Flirting as a Measure of Civilization

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An important measure of the level of a nation's civilization is how well its citizens can flirt. Using this yardstick, Spain is very, very civilized. I thought a lot about this during my recent visit to the Basque region of northern Spain. Here, a simple hello involves a kiss on each cheek. Women of all ages carry themselves with ease and pleasurable confidence. I believe this is because they are used to receiving attention from strangers, and they are not afraid of it. Sure, there are some catcalls, but generally it feels good-natured rather than threatening. Like, my friend Michelle and I heard "Hola, fea" as we walked down the street one evening. It's a joke: it means "Hello Ugly." The man grinned and raised his glass as we passed his table at a sidewalk cafe.

I got the impression that men there expect a woman to know how to flirt. It's a social skill. They expect a woman to know what to do with an invitation to dance, a glass of wine, a half-serious proposition. It strikes me that women in Spain are confident enough to take pleasure in these kinds of exchanges without taking them particularly seriously. This is a bit different from my perception of the norm in the United States. There, flirting is often more heavy-handed and fraught with meaning. Women who enjoy making the flirt a two-sided game are seen as easy lays by men, and looked at with fear and suspicion by other women. In my new home of Saudi Arabia, of course, the Mutawah (religious police) would blow a gasket if they witnessed such behavior, and any woman involved would be labeled as a whore. Charming.

It's not fair to compare Spanish attitudes about gender and sexuality to Saudi Arabian; it's just too ridiculous. Talk all you want about the Moorish influence on southern Spain, but the life that is being lived in the shadows of all that gorgeous Islamic architecture is nothing, nothing like life on the ground in Saudi Arabia. In Spain, nudity (on the beach, in art, in advertising) is seen as beautiful, and also as normal and not particularly noteworthy. Sure, sex sells. My impression, though, is that there is a fairly universal recognition in Spain of the human form as a lovely thing, and not something to be snickered at or denigrated. To react at all to a topless woman on the beach, for example, would be the utter height of loutishness.

In the United States, we are considerably more skittish--the human body seems somehow a bit shameful. A beautiful woman in a tiny bathing suit might well get some rude and unwanted attention, including catty remarks by other women. The female body is the ultimate advertising sales tool in the U.S.: it is appealing, and also naughty. An irresistible combination! And a rather schoolboyish attitude.

In Saudi Arabia, Muslim women are expected to cover themselves completely in a long, billowing black robe (even when temperatures top 130 degrees fahrenheit.) Not only is the female body off-limits in art and advertising, but even women's faces are blurred out in posters and print ads. They look like they've been photographed through a foggy window, or else their face is heavily pixellated so as to be unrecognizable. Possibly this could be construed as a way to use the mysterious feminine "mystique" to sell widgets. But it also points to amazingly unsophisticated gender relations. Men are unaccustomed to actually seeing women and interacting with them on the street and in everyday life. So there is this notion that the very sight of bare skin would send a man into a rage of adolescent lust. It's laughable--and pathetic.

All this rumination (and admitted over-generalization) about flirting around the world was pleasantly instigated by a night out with my friend Michelle. I met Michelle at yoga teacher training earlier this year in India, and recently we spent a week traveling together around the northern coast of Spain. A couple of those days were happily whiled away in San Sebastian, the urbane sea resort just south of the French border on the Atlantic coast. That night, we had a gorgeous dinner at a little restaurant in the cobblestoned section of town called Parte Vieja (according to Lonely Planet, Parte Vieja has more bars per square meter than anywhere else on earth). We lingered for three hours over a meal that included cod in a traditional, thickened olive oil sauce called "pil-pil," an arrangement of perfectly steamed fresh vegetables, and a light, naturally fizzy bottle of white wine. We talked about the definition of love, the meaning of marriage (Michelle is a newlywed), and the role of religion in shaping sexuality. You know, normal dinner conversation for a girls' night out!

We were just finishing our desserts (profiteroles for me, and an impossibly moist apple cake for Michelle), when a gentleman from the table across the way approached us. He said that he and his seven friends were out celebrating the fact that one of them had just become a professional golfer. He invited us to join them at their table for a drink. This was a very nice restaurant, and the table of men looked respectable enough. Plus, it was clear that they were already having a riotously good time. Michelle and I accepted his invitation.

We joined the eight men, all from Barcelona, at their table. Before we could sit, every one of them greeted us, all of us craning across the big table full of dishes and glassware for kisses on both cheeks. As we finally took our seats, the ringleader admitted that their friend was not actually a professional golf player and in fact had played the worst game of all of them that day. Our "pro golfer" graciously admitted that this was so, and they continued busting each others' chops, in between asking us about ourselves.

The group had travelled to San Sebastian for a weekend of golfing. They go somewhere to golf every year, and have done so for over ten years. Michelle currently lives in Aranda de Duero, a small town pretty much out in the middle of nowhere, a couple of hours north of Madrid. When the group learned this, one of them teased her about it. He said that next year, if the money is good, they plan to go to Pebble Beach to play golf. If it's not a good money year, they'll go to Aranda de Duero. A couple of them have been to Saudi Arabia on business, and they did not joke about it. The fact that I live there drew the now-familiar sharp inhales and queries about how I manage. 

When the gents learned that Michelle and I are yoga teachers, well, that tipped the merriment right off the scale. I mean, now we all had a great story to tell: we had drinks with eight men! They spent the evening with two American yoga instructors! Sweet! I told them how good yoga can be for golfers, improving focus and concentration and balance. One of them took his shoes off and made a show of flinging a shoe over each shoulder. I told him to stand up so I could teach him the tree posture. So we stood in the middle of the (now otherwise empty) restaurant and did the tree. Except he kept tipping over on purpose. 

Later, they paid their bill and invited us to join them for a drink down the street. We said sure, and all of us headed down the narrow stone alleyway to a little bar that was playing--what was that? Spanish dance hits or something. One of them ordered a round of tequila shots for everyone, and mine was in my hand and then down my throat without a second thought. I don't even like tequila shots! After the one shot, Michelle and I said that we really prefer wine, and then there was no more pressure to drink what we didn't want.

We closed down the bar (though bars in San Sebastian close surprisingly early for Spain: we were out of there by 2 a.m.) Then there was the elaborate two-cheek kissing process to say goodbye to all of them (some of them needed a double set of kisses), and we were on our way. Nobody tried to get us to go back to their hotel with them. Nobody even tried to get our contact information. It was just a fun and sociable night out in San Sebastian. I don't think a night like that would have been as lighthearted and low-pressure in the U.S. And, of course, nothing like it would ever happen in Saudi Arabia.

I know there are a million stories about those treacherous Spanish lotharios, and I'm sure most of them are true! That said, flirting itself is high art in Spain. When a man flirts with me there, I don't feel like he is insulting me or objectifying my body. It just feels like he is saying, "you are beautiful."