Let’s get one thing clear. Tuscans are not romantic. You might have this image of overly passionate and effusively affectionate Italians who will sweep you off your feet, but that does not apply to most Tuscans.
They are technically Italian, but my husband, a born and bred Maremmano from the wild southern corners of the region, once famously declared that kissing was for girls and holding hands a ridiculous pastime.
I’m telling you this story because that same Tuscan also swept me off my feet more than a decade ago with some very smooth dating moves. Okay, so he only had one ‘move’, inviting me out as friends and then turning it into a date after I’d already said I was free. Our first outing started out as a guided tour of the coastline and turned into a sunset stroll with dinner at McDonald’s, heaven to my fast-food-starved 19-year-old brain.
In researching this piece, I chatted to as many locals as I could find in my small town. I descended on our main piazza at 8am, when the nonni gather to gossip on park benches and Facebooked a handful of the younger generation. I even swapped stories with the Lotharios in my kindergarten English class.
Francesco, who is six, had some simple advice.
“Just tell her she’s beautiful.”
When he’s not winking at me, his teacher, who also happens to be 24 years his senior, he is wooing one of his classmate’s older sisters. Asia is 10 and oblivious to Francesco’s affections, but that doesn’t stop him from making kissy faces at her and telling her she’s “breaking his heart” when she refuses to give him a sticker.
Francesco goes on to tell me, “Girls love compliments, so I tell them I like their drawings and their hair and even their dolls, but I don’t really like their dolls.”
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A little lying and even more flattery seems to do it for Francesco, but when it comes to the older generation of small town Tuscans, double dating is the way to go. And I don’t mean double dates, I mean more than one girl at a time.
Pasquale Bianchi, 64, is currently renovating my downstairs apartment. He tells me the story of how he wooed his wife in the early 1970s. He would write her letters, which sounds incredibly romantic until his wife tells me that he kept up correspondence with three other ladies.
“We would go to the Saturday night dances,” he says. “In those days, there were no nightclubs. You went to the town hall. We didn’t want to pay, so we would climb through the bathroom window.”
Once inside, he’d find his date and dance to the latest hits played by local musical duos and minor celebrities like Layla and Enrico, a husband and wife team with Layla singing and Enrico on the electric keyboard.
Drive through any small Tuscan town today and you will still find musical evenings like these. Just look for the posters of two middle-aged locals leaning suggestively side by side with or without the requisite accordion.
Pasquale liked to keep his options open. My father-in-law Fiorenzo Detti is of the same generation and he says he was popular with the ladies because he “invented rear brake lights.
“In the 1970s, cars didn’t have rear brake lights, so I bought two flashlights and rigged them up in the rear window of my FIAT 600. When I braked, they lit up. And the girls went wild.”
Marino Pani owns the furniture shop next door. He’s 80 next month and recently celebrated his 60thwedding anniversary. He married Giuseppina because his best friend was dating her sister, but he has plenty to say about making a marriage last.
“I learnt very quickly to listen to my wife. When she’s talking, I make a point of paying attention. These young people spend their entire lives looking at their phones. No ones talks anymore,” he says.
“Also when she calls, come running or she will start screaming your name down the street and people will look. And never be late to lunch. Pina likes to eat at 1pm, so whatever you’re doing make sure you’re at the table at 1pm and always tell her it looks delicious.”
On a side note, Pina tells me Marino requests the same lunch every day, spaghetti with wild rabbit ragù, sometimes with the seasonal addition of porcini mushrooms, so that last compliment seems a little hollow.
Marino and his early morning bench buddies assured me their grandchildren had no idea how to woo a woman. Lorenzo, 78, even suggested that in a couple of years, everyone would have virtual girlfriends they made “on the computer”.
But I wasn’t convinced. A lot of young small-town Tuscans meet their future spouses at high school. Italians aren’t big on marriage, which the Italian National Institute of Statistics, ISTAT, indicates has been in sharp decline since the 1970s.
Couples like Luca Reali, 34, who owns one of my favourite aperitivo spots, has been with his girlfriend since he was 14. They have two kids together, but don’t plan on getting married.
“We can’t really afford a wedding and besides, it’s just a piece of paper. It doesn’t make a difference.”
Like I said, Tuscans, not big on romance. But Luca has a few dating tips.
“Me and my girlfriend love weird food and I grow all these different chili peppers in my terrace garden. I actually wooed her by inviting her over to my house for dinner. We’d been school friends, but I cooked her fish en papillote and squid ink pasta and she was all over me. What can I say? Women love a man who can cook.”
One of the most interesting statistics from the latest ISTAT study on marriage was about Italian citizens and foreigners. It’s the only type of marriage on the rise in the country and it’s more common than you’d think. In our small town, we have plenty of women from Poland and Romania, the UK, Germany, Colombia and even Venezuela.
Diana Echenique, 27, is from the latter. She started talking to Niccolò on Facebook, which is where, I might add, a lot of locals have found their future partners.
When she met him for the first time, she thought he was a mobster who was driving her into the countryside to kill her. She clearly didn’t Google map before getting on the plane. We’re more than two hours from Rome in the middle of nowhere.
More than 5 years later, Diana happily tells me that she fell for Niccolò because he was more serious and attentive than the boys in Caracas.
“He had his own business, his own house and could take me to Santorini. The boys in Venezuela couldn’t even buy their own sneakers,” she says.
“The only thing that’s a turn off is his relationship with his mum. He goes to house for lunch every day and she’s always offering to iron his shirts. She calls all the time to find out how his day was. I don’t find that attractive, but you get used to it.”