Beauty Secrets from Italy

Ladies of a certain age, say, over forty…check thisout.  I have discovered, completely by surprise,a beauty secret that you, too can share. The price is not cheap, but, there are no surgical risks, in fact, verylittle risk at all.  No experts, no dailyroutines, no diets or deprivation. For the price of a trip to Italy, you willbe looked at with interest by men. They will notice you, and show in somemanner that they appreciate what they see, although you will not have changedone bit since departing home, except perhaps an extra scarf and some funearrings.  It can happen any place: a tramin Milan, or on the vaporetto in Venice, that is - if youare not solely among other tourists. And if you look back, they will hold youreyes until you look away.  On thecondition, of course, that you are not accompanied by a man, say, your husband,or boyfriend.  


It was, I can say, the great discovery of my last trip to Italy, covering Venice,Padua, and Milanwith my good friend and travelmate, MJ.  Wehad done an earlier trip and were coming back as veterans of Italian customs,familiar with subways and trains, restaurants and bathrooms. The first timearound, we were so busy gazing upwards at ruins and cathedrals, and downwardsat our maps, that we saw less of the middle ground — or men. This time, MJsaid, “We’ll take our time, and wander; who knows what we’ll see.” Or, whomight see us.


So, I noticed, men were checking me out: late 40’s, andunadorned with anything remotely glamorous. Not a speck of gold, just thecostume jewelry I wouldn’t care if I lost. Same hair, same wardrobe, samewrinkles, a stubborn hold out from the relentless pressure to “get young”.  It’s essentially the same package as attwenty - height, weight, essential build — but there were signs of middle-agein hair and skin, a certain pull of gravity, some looseness in the flesh,despite the years of walking and yoga. For clothes, I’ve relied pretty much onLiz Claiborne, with J. Jill thrown in for whimsy; there’s no low-rise jeans, nomidriffs, no straps showing, flat shoes and functional make-up.  


There you have me, no candidate for a magazine cover; infact, not even under consideration. I can go days at a time being pretty muchinvisible, just for being a woman over forty without attempts to minimize theappearance of age.  My cloak ofinvisibility is sometimes so strong, I could hold my own with Harry Potter, orperhaps take up a career in espionage. It’s uncanny, and sometimes even useful. Of course, I’d been so busy inrecent years, with kids, work, house, family, I didn’t realize that I hadchanged so much.  It doesn’t seem so longago that I put on a skirt and put up my hair, and someone would be looking; itwas only natural. I cannot say I am immune to the message that young is better:ads for teeth whitening, microdermabrasion, breast augmentation, it’s all outthere, and who is it aimed at, if not me? And what does it suggest but thatsomething is wrong with me that could be fixed, if only... for only….

 But, back to Italy, andItalian men. Various men, in various situations. There was one in particular inMilan; Leonardo I’ll call him, since Milan in so many ways is the city of Leonardo da Vinci – a man whose vision Iadmire. During our visit, da Vinci’s presence was everywhere — on billboardsand posters, a museum devoted to his inventions.  This ideal man was on my mind.MJ and I had found a restaurant open early for dinner, and hadtaken our seats. Already there was a table of three men, the youngest probablythirty, the older two in their forties. Not business types, more arty looking with stylish casual clothes. Thecity intelligensia deeply engaged in conversation that I could not understand aword of.  

I looked over MJ’s shoulder, and saw that one of the men waslooking at me. When I realized it, I gave a polite smile and turned back to thecorni misto, our appetizer of grilled warm vegetables. Another sip ofwine.  After more chat with MJ, my eyeswandered the room, and again, he was looking at me. 


“Leonardo!” I said - to myself.  Of course, I didn’t know his name.  He wore his dark hair longish down his neck,and had a beard and mustache touched with gray, intense brown eyes under afurrowed brow.  In fact, he looked like acleaned up version of the statue of Leonardo da Vinci that we had seen in thepiazza across from La Scala, but nicely trimmed and without the cloak. 


I looked at this man and let my gaze meet his, so that heknew I was looking, and seeing him, too.

Then, of course, the realization that I was almost 50 andwearing a wedding ring, and not dressed for romance. What was he thinking?  I guess that my wedding ring was not a problemfor him, or that a woman out unescorted by a man was otherwise available.


The next time our eyes met eyes, I recognized the old,familiar story: did I find him interesting, as he did me?  Well, yes, but there was nothing to do aboutit.  His watching me, lightly, subtly,and my acknowledgement, became part of the pleasure of the meal — notapparent, I don’t think, to anyone else. It was a very good meal, I assure you.

Then, the men were finished ahead of us, and scraping backchairs to leave.  The business with ilconti and warm thanks to the chef (from Naples)for good food and service.  And then theywere leaving, but not before my Leonard looked back at me, as I knew he would. Ismiled fully, raising my shoulders and my eyebrows: there was nothing further;this was it.  But the truth was, I wantedto run after him, and kiss him, and say “Grazie. Grazie, Leonardo, for seeingme.”

Later in bed, I realized how much it meant to me, to be seenand appreciated, and pondered the magic that had somehow transformed me. It wasa stumper, until I lighted on to the idea of middle-aged Italian women, and howgood they looked.  At first, I didn’teven see them individually, I was so intimidated by their sense of style. Venice, Padua, Milan, yes, they do know athing or two about fashion - but it’s not like they just came off the walkway. Irealized, first of all, they dressed their age. Secondly, some very goodlooking women had wrinkles and imperfect teeth and graying hair.

 There were chins without tucks and eyeswithout lifts.  Women my age in thecities were fit enough from all the walking (or even riding bikes and Vespas),but they were not skinny.


Not until the end of the trip could I fully appreciate thatDa Vinci’s Mona Lisa was of a mature, fully grown, married woman.  A matron, not sweet or virginal.  In the mythology surrounding the painting,there is speculation that she wears dark, somber colors because she is inmourning.  She is experienced. 


This is what I found: the same me, there as here, admired or unseen.  The difference, it seems, is in the eyes ofthe beholders, and what they are conditioned to see as attractive. The reason middle-agedwomen in this country begin to feel unattractive, I suspect, is related in manyways to companies’ desire to sell anti-aging beauty products. But how about,instead, we spend the money on a trip to Italy, on our own, free ofobligations for a few days?  I promise,you will come back feeling beautiful.


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