Berlusconi excused because ‘Italian men live for flirting
The wife of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has just done what millions of Italian women must have felt like doing; publicly rebuked her husband for flirting outrageously.
Veronica Lario wrote a letter to La Reppublica – one of the few newspapers independent of her husband’s media empire – after her roving 70-year-old husband refused to apologise for flirting with at least three women in one night. Apparently he told one of them: “If I wasn’t already married, I would marry you straightaway.”
Berlusconi did the decent thing and publicly grovelled. So that’s all right then – until the next time.
And there will be a next time, there’s no doubt about that. Italian men have to make women love them. Flirting for an Italian is as natural as watching the Cup Final is for your average Brit; it’s a national trait.
This attention to women starts young. Dario Fo, the Italian Nobel laureate, tells an anecdote of when he was a young boy out walking with his mother. “Stop picking your nose,” she reprimanded him. “Look at the girls instead.”
According to Fo, he and all Italian men, develop a special muscle in their necks from turning around and checking out girls all the time.
I have seen this in action. My father is Italian and has spent a lifetime flirting. I contacted my father, Benedetto Benedetti, when I was 14. My parents divorced when I was three and I hadn’t seen him since then.
I gather from my mother that my father indulged in a certain amount of womanising – but she might have known what to expect. When she first met her Italian parents-in-law-to-be, my father’s father, a handsome and rich industrialist, was weeping at the kitchen table while his wife consoled him.
“What’s wrong with him?” my mother asked her future husband.
“His mistress just left him,” came the response.
Once I was reunited with my father, I didn’t take long to realise that Italian men are very different to English men. One of the first conversations my father and I had was about erections. We were looking at Michelangelo’s David in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. “He’s beautiful,” I said.
My father explained this was just a copy and the real one was in a museum. “What’s the difference?” I asked. “The real one has an erection every Wednesday at 6pm,” he said.
I was horrified. “What’s wrong with you?” he laughed. “Sex is like any other bodily function; you’re hungry, you eat.”
And therein lies the difference. To an Italian man, there is nothing wrong with flirting. Or, indeed, a bit of infidelity. As my father says: “You can’t eat the same pasta sauce every night.”
This desire to flirt and seduce comes from a need to be universally loved by women. Maybe this is a result of being so mothered by their fresh-pasta-making-Sophia-Loren-lookalike mammas. Perhaps it’s a constant search to replace that all-encompassing adoration. But whatever it is, it can be really irritating.
I remember that first summer I met my father. He had a secretary called Mario working for him. He was around 20 and I hated him on sight, partly because he had the sort of close relationship with my father I had not yet had the chance to develop.
I was a gawky 14-year-old and, frankly, not much of a looker – so imagine my surprise when the floppy-haired Mario set about pursuing me. Every time I left the house, he would be there grinning. When I sat down to eat he’d magically appear, spouting some nonsense about how marvellous I was. He even wrote me a dreadful poem, one line of which I still remember: “Wedding bells ring in my ear, whenever you are near.”
The only bells ringing in my ear were warning bells. Not only did I find him irritating and ugly, but Mario had a fiancee. One day I asked him why he was bothering me. “Why not?” he said looking at me blankly.
I asked my father the same question. “For an Italian man the war is never over,” he told me.
“But he is so ugly,” I said. “I hate him.”
“Don’t ever let him hear you say that,” said my father. “For an Italian man, being hated and considered ugly means the end of life.”
Since then I have had two other romantic experiences with Italian men. The first was with Giuseppe, who was the skipper on my aunt’s boat. I remember kissing him on the deck of the boat after a violent storm, mainly because I was so grateful still to be alive.
Sadly, once back on dry land, Giuseppe lost his attraction – and he didn’t take my rejection well. In fact for three days he simply didn’t believe me.
“You mean you don’t like me? But all English girls are mad for Italian boys,” he said. “What do you have at home that is as good as me?”
My second romantic experience was with Massimo, whom I met in a nightclub in Rimini. He treated me like I was the most precious jewel he had ever seen; nothing was too much bother, no one was as beautiful, no girl as amusing and intelligent.
This lasted all of one night, after which he did exactly the same thing to my best friend: flirted with her all night, then took her to the beach and tried to molest her.
After Massimo, I decided to give Italian men a wide berth and I’m now happily married to an Englishman. And if I ever start to get misty-eyed about Italian romantics, my father’s behaviour reminds me how untrustworthy they are.
Once, I invited a friend to stay with us in Italy. My father was so overly nice to her, buying her clothes and presents and telling her how marvellous she was, I wanted to throw up. I never made that mistake again. Of course when he chose to – or there was no one else around – he would focus all his attention on me and I would feel like a million dollars.
I remember a trip to La Scala in Milan. We sat in the Royal Box and my father treated me like a princess. However, I was soon abandoned if something better came along. Once I was due to meet him in Paris. I got to the hotel and was handed a telegram: “Have been delayed by a bottom in the south of France.”
You may think that, at 70, Berlusconi is a bit old to be offering to marry random women, but my father, now 83, is still going strong.
The odd thing about the Berlusconi saga is that his wife doesn’t behave in the same way. If there are all these Italian men ready to flirt, they must be looking for willing partners, and she’s not unattractive, as well as being 20 years younger than him. But maybe Italian women have spent so long fighting off flirts, the very idea makes them want to curl up in front of the fire with a good book and a cup of tea.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019