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Hip Huggers


The Free Hug Campaign, that grass roots touchy-feely freebie movement, has made its way to Italy.

If you haven’t been following the margins of the news (and anything that doesn’t involve death, catastrophe, corruption is always in the margins), it all started in Australia a couple of years ago.

Try and watch the original You Tube video and not get a virtual warm fuzzy. Impossible. A suitably bo-ho looking guy (no one knows who he really is) with long hair and a velvet jacket goes around a shopping mall with a big sign that says, “Free Hugs.”

In the beginning, there are no takers. He just wanders around, looking slightly deranged, with the sign. Then a shrunken old lady in a track suit with a bunch of bags nearly walks past him and you can kind of see her internal dialogue (“why the hell not?”) and hugs him. The video goes from black-and-white to color and shows our tactile hero embracing pretty girls, skateboarders, businessmen etc. Warmth of human kindess, healing touch, sharing and caring. It’s better than a Coca-Cola commerical.

The myth has it that Italians touch a lot. You step off the tarmac at Fiumicino in Rome and, oh my god, your behind is probably being pinched by a succession of swarthy men as in some kind of continental lei ceremony. Then, you go to buy bread or a newspaper and people kiss you!

It doesn’t exactly work like that. Touching in the Bel Paese is circumscribed and ritualized. You meet someone and shake hands. You leave, shake hands. Closer friends, male and female, (more rarely colleagues or in business) cheek kiss upon greeting and leaving. But the cheek kiss involves a lot less touching than, say, your average American hug.

Italians aim a peck right, then left while keeping the other person more or less at hand-shaking distance. That’s it. Usually, though it’s not quite that whooshy air-kissing thing, it’s a brush. (For more than that, apparently, you have to pay).

Every time I go back to the U.S. I brace myself for the hugging thing. It is not circumscribed. There isn’t really a ritual. It is big and messy and no one ever knows which side to lunge from or how much of an embrace or how long it should last and you inevitably end up with a big armful of someone that you weren’t really expecting or alarming physical proximity you’d actually rather not have.

That’s what perplexes me about this hugging business. Italians are always keen to adopt what they see as trends from abroad, especially the Anglo world. (I’m not immune to it, you’ll occasionally find me clogging the streets on a Critical Mass bike ride, our local version takes place once a week on Thursday nights.)

If “free hugs” catches on, then it just may be awkward hugs all around here, too. Watch the Italian version of the free hug video and you’ll see what I mean: two attractive young women in black tops and jeans on a boardwalk in Southern Italy have no shortage of punters for free embraces. Young men, old men, the guy selling mussels, tourists, ambulance drivers. The civilized cheek kiss may be on its way out.

Share  Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 6:00 PM | Permalink

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