So I am going to discuss some quirks about Italian living. I don’t want to offend anyone (especially my Italian friends) because while the other ex-pats and I may find these customs quirky and endearing, to an Italian these beliefs are time tested and could mean the difference between life and death. That being said, before living in Italy I was blissfully unaware that the air was lurking around every corner waiting to attack me.
Growing up in northern California, I experienced a change of seasons including rain, frost and the occasional snow flurry. I went out all year round in a just a coat. I have come to learn from my Italian friends, that while this may have been an acceptable practice in California, the air in Italy is far more vicious and unforgiving.
Upon arrival, I noticed that the Parmigiani are quite an elegant and beautiful bunch. Men, women and children are decked out in their finery every day. And everyone has a beautiful scarf. I later learned that the scarf is more than a mere fashion statement. The scarf is an essential part of the Italian uniform because it is necessary to cover your neck at all times in order to maintain good health. Every man, woman, child and dog wears a scarf – all year. The scarf is not optional. The scarf is there to ward off any number of problems associated with “colpo d’aria” or getting hit by air.
Getting hit by air leads to many problems in Italy. According to Italian mores, a hit of air can cause everything from fever, aching bones, liver problems, headaches, stomach issues, neck pain and the dreaded “cervicale.” Getting hit by air is not limited to the winter months however. This explains why Italians wear the necessary scarf all year round. It is believed that even during the terribly hot and humid summer months, one must don a scarf. In the summer months, the scarf wards off getting hit by air after sweating. See if you sweat and then cool off, it will lead to the previously mentioned maladies.
When I told my Italian friends my habit of sleeping with the window open (I like cool fresh air when I sleep), they looked at me askew. “Hum” they say. “This is very American. Here you will get sick. You will get a cold.” I tried to explain that a cold is caused by a virus. A virus that does much better in closed spaces which is why people get more colds during the winter months when things are close up. So actually having the windows open will help to circulate the air and actually help me to ward off a cold. But the Italians aren’t biting. They don’t believe me.
As you may well imagine, Italians have a hostile relationship with air conditioning because it is a machine designed to literally hit you with air. Here, I am told, an air conditioner may be used if absolutely necessary during the day, but it must be turned off at night. If you leave the air conditioner on all night you may well end up with pneumonia and die. I haven’t had the courage to tell them that we leave the air conditioner off during the day and turn it on at night so that we can sleep.
As mentioned previously, getting hit by air causes a particular illness called “cervicale.” Cervicale translates as “cervical” which made me immediately think of a pap smear. Cervicale, however, has no relationship to the female anatomy. Cervicale refers to the vertebrae in the neck. Getting hit by air will lead to headaches and stiff necks. Somehow I think this malady was promulgated by Italian chiropractors and scarf makers, but snicker as I do, cervicale is a serious ailment in Italy that many people suffer from. And if you venture out without the appropriate neck wear, you will be scolded by older women on the street, shopkeepers, and cafe owners. Friends will tell you that you must stop this practice immediately. The air in Italy is different and one must adapt.
I had one friend here tell me that the reason that my daughter and I kept getting ill was because we were not properly dressed. I assured her that the allergist and asthma specialist told me that the reason we were sick was because Parma lies in a valley and the air pollution was at fault. “No,” she told me. The doctor doesn’t know what she is talking about. We are sick because we were not protecting ourselves against the colpo d’aria. See, in addition to the scarf, I had failed my daughter by not requiring her to also wear a ”maglia della salute” or a shirt of health – commonly known in the USA as an undershirt. This is another protection from the aforementioned hit of air.
Air plays such a big part in Italian health that a doctor once prescribed “a change of air” for my friend’s daughter’s skin rash. She was told that if she took her daughter to the beach for a week, her rash would clear up. She went. The rash cleared up. Coincidence? Maybe the rash just ran its course? Who cares? The doctor ordered her to spend a week at the beach. That is my kind of prescription!
Air also plays a vital role at the pool because one must never, and I mean never, go outside with wet hair. At the pool one must wear a cuffia or a swim cap. After exiting the pool one should dry their hair – even though they may have been swimming all day. You must dry your hair during the summer when drying your hair is a moot point because once you walk outside your entire body is wet anyway from the humidity. If you don’t dry your hair, you risk getting cervicale or worse.
Speaking of pools – at every public pool one finds a little puddle or foot bath that you have to walk through before entering the pool. This practice is to cleanse your feet. Never mind rinsing the rest of your body or that the foot bath is historically a puddle of filthy water due to the hundreds of other people that have gone before you, bare feet are offensive and dirty. Never mind that after the foot bath, one’s feet are actually more dirty than before you started. You must wash your feet.
And you must wait a minimum of 2 or 3 hours after eating before swimming. If you don’t wait the requisite time, you risk your entire body cramping up and drowning. Because your body is digesting food, there is no energy to make your limbs work properly and you will drown. I have assured many Italians that in California we have dinner parties and B.B.Q.’s by the pool. We even have day long swim meets where food is served. Adults and children alike swim, jump out, eat, jump back in . . . all day long. And I have never once experienced this phenomenon of a full body cramp. It doesn’t matter, here in Italy it is not advised and one must adapt to the local customs.
I have a friend here who is Italian. She is married to an American. She told me that her belief that her children would drown if they went swimming before 2 hours passed after eating was so strong that she and her husband had huge fights over this issue. They finally went to a pediatrician for his advice. She told him that the disagreement was causing great strife in her marriage. The pediatrician was the final arbiter. The pediatrician was Italian. She was sure that he would come down on her side. The pediatrician told her that it was fine for her kids to swim after they ate. She still doesn’t believe it.
I had a pool party for my daughter. I served snacks and birthday cake. The Italian kids would not go back in the pool until the requisite 2 hours had passed. I tried to explain that the party would be over then and that there was a life guard, but no, they were adamant in their belief and steadfast in their refusal to swim again. Later, their parents told me of the many cases where children have died from swimming before two hours was up. I explained the California swim meet/party/dinner phenomenon. The answer, “Ah, yes, well, the air is different in California.”
And to an extent they are right – the air in California is different than Italian air, simply because of its geographic location. So, maybe they have a point? I can say that I have grown very accustomed to wearing a scarf and now I miss it when it is not there. I have even taken to wearing one around the house when no one is looking. So, ha! Take that colpa d’aria! Interestingly, I am still having respiratory problems???