07/24/2013 05:34 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2013

FACE IT: Men Have Changed in Italy... or Have They?


This week, the International Herald Tribune featured a front-page story about Claudina Melise and her sister Consolata. They haven't done anything particularly noteworthy, except live long. The former is 100, the latter 105. "The Melises have become elderly symbols of a Mediterranean way of life that is the envy of the world," proclaimed the piece, which went on to more serious matters like how Italy is going to take care of its aging population.

I am in that country for the month and the article got me thinking, instead, about how these sisters -- and all they represent -- may be getting the last laugh.

As I walk the streets of Florence, I can't help but reflect back on my first visit here so many decades ago. At that time, I was like countless others seeking to lose my innocence like a Henry Miller -- or was it James? -- heroine. Of course, back then, I felt guilty for even harboring such thoughts and realized those things only happened to Daisy Miller, or Audrey Hepburn ditching her group to run off with Albert Finney.

Besides, speaking for myself, I was quickly taken aback by all the handsome but leering young men. Endowed with full breasts and donning short skirts, I initially enjoyed it, happy for the company after my girlfriend fled to Greece, leaving me to do Italy alone. I remember a young man named Michele -- spelled like mine, but pronounced Mi-kel-i -- taking me up to some garden for a late dinner and even inviting me to his home.

But I also remember being wildly unprepared for his rapid and voracious advances. I went from flattered to annoyed to frightened. It didn't take long to understand that nubile and naïve Americans held an exotic fascination for the young men of Italy, who seemed to be prowling around every corner. My friend Jan recalls being in the Uffizi as a traveling student around the same time. "I still remember one of the guards -- who was old and short and chunky -- pulling me aside, holding the top of my arm and just happening to grope my breast," she says. "The fairly constant looks and catcalls were almost a form of assault, a gauntlet to run if we wanted to travel on our own there."

I gave up the gauntlet, and ran instead to the train station in the middle of the night. Get me back to the south of France! I was never so happy to find an empty compartment and lie down on the cold, hard seat to sleep. The next thing I knew, a pair of hands were creeping up my skirt. I screamed, he screamed back, apologized, and darted off.

Thank goodness that first journey did not sour me on the pleasures and tastes of Italy. I have traveled here many times over the years, though never again solo, as I have this week. The fact that there are no leers now is a relief, (though I wouldn't mind a few), and obviously says more about me than them. Visiting women were once ignored for not being attractive. Now, I suppose, it is for not being young. (What else is new?)

One reason Americans were so appealing to Italian men in those days was, frankly, their own females tended to be less so. I was not alone in wondering, where are the local girls? Those few we did glimpse seemed simply to be waiting to turn into their mothers and grandmothers: nursing, eating and cooking. Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale were distant, dreamy goddesses, but the ladies on the streets did not look like that. They may well have harbored secret ambitions, but it was neither the time nor the place.

Today, Italian women are among the most beautiful in the world, fit and fashionable. And they are pissed. Many of the daughters of those waiting women I saw long ago were irate over the "scandals and macho behavior of (former Prime Minister) Berlusconi," according to Reuters. And while many entered the workplace, Italy is ranked 84th in gender equality, according to the most recent Global Gender Gap Report. A few months ago, three women were arrested in Milan for taking their tops off outside a polling place where Mr. Berlusconi (sentenced to seven years in prison for sex with a 17-year-old prostitute) was voting.

As I reflect on the hidden young women of my earliest visit, this seething activism seems worth celebrating. But as Reuters also wrote, Italy remains "a patriarchal society that still thinks women's primary role is in the home." Elizabeth Petrosian, who writes the delightful "Letters From Florence" blog, believes Italian men have been enabled for just too long by their mothers, first, and then, their wives. "How can they be proper soul mates or resolute leaders when they can't even boil the water for pasta"? she asks. "Italian women have made some important strides on the feminist front, but they continue to raise "traditional" men and thus the cycle is perpetuated."

Its young men may not be ogling foreign flesh as they used to, but as I move outside the cities (which really could be Manhattan or Beverly Hills with better tomatoes) and into the countryside, I, too, wonder how much has really changed. The cafes are filled with old men -- the very ones who probably scared many of us away -- who spend their afternoons drinking and telling each other their old stories. They smile proudly for the camera, and even flirt a little. Yet, I ask myself the same thing I asked all those years ago: Where are the women?

And then late in the day, early evening, really, they emerge: To water their gardens, to make their way to the local markets with their bags in hand. They are matronly more than matriarchal. Occasionally, in the upper class areas, there are Loren-like beauties, usually surrounded by several generations of family. They exude class and yet arouse the suspicion that their luxury is due to money they did not -- or could not -- earn. Hopefully, their daughters and their daughters' daughters are fighting the good fight, against great and entrenched odds.

Then again, this is Italy and as "Gloria," a Tuscan participant in The Italian Bloggers Roundtable, points out, "One should remember that what makes a culture a culture is exactly its specific aspects. " In other words, this is Italy, love it or leave it. Perhaps the only way the women here will ever get their proper respect is just by being the last ones standing. If it takes living to be 105, so be it.