The Perils of Being Italian
As much as I would have liked to politely ignore the obvious incongruity, I simply couldn’t let it pass. “May I ask why you’re wearing a scarf wrapped around your neck…in Miami…in August…in the middle of the afternoon?”
My Italian friend, just off the plane on her Florida vacation, seemed unfazed by the question and answered me in a very matter-of-fact way. “I was hit by the air yesterday.” The perplexed look on my face must have betrayed my confusion, so she persisted, “Un colpo d’aria,” as if it was the most obvious thing. “Come si dice in inglese?”
I had no idea what the hell she was talking about or how to translate it into English. My Italian was (and still is) bad, but this wasn’t really a linguistic issue. The fact is, we don’t have a word for it in English because it’s an “illness” that doesn’t exist in our culture.
This incident happened about four years ago, but it sparked an odd sort of obsession for me—it has become my mission to unravel and attempt to explain all of the bizarre ailments that are endemic to the citizens of the Bel Paese.
I’ll give you another example: the fanatical avoidance of bathing for at least four hours after eating. In this case, language differences clouds the issue even further. In Italian, you don’t really say “nuotare,” to indicate that you’re going swimming, you say “fare un bagno.” Which is the same phrase used to say, “take a bath,” as in the bathtub. When someone once told me that he couldn’t take a bath because he had just eaten “only” two hours ago, I assumed that he meant that he didn’t want to swim in the ocean.
This almost made sense, because he could (in theory) get a stomach cramp and drown. A long shot, yes, but I used to hear my own grandmother dispense this same advice when I was a child. However, he was literally talking about taking a BATH…in the BATHTUB, for God’s sake! Where precisely does the danger lurk, I ask you? What’s even more incredible is that this perceived risk is further extrapolated to include the shower. Oh, the perils of eating before showering, my friends!
Speaking of eating, I’ve also discovered a national anxiety over one’s digestion. The typical conversation goes something like this:
“How was your dinner last night?”
“Very good, and I had no problems digesting it.”
Well, that’s interesting, but probably more information than I needed. By the way, how are you urinating these days? And are you perspiring without discomfort? Is your swallowing satisfactory, as well? Great, glad to hear it.
Some restaurants, particularly pizzerias, have a habit of advertising their product as “Alta Digeribilità,” highly digestible, as if this quality above all is required of a pizza. Now don’t get me wrong, I too would prefer to digest my pizza sooner or later. But I can think of at least a dozen different adjectives that I would seek out before being swayed by the digestibility quotient or whatever. How about delicious, authentic, natural, fresh, “goes well with beer?” These seem logical, no?
In fact, let’s move the discussion to beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages. One afternoon, I was at an enoteca relishing an incredible glass of Super Tuscan when an Italian friend of mine walked in. After greeting him, I offered to buy him a glass of the sublime nectar that I was presently enjoying. His response was, “No, thank you, I haven’t eaten much today.”
“Yeah, so? What’s the problem?”
He scoffed, “Well, I never drink wine without food.”
Now, to the Anglo-American way of thinking, this makes absolutely no sense. Drinking on an empty stomach is, in fact, the very best type of drinking. The alcohol goes straight to your brain, unimpeded by the aforementioned digestion of food. However in Italy, alcohol goes with things and drinking simply to get drunk is not an acceptable form of recreation, it seems.
But I disagreed and I told my friend as much. “You’re kidding me. Besides, I see lots of drunken people in Rome.”
“Yes, but look at them more closely,” he replied, “they’re all English expats or German tourists. Or American college students. Not Italians.”
He had a point, I admit. Indeed, when it comes to eating and drinking, I’ve begun to see the light. I don’t claim to understand all of these subtle nuances, but I’ve learned to accept on faith anything that an Italian tells me about food.
I often discuss these observations with some of my English-speaking colleagues at work. It has been a source of a few good jokes among us. Then one day last year, an Australian co-worker of mine called in sick—he had to go see a doctor because of a dreadfully sore neck. He had no idea how it happened, but needed to seek immediate treatment.
After careful examination, the doctor gave his professional diagnosis: un colpo d’aria. Yes, twelve years of medical training and the doctor’s prescription was to wear a scarf and stay out of drafts. Then again, my colleague has been living in Italy for quite a while now—maybe being Italian is contagious.