The man who taught me even feminists like a touch of chivalry
21:50 GMT, 29 August 2012
The first time that my future husband did it, I nearly walloped him for playing a practical joke on me.
‘What the hell are you doing’ I hissed, as other diners in the restaurant looked on. ‘Are you trying to break my coccyx I could have landed on my bottom!’
Poor Cornel looked aghast. You see, he wasn’t joking. He’d merely tried to do something no man had done for me before: pull out my chair for me to sit down.
Back then, six years ago, we had just met and were enjoying the dating phase of romantic meals in nice restaurants. I found him funny, charming and witty, but one thing about him made me feel rather uncomfortable — his manners.
True gent: Julie with her husband Cornel who was the first man to treat her like a lady
On that first date, when it was time to leave the restaurant, he held up my coat behind me for me to slip my arms into. His solemn face remained a picture of dignified charm while I ruined it by collapsing into a fit of giggles.
‘Give me my coat,’ I said. ‘This isn’t Pride And Prejudice.’
Cornel half-laughed, too, but I could see a flicker of doubt in his eyes that said: You, madam, are no lady.
Before Cornel, no man had ever helped me into my coat or pulled out my chair — unless it was an office joke and I was supposed to fall on my behind.
Men opening doors for women happened in romantic films starring Colin Firth, not in real life.
Besides, I didn’t really feel deserving of such acts of chivalry. After a hard day at the office I could usually be found in the local hostelry downing goldfish bowl-sized glasses of Pinot Grigio while joking raucously with my colleagues.
If a man had offered his seat to me on
the train, I'd probably have said: “Do I look so fat you think I’m pregnant or something”
If a man had offered his seat to me on the train, I’d probably have said: ‘Do I look so fat you think I’m pregnant or something’
A lady I was not. I could drink a man under the table. I ate sandwiches as I ran down the street.
Then I met Cornel. He had a good sense of humour, but there was something quietly dignified about him, something old-worldly.
If we walked together, he’d go on the outside of the pavement. If we entered a restaurant or bar, he’d always hold the door open for me.
At first, frankly, it felt odd. I wondered: was it just a cultural difference because he was from Romania Certainly, no British boyfriend had ever acted this way.
On my very first date with a boy, as a naive 17-year-old, I’d dressed up to the nines. My teenage boyfriend picked me up in his battered car but, en route to our evening out, he stopped off at a farm to lay mole traps. (I grew up near the New Forest.)
Fairytale: For many women, gentlemanly behaviour is confined to novels and films like Pride and Prejudice
From then on, I’d believed romantic, chivalrous men were simply make-believe.
So, meeting Cornel was akin to coming
face-to-face with a strange being from a fairy story. I’d cringe when a
waiter brought my meal and Cornel would utter ‘For the lady . . . ’ or
insisted on trying the wine, while I had to trust his opinion.
Women of my generation were taught to
believe that accepting gentlemanly actions was a slap in the face to
our hard-won feminism. It seemed I was betraying the sisterhood.
But as time elapsed, something happened to me. Shameful as it was, I began to enjoy this feeling of being a little bit cosseted — it made me feel, dare I say it, feminine.
Many men would say: 'If women acted more like ladies, we'd act more like gentlemen'
And slowly, I began to change. I stopped ordering goldfish bowl-sized glasses, and shoving sandwiches down my throat as I raced along the pavement. I’d feel at ease as Cornel held my coat for me. I even started buying dresses. In short, I became more ‘ladylike’ — because I felt I was being treated like one.
A recent survey of more than 2,000 men found that there’s now a breed of man called the New Age Knight.
Good conversation appeared to be more important than a kiss for 73 per cent of the men surveyed, and half made sure they arrived at the date first to greet their companion.
The survey suggested that old-fashioned, gentlemanly manners are coming back into vogue in Britain.
However, I’ve not seen many New Age Knights in public. Most men I see think nothing of letting a door slam in a woman’s face, and I’ve seen some with their faces stuffed in a newspaper, engrossed in a film on their laptop or even pretending to be asleep rather than let some poor, about-to-burst expectant mother have their train seat.
Chivalrous: Julie's husband always carries her bags for her (posed by models)
A few weeks ago, I saw a woman struggling to push her trolley-load of food to the car while her husband sauntered ahead, talking on his mobile.
I’ve often wondered whether this behaviour is a British thing. Not only is Cornel from Romania, but we’ve lived on and off in Italy. There, I’ve seen men carrying flowers home to their wives, holding doors and lighting women’s cigarettes.
Cornel says there are plenty of non-gents in Romania as well, but he was taught from a young age to let women sit down and to kiss their hands as a greeting.
Of course, it takes two to tango. Many men would say: ‘If women acted more like ladies, we’d act more like gentlemen.’
And perhaps they are right. I used to scoff at kindly men offering their chair or letting me go first through a door. The cynical part of me would think they were after something.
So can we blame men for not bothering to be chivalrous, faced with this sort of reaction
My evolution into a ‘lady’ wasn’t easy. At first, I felt an utter fraud, sauntering behind while my husband opened doors for me. The first time we took a taxi, he sprinted round to my side to help me out.
‘I’m not geriatric,’ I guffawed. His hurt expression made me realise I should have just kept my mouth shut.
I realised then it wasn’t a political issue. It didn’t mean I was a Stepford Wife or betraying feminism in some way. He was just being kind.
Six years after our first meeting, though I can’t profess to always being a lady, I can categorically say Cornel is always a gent. On the rare nights we go out — we’re married with a toddler — he’ll still hold doors open and pull out chairs. The other day, after doing the weekly shop, we had a tiff. But he still insisted on taking the heavy bags I was carrying.
It took a few years to feel comfortable with always being treated this way. But ask me if I’d rather have a gent who occasionally makes me blush or a man who saunters ahead while I struggle with the shopping, I’d take the gentleman every time.