be able to just laugh.

4. Find the one that likes/loves you just as you are

We all loved Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’ Diary for that. Remember? He liked her just as she was. It may seem obvious but it is not. I have overweight friends that go out with guys who publicly declare that they despise overweight women and that their beauty ideal is Kate Moss. Now, if you like Kate Moss, then you don’t go out with Nigella Lawson. Or, if you do, you don’t ever say that she should lose weight because you prefer the skinny, androgynous type. Ditch that kind of partner. If he doesn’t like you as you are, than he’s not worthy of your attention.

5. Never give up on love

I have friends who panicked around their 30s and got married. To someone they were used to but that they didn’t admire, or trust, or actually love. They thought at least they would have a life, kids, holidays. A past. There is nothing worse than a marriage you don’t believe in. Don’t let age trick you into one of these plans. Never give up on love, you will regret it eventually.

A quiet romance

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The coffee shop where it all started

Bad romance. Cursed romance. Sick love. I have just completed my overdose of tv and finished watching season 2 of Homeland. (I went through 12 episodes in 2 days and a half, basically sleep deprived and kind of tense, dreaming of CIA chasing me and bombs exploding at every corner). I am partially relieved, thinking that I can now resume my sleeping habits but also in need of some kind of fix because I can’t get enough of the Carrie-Brody romance. Which is the very definition of BAD ROMANCE. Two fragile, complicated, flawed characters connect on the deepest level, only to get separated every time they’re about to have it all. Tragic. Shakespearean. Irresistible.

So I went to bed at 1.30, thinking of him them and trying to convince myself it was just another show. As a child I used to fall in love all the time with fictional characters, mainly those in my grandmother’s favorite films. We used to watch tv together (a lot! way too much by modern parenting standards) because she was 60 and 30 years ago 60 was today’s 80 and I guess she needed some daydreaming. So I spent primary school thinking that Rhett Butler and the Count of Montecristo were actual people, living somewhere far away, never getting old. It didn’t get any better over the years and I clearly still have a thing for very bad love stories.

On Feb 9th, 2003, though, I bumped into a quiet romance. Brussels was still a cool city back then and I felt about to conquer the world, looking down at it with my 24 years old enthusiasm and confidence. I went to a photo exhibition in a fancy, international, coffee shop. And I found my husband. First time I went anywhere in the new city after moving.

Of course, I didn’t know it. It wasn’t love at first sight. I thought him plain, and boring. He already was husband material (in a Colin Firt-ish kind of way) and I needed the bad romance. I made a few poor choices on the way but he had the stubbornness to wait and a couple of years later we were married. I often look back and think how comes that you meet for the first time someone you’ll eventually marry and you don’t know. There are no signs, no bells, no serendipity elements.

Bad romances, on the other side, always come with an endless list of coincidences, signs, destiny calls and so on. All stuff your foggy brain probably makes up to shut down any residual logic you may still have.

If I ever have a daughter, I’ll tell her that. Don’t wait for a sign, don’t expect the bells. Beautiful gifts come unannounced.

60 minutes in California

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Yesterday I had my first teleportation experience. My husband has been sick for some days now and asked me to go cover up for him at a conference he was really interested in: “How to expand your business in the United States”. I had stuff to do and tried to find a good excuse not to go. But I didn’t find any, so I got my pink Moleskine notebook, my pen, a huge cup of coffee and started walking. There was a snowstorm in Brussels. Or, even worse: a rainstorm for five minutes, then snow for another 15 and so on. The whole day. The moment I entered the conference building I was warmed up by a distinct Californian accent coming from a corner of the room: the main speaker – a San Francisco lawyer – was going through his notes with his assistant. Who, incidentally, looked just like Lucy Liu.

There was a weird moment when Lucy Liu came to me asking who I was representing and instead of telling the simple, plain, reassuring truth (My husband is sick but is really interested in what you’re here to say to he asked me to come and take notes) I embarked in a series of lies.

“Ehm…I am working for this…Y company”

“Great! This is my card, do you have one?”

S**t! And now?

“Well…I actually ran out of my office to be here on time and forgot my cards!!!” (How stupid do I sound?!?)

“Oh, I see. Can you then just write me your email so that I can send you a few documents?”

This is becoming bad. I only have a gmail account and certainly not one with the company’s name. I quickly text the husband to see if there is a info@ or similar general account I can use. He says to tell Lucy Liu that she can send everything to HIM. So, thinking that it is now too late to tell the truth, I go on with the total self humiliation.

“Ehm. You know, I just started this new job so my boss says it is better if you send everything to him. I ‘ll write down his address.”

And Lucy Liu looks innocently at me, with her big, black Bambi eyes. Yes, here I am, almost 35 and not responsible enough to be entitled to a proper email address or to be trusted to receive emails on the boss’ behalf. I flush.

Then Lucy and her boss started their briefing to Belgian companies, to inform them on how to set up a business in the US and, more specifically, in California. They were clear, and informal, and full of enthusiasm, talking as if everything was just possible. They went all American about that. And I loved it. It was actually so relieving that I could have cried. (And I would have, if I wasn’t worried to look like a complete and total idiot. Still an intern at 35, clearly not trustable and also emotional).

If you’re born an American, you probably don’t even see my point. But here in old, about-to-sink (continental) Europe, we don’t talk like that. We don’t give people opportunities, or dreams, or enthusiasm. We just warn them about risks, possible losses, dangers and we constantly tell them not to forget that they could fail, and that hurts, and is definitive and so it is better to stay safe and not venturing into unknown territories.

Optimism’s never been a European trait but since the crisis started, 5 years ago, there’s no place for anything but cynicism and pessimism. While in America the President gives inspiring speeches on how to overcome current difficulties, on this side of the Atlantic tv and newspapers are all about how this crisis is not going to be over for at least 5 years, which means no new jobs, no new opportunities, no better salaries. Politicians just tell people they have to pay more taxes, work 15 years longer and count on less benefits. It is actually depressing, watching the news.

When I was working as a journalist I was very young, and impatient. I was supposed to be available 24h/24 (which I willfully was, because my social life sucked) and to assist, support and never contradict my 50-something superiors. A couple of decades of good conduct would have been rewarded with a good salary, maybe a foreign correspondent job and some power over hopeless 20-something trainees.

When I got bored of this system and took a plane, I was heavily criticized.

“You had to stay, and to be patient. In ten, who knows, maybe 15 years you could have a good position. And travel then”.

“In 15 years I will probably be married, and have children and maybe I won’t be that excited anymore about working round the clock and travelling”.

“Yeah. But, you know. You don’t do things this way when you want a career. Be patient, follow your editor. Watch. Learn. Wait. He’ll decide when your time has come”.

I wish I grew up in America. Just to know for 10 little minutes how it feels to think that if you work hard and are motivated, there’re no limits.

Looking through pink glasses

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Pink glasses have made a comeback. People seem addicted to them and refuse to take them off.

A few years ago a relatively known French spin doctor announced that “Reality doesn’t matter. Only perception counts”. I doubt he was the only one to say so, but he was the first I heard, and I was impressed. We were before Facebook era and although I knew that politics implied a great lot of “perception games”, reality was still kicking. Politicians would try to sell their stuff, the press (not in Italy, of course :-)) would question them, and research and then filter to the public an acceptably truthful version of whatever was going on.

I felt positively reassured by the mere existence of reality. You could call a friend, or a business partner, or a parent, or even a public office and you would get an idea of what was going on in their lives, venture, routine. You would hear kids screaming on the other side of the line, spouses grumbling, bosses cutting short the phone call because there was something else to do. You could get a glimpse of normality and then be recomforted about your own days: other people were tired and struggling to make it to the end of the working shift, had boring chores to perform and bossy people to deal with. Of course, it could virtually happen to call or email someone in the minute he/she won the lottery and became a billionaire but the probability was remote. You could feel a little jealous when a friend told you he was leaving for the Carabbeans in the middle of winter while you were sitting at your desk, with mittens and a cold, sneaking on online shopping sites while you were supposed to work. But that was it.

The Facebook era has pushed everything a little further. There’re no more crying kids, boring spouses or castrating bosses in other people’s lives. Not even an unbearable family Christmas lunch (that one where Aunt Cinthya asked you when were you due, and you were 3 months post-partum) or a crappy holiday to the Maldives during rainy season. Whenever you feel gloomy or (even worse!) nostalgic and you decide to go have a look at what people you know, used to know, loved or hate are up to, think twice. Eat chocolate instead, or watch Downton Abbey. Everybody else – in fact – is clubbing, sunbathing in an invisible bikini, has no wrinkles despite being older than you, has cute, perfectly combed and very clean, smiley children. Husbands seem coming out of a 50s ad: they always smile, have a clean shirt on and a sexy grin, often mixed with clearly showed parental attitude. Those husbands carry seven children on two arms on an exotic beach, never ditch you with 6 luggages and a couple of toddlers to get a work phone call and never criticize your attitude towards money.

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You’ll soon get the impression that everybody else is clubbing, while you’re sitting on your couch with a runny nose.

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Those who aren’t clubbing are probably on a different time zone, and having sex with a Ryan Gosling lookalike on a desert Carabbean beach. While you are getting up for the 5th time a in a couple of hours to change your stomach bugged child’s sheets.

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Those who actually have children, as you do, appear to have extraordinarly beautiful and wonderfully clothed brats, as in this Bonpoint ad.

Reality, as the French guy said, doesn’t matter anymore. I am still adjusting to this. I am not a self-promoting pro, never been. I actually thought till yesterday probably that only B-series players would invest huge energies in self-promoting. Big players didn’t need that. They had just to kept doing whatever put them in the A-list.

Well, that’s over, I guess. I am fascinated by how many people reinvent themselves on social networks and actually end up fooling everybody else about their actual talents, qualities and successes.

A German study showed that an increasing number of Facebook users developed depression, feelings of envy and anxiety while looking at other people’s lives on the social network.

Out of a philantropic surge, please post (at least once in a while!) a scruffy, un-filtered, un-photoshopped picture of your life! Public Health Services all around the world will be grateful to be spared some cash from happy-pills prescriptions 🙂

Tale of a very conventional adventure (part II)

I should stop this part I and part II thing since between one and two I usually forget what I wanted to write about. I should just accept that at some point during part I someone will disturb me and ask me (not always in this order) to: walk the dog, fill a glass, go to the pharmacy, find a playmobil sword or gun or knife (why, why on earth are those SO small?), buy more bread, phone the electrician and so on…I should just let it go: I am in a phase in life where I can’t sit still for a whole 20 minutes without being interrupted. So, starting today, no more to be continued on my posts.

Where was I….yes, jumping off boat. It is a little more than a metaphor at this point: I actually lose myself in Titanic-esque fantasies about a Kate Winsletish version of myself flying off old, slow, Boring Belgium to reach some sunny beach, a sort of garden of Eden where people exchange the golf club membership against staying up at night talking and questioning and wondering what they can do to improve their lives, other people’s lives and the world. Where people still have some kind of romanticism, I guess.

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Where to, then? (I have been thinking this out for the past 5 years so I really went through every possibility).

1. I am an idealist but also have practical requirements: I am done with crappy weather, skies so low you can touch them and year-long tinted with all nuances of GrAy:-) Garden of Eden has then to be at Naples’ latitude. (minimum)

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2. I appreciate the kind of comfort some people used to enjoy a century ago (i.e. lots of help, space and very few mundane tasks in everyday life) but I need a certain freedom to do my own stuff and to explore my surroundings if I feel like it. Which pretty much excludes South America and, partly, Middle East and South Africa. I couldn’t survive in an expat compound where I am surrounded by help but can’t go buy oranges by myself.

3. I really, really like skyscrapers and urban surroundings. Anything fast-paced, like an 80s film.

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4. I am an Italian girl who grew up in the late 80s-early 90s. Most of my teachers were born at the end of the war and were just in love with the idea of America. It really was the garden of Eden, the  magical place where people were really free, and brave and active and…DREAMERS! I guess I absorbed part of that during childhood and somehow the US have always been part of my fantasies.

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5. I am an Italian girl who graduated in 2000. During my last year at school everything was about Asia. I even took a class called “The Asian Development Model” and I got top marks for the first time. I was fascinated. I took Mandarin classes (lasting a mere month, lazy me) and thought of moving to China. That would have required more braveness than I was prepared to. So I took that plane to Belgium.

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America or Asia? Wherever it will be, I am soooo ready for a fresh start!