Love and lust in the department of foreign affairs
Travel exposes us to foreign sights, tastes and sounds – and many are remarkable, yet after a while, what may surprise us even more than foreign sensations are foreign concepts.
The first time a foreign idea stopped me in my tracks was in the midst of a heady love affair in Italy in my twenties. As twentysomethings, the two of us regarded ourselves as very adult in all the ways we valued, and accordingly, after a year or so we had certain conversations about The Future.
One day he dropped a proverb into one of these conversations, which goes as follows: “mogli e buoi dei paesi tuoi”.
This basically translates as “wives and oxen from your own land”. In Italian, the proverb has a strong and satisfying rhyme. A bare approximation in modern Australian might be “girls and cows from ‘round your own house’”.
As a child of late twentieth century Australia I was gobsmacked – albeit discreetly. Not just gobsmacked because back at home I hadn’t heard boys discussing girls in terms of livestock before, but because in Melbourne, Con was with Elizabeth and Hong was with Tom. Anything went. The apparently deeply parochial notion expressed in this proverb was a seriously foreign concept.
Perhaps the comment was half said in jest. But we all know what is harbouring inside jest.
Maybe I would have expected to have a proverb of this nature laid on me if I had met this young man minding goats on an isolated mountaintop, but he was from the heart of Rome, well-educated and multi-lingual.
Anyway, that relationship went the way of most, and I came home - to marry a man from country Victoria.
In what seemed something of a statistical improbability, most of my closest friends then ended up marrying foreigners: French, English, American, Dutch and Italian. But whenever this happened I couldn’t help but think back to my Italian friend and his oxen.
As I observed and experienced more of the realities of marriage, I started wondering whether there wasn’t just a little something in what my friend had said way back then.
Extrapolating on the oxen in the original proverb, we could liken marriage to a yoke - in a good way and a bad way. A good way because it can enable two headstrong beasts to achieve things they were incapable of achieving alone. And in a bad way, in that if the creatures in it aren’t pulling together, it could become an instrument of torture.
Over time, the fact that marriage was often hard work, even for couples that seemed to having everything working in their favour, became apparent. And more generally I formed the view that, despite brief appearances to the contrary, humans are basically a mystery to each other. Maybe to confound this situation further by marrying across cultures was asking for trouble.
But being true to ideals often entails asking for trouble, and in this the ideal of romantic love is no different. So long live ideal love – but, all other things being equal, perhaps the local oxen are an easier option.
As for my Roman friend – his partner is from Sardinia.
So one would have to say that, of the two of us, he turned out the more adventurous in the partnering stakes after all.
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