Our perception of what constitutes a ‘real man’ is constantly evolving. There was a time when the western hero was the paragon. A strong, brave and pure loner of unbending conviction who protected the abused and downtrodden.
Today, the definition is broader and there is less consensus. Certainly, real men have to be fair and honest. Some would argue for the additional attributes of tolerance, being open-minded to change, sensitive to the needs of others, informed, and a team player. It’s a rapidly moving target. Nonetheless, there are some measures that still come as a surprise.
The idyllic Mediterranean village of Portofino was the last place I expected to confront this issue. The town on the Italian Riviera has an azure harbor, sparkling yachts, and posh villas hanging on the verdant hillsides. It’s a smaller and more attractive Monaco. Portofino has a wide harborside square and a stone promenade along the water that is lined with umbrella shaded restaurants. The car-free side streets contain upscale galleries and boutiques.
When my traveling companion, Gabriella, and I arrived, it was one of those days, in one of those places, where the world approaches perfection. You might think you were inside a giant protective glass dome where stormy weather was impossible and the cares of life couldn’t penetrate.
After checking in, we wandered to the harbor and had a lunch salad and fresh, local anchovies. Sightseers strolled the walkway and ogled the building-size yachts. They were complemented by willowy young women in the latest designer clothes who were cruising the docks.
After eating, we joined the parade and took in the scene. Across from the town, there is a castle and cathedral atop a steep hill. Not having planned an excursion, we’d left our backpacks and gear in the room. We also wore our travel clothes: long pants and long-sleeved shirts.
Looking up, the knoll didn’t seem that high. We started on the paved path. It was a warm and sunny day. The climb was indirect and looped back and forth ducking in and out of the shade of the tropical trees.
At every bend, there was a breathtaking view. Soon, the sun and humidity started to make the air close and steamy. We could have gone back, but we’d already invested effort in achieving an elevation gain.
The trail became steeper and more serpentine. Increasingly weary and sweating, Gabriella asked, “How much further?” We could see the ramparts of the castle above us. Even though it didn’t appear to be much closer, I guessed, “Not much longer.”
The lack of backpacks meant we had no water. Looking down, we could see locals diving off a pier to float in the crystal water. If we’d been down there, Gabriella would have taken a refreshing plunge, clothes and all. We pressed on.
Tired, hot, thirsty and perspiring is a bad combination for patience. When we stopped for another rest, Gabriella wiped her dripping brow. Looking at the path still reaching up, she said in a voice tinged with vexation and exasperation, “If you were a real man, you’d have a handkerchief.”
Excuse me!!! I hadn’t received the memo saying this was the new standard for masculinity. How did we get to the point where possession of a handkerchief is the defining characteristic? We were a tad uncomfortable, but, this seemed a nuclear leap in condemnation.
Fortunately, I DID have a handkerchief. By this happenstance, my manhood narrowly escaped emasculation.
I gave it to Gabriella. She used it to wipe her wet brow, neck and arms. After wringing it out a couple of times, she felt better and we continued our ascent. We made the castle and, on the top parapet, there was a slight cooling breeze. I was relieved as I had nothing else in my pockets as insurance against further assaults on my virility.
I almost argued that the Handkerchief Test was arbitrary. However, after just dragging my friend ‘up a mountain’, the time was not right.
We survived and made it back to the pleasure of a revitalizing shower. I stocked the refrigerator with plentiful fluids.
With the newfound knowledge that real men had to carry a handkerchief, I didn’t want to be caught empty-pocketed. Gabriella offered the old one back. I wrote it off as irreclaimable and let her keep it. I faced a new challenge to replace the only one I brought.
How hard could it be to buy such an apparently essential part of a man’s vital possessions? As it turned out, damn near impossible. This incident triggered the Great Handkerchief Hunt.
For the next week, I searched small shops, large stores and local markets. Nada. You could buy an infinity of postcards, all sorts of jams, bawdy shot glasses and collectible spoons, but, not handkerchiefs.
This shortage was confounding. I speculated there had been a run on the pocket cloths so men wouldn’t be caught short and have their manliness questioned. Or, maybe Europe hadn’t yet heard this was the latest measure of a man.
Finally, on a trip to the weekly street market in Carpentras, France, I spotted decorative kerchiefs of the kind cowboys used to protect their necks from the sun. None were standard white. Rather, they had intricate red, black, white and blue designs. They were over-sized and in a pinch could serve as mini table clothes. Desperate, I couldn’t be picky. I purchased two.
Since possessing a handkerchief makes you a real man, imagine what carrying a double-sized kerchief stuffed in your pocket makes you?
The moral of the story, gentleman, is to pack extra handkerchiefs, and be on guard for new rules.
Bill Diamond lives in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and writes to try and figure it all out.