[Spoiler warning: This article contains a ton of them.]
During the second season of Aziz Ansari’s hit Netflix series Master of None, our hero Dev and his love interest Francesca take a helicopter tour of Manhattan at night. Afterward, as they part ways, a song plays: ”Amarsi un po’,” a man’s voice croons, “è come bere. Più facile: È respirare.“ In English, the lyrics mean: To love each other a little bit is like drinking. Easier: it’s breathing. The song is all about how easy and natural it is to fall in love, and how difficult (yet necessary) it is do the everyday business of loving: quasi come volare, “like flying.”
It’s a quintessentially Italian song by an artist, Lucio Battisti, who is a cornerstone of my home country’s 20th-century pop culture canon. As I watched the scene, I could feel my chest swelling with the Proustian mix of excitement and nostalgia that gets triggered by unexpected reminders of just how much I miss Italy, and how far I am from home as I negotiate life in New York City.
But it wasn’t just cultural belonging that I found myself longing for. It was the organic way in which relationships develop in Italy—so different from the frantic, exhausting dating scene among young urban professionals in the US.
To be fair, I have some nitpicks with Master of None‘s depiction of Italy in its first two episodes. For all the nods to Italian directors Vittorio De Sica and Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian characters are mostly clichés, from the chubby child who spends his day in a white tank top hanging about with his “nonna” in a pasta shop, to the handsome but tacky young man who’s been dating Francesca for a decade but is reluctant to marry. And for a show that’s often savvy when it comes to cultural nuances, it flattens the town of Modena into a generic Italian setting, with no attention to the local parlance. “Nonna” and her two grandchildren (Francesca and Mario) are all from the same town, yet they all have different accents—none of which sounds like Modenese.
Then there’s the beautiful Francesca, who is barely more than a sketch of a character. As New York Magazine recently observed, “Francesca never seems to transcend being Italian as her main personality trait. She introduces Dev to Italian music and Italian film and Italian literature. She teaches him to dance the twist and explains art to him.” Perhaps, as a colleague suggested, the show is trying to portray her character through the flat lens of a man (Dev) who idolizes a very pretty woman he doesn’t really know that much about. Either way, she winds up seeming more like Dev’s fantasy of the kind of woman he might meet in Italy than a real flesh-and-blood human.
But the way the characters’ relationship unfolds over the course of the second season really did look familiar. In Italy, there’s not really a formal dating scene. Typically, you meet someone through friends, or school, or some other way, and get to know them over time, without the immediate pressure of deciding whether or not you’re meant to be a couple. There are no rules about what’s too much or too little texting, and not as much urgency to define a relationship. If someone is romantic with you, the expectation is that they are romantic only with you—no need to have the talk about whether to be exclusive. The emphasis is more about looking for love and less about looking to be in a relationship, which means that people are generally more open with each other and less concerned about having options on the side.
Not so in the US. When I moved to New York four and a half years ago, I was confused when people would ask me, “Are you dating?” I thought they were wondering whether I had a boyfriend. I soon realized that was not it: They were asking if I was going on dates, a concept that was completely alien to me. At the time, I couldn’t think of anything less conducive to romance than going out with a semi-stranger (or, more often, a series of semi-strangers) with the sole purpose of looking for some 恋の予感 (koi no yokan in Japanese, or “the sense that you may fall in love with this person, sometime in the future”).
Masters of None captures that mindset with its episode devoted to Dev’s adventures in online dating, which cuts between Dev’s dates with a variety-pack of women on different nights, but all at the same restaurant. This detail perfectly encapsulates the transactional, fast-paced nature of modern-day dating, as does Dev’s formulaic three-step escalation of dates: first the restaurant, then to a rooftop bar, then to the car, and then home (hopefully together). There’s no excitement in the meetings. Conversations feel like interviews. Dev makes a move to kiss the women more out of routine than any real urge.
People date this way because they see it as a means to an end. And so finding a romantic partner becomes an interview process in which you’re trying to fill the position of “person to be in a relationship with,” narrowing down the potential candidates until you find one that—forgive the cynicism—ticks the most boxes. (It may be that English is my second language, but the expression “being in a relationship” seems terribly pragmatic and somewhat transient—little to do with “being in love.”)
I had been living here less than two years when a woman I barely knew, during a work discussion on relationships for a story, scolded me, telling me that I needed to “be deliberate about dating” because, at 32, I was running out of time. “You can’t wait to ‘meet-cute’ in the farmer’s market if you want to get married and have a family,” she said. I hadn’t heard of the expression ”meet cute”—but it was indeed what I’d been waiting for.
Soon after I gave in to the New York approach to romance. I have been on more dates than I care to remember. I have had some fun times and more boring times. I’ve been ghosted, had good conversations, many great meals, and a lot of awkward silence. But I have fallen in love—or even developed a real crush—exactly zero times.
“What is lukewarm?” Francesca asks Dev when they are on the helicopter. Dating in New York, Francesca—that’s what’s lukewarm. Spending time with a series of people you could do just fine without. Everyone is utterly disposable. In one scene, Dev admits to his date that he sends an identical message to every woman he matches with on the app: “I’m going to Whole Foods. Need me to pick you up anything?” A decent line to impress a decent stranger.
Of course, people fall in love with someone they met online every day. But I think this happens despite, not because of, the way they met.
Watching Dev and Francesca walk around Storm King and dance a twist reminded me of exactly why the Italian romantic in me really can’t resign to the industrialization of love-hunting. At the end of the episode, I deleted the dating apps I had on my phone. I do this routinely—then remember the woman telling me that I can’t wait around and hope to “meet cute,” and download them again. This time, I think I may really be done.
“It’s causing me so much stress I can feel it in my chest, I can physically feel pain here!” Dev says to Arnold, upon realizing he’s fallen for Francesca. ”But, at the same time, it’s amazing, it’s like we’ve been living in this fantasy—and if I make a move and it doesn’t go well, the fantasy is over.”
I remember exactly the emotions Dev describes—the confusion and the chest pain have preceded any love I’ve ever had. It’s unbelievably scary to have a fantasy and risk the possibility that it will burst. To actually care.
It’s difficult. You know, quasi come volare.