Yes, men can be grumpy, unsociable, and uncommunicative, but on occasion we can also be gentle and understanding. Indeed this is often how we are amongst ourselves when sharing our ‘toys’ – those mechanical objects that bemuse women. Two such instances occurred recently. Not with a video camera, Apple iPad or over-complex watch, but a bicycle and a spade.
I had lent my bike against the railings outside the baker. Within a few minutes, and with a baguette in my hand, I returned to see two men hunched over its back wheel gesticulating. As I approached I was greeted with warm smiles. They were seventy-year old cyclists, a common sight in France, and from the other side of the road they had spotted my Trek. It beckoned them over. They had to take a closer look and hoped that I did not mind. In fact, I felt honoured and delighted.
The bike was the model ridden by Lance Armstrong, the seven-times winner of the Tour de France. Being an American bike, examples are rare in France. I had bought it new some years earlier as an over-indulgent present to myself, and for which I used money earned from a difficult WHO mission. The two men knew their stuff and had already noted its specialist wheels, stems and handlebars, its brakes and its derailleur gears front and back, and the carbon frame. We chatted, they quietly absorbed, and then it was time to touch the bike and feel its weight. Each lifted it in turn and nodded their approval – its lightness did not disappoint them. Next, they walked round checking it from all sides and then, after warm hand shakes and generous smiles, they left.
I jumped on the bike and sped home. The odd thing was that the men’s behaviour felt totally appropriate. Admiring and touching the equipment of others, albeit strangers, is what we men unashamedly do. It is as if there is some common ownership.
And as if to confirm this aspect of men, something similar happened just last week. This time it was in England, the observer was a man in his 80s and the subject was a Joseph Bentley garden spade. I had just bought the said spade as a present for a friend in France. To save paper and time I had left the shop with the spade only partly wrapped. We were queuing for a bus. Soon I realised that the man in front had spotted the shiny stainless steel blade and its ash handle. His eyes lingered on the spade then turned to me. ‘Why had I bought it? ‘How much did it cost?’ ‘Can I hold it – I have not seen one like this since I was a teenager?’ I passed it to him and he put his hand into the ‘D’ of the handle, then ran it down the shaft, and then lightly touched the blade. Then he gave it back.
Conversation continued in the bus. He was off to buy seeds for his allotment on which he used any one of three rather ancient spades inherited from his father. There once was a very nice spade in the family, but somehow it had gone to his sister! As he got off the bus he thanked me again.
That was not the end of the story. On our way through France we stopped for a meal at a Paris café. The spade was still only partly covered and from behind the bar the owner of the café noticed the handle and shiny blade and came over to learn more. He too wanted to hold this English toy, and as he marvelled he called over the chef who came out of the kitchen, washed his hands, and touched it too. Smiles all round.
This then is how men behave. The touching and sharing is something I know well. Notice also how very little was actually said. It is enough to be as one. Would women do this? They are certainly drawn to touch and chat about soft things such as scarves and clothing and of course babies. But bikes and spades – unlikely.
Paradoxically, when the spade was finally given to my friend, he was so excited he himself could hardly touch it. But he did show it to everybody around, and the men behaved exactly as would be predicted.