The Pursuit of Manliness

Do the men where you live take off their hats for the national anthem? Do they huddle together at parties? Do they carry around huge poles wrapped with wildflowers?



When we moved from Austin to La Grange, Texas, a town of about 5,000, I was struck very quickly by how often and how clearly a line falls between things male and female. I had become so accustomed to Austin’s androgyny that hearing the word “ladies” made me snicker – then wince, once I realized people were saying it without a drop of irony.

After we’d been in town about a month, I was standing outdoors in line at the local chicken take-out and saw a new acquaintance. As I tried to engage him in conversation, he turned away, pointing and nudging me toward a pickup, where his wife sat waiting, smiling, shaking her head. What is it about small towns? Is there something about rural life that inclines it to be more sex-segregated than city life?

My husband and I recently traveled to Austria. We visited Vienna, as well as Austria’s second largest city, Graz (both fairly androgynous).  But we’d scheduled the whole trip to see a rural-only custom. In the Lungau region of the Central Alps, two towns still celebrate the feast days of their patron saints with a stunning parade of floral towers, called prangstangen. Should have known – it was a parade of manhood, too.

The tapered armatures reach some 18 feet high and are wound with garlands of local wildflowers and greenery. It takes residents weeks to make and bind the floral decorations, all strictly patterned into geometrical designs and sacred lettering (IHS – the Latinized insignia for “Jesus”).  And of course it takes a major balancing act and serious muscle to lift them. The full size prangstangen weigh 80 kilos – 170 lbs.