The first time I walked around Marco’s house without shoes or socks on I thought his mother was going to faint. I hadn’t the faintest idea why – my feet weren’t even that dirty!
She scurried away and was back with the worst pair of slippers I’ve ever seen. They were pink with little purple hearts sewn on top, adding another layer to the toes.
“Here, wear these, she said, satisfied, now you won’t be cold!”
Did I mention it was August?
I’ve come to learn that his mom’s reaction was completely normal. Though it’s partly because Italians wear house shoes year round, it’s mainly because they believe that having cold feet is the equivalent to licking a sick persons tonsils – you will get cold and you will die. Or at least, catch a bad cold. At the time it was a mild August and the ceramic floors in their house aren’t conducive to staying warm. Marco’s mom was trying to protect me.
Still, it didn’t take long to be admonished for other health-related faults.
“Cover your throat!” “Blow dry your hair!” And don’t even get me started on “digestive issues.” (which is so extensive that I’ve decided to leave it out of this post all together, largely because I’m still learning). When I was eating enough pasta to feed a small whale I politely said that I was having some issues, that maybe I’d just eat a little salad for dinner instead. The response? “Are you sure? Isn’t salad a little heavy?” Ya can’t win.
Though I make fun, there are many of these Italian philosophies on health that I’ve somehow assimilated during my time here, against my best logical intentions. When I asked Marco the symptoms to cervicale without sarcasm, I knew I was in deep.
And yet, I can’t shake it. If an entire nation truly believes these and follows these things, maybe it’s worth knowing about. So without further ado
Everyday Italian Sicknesses to Avoid Like the Plague (but that aren’t the plague)
Called a colpa d’aria in Italian, this sneaky little guy is why Italians (and, I hear, the French) wear scarfs from late September to May, and sometimes on a windy summer night. Colpa d’aria is a hit of cold air to your throat. The sinister air will immediately dry your throat, it will cause sniffles and pain, your throat will be so sore you can’t swallow and we all know that all this leads to even greater sicknesses. For years I scoffed – weak! – now I gasp at my American friends whose necks are exposed after sunset. How little they know!
This article from The Florentine explains it perfectly: “Getting hit by air when you are sweaty is the worse thing that can happen. It’s very bad for you.” Take notes!
To take cold
Along with the colpa d’aria, you must be very very attentive that you don’t “prendere freddo*” that is, get cold. If you happen to allow the cold to hit you it can cause the common cold, the flu or, worse, indigestion. And we’re not talking about any old indigestion here but full on, drink hot water with sugar in it to make you burp, can’t poop for days or can’t stop pooping kind of indigestion, the most diabolical of Italian illnesses. So cover up, don’t go barefoot and be sure to cover your stomach well after eating, that’s when you’re most susceptible!
*Actually, this one seems to be real. This WIRED article is in Italian, but the study completed by Yale Professor, Akiko Iwasaki, finds that our natural immunity against the rhinovirus is weakened in cold temperatures. Smarty pant Italians!
Made famous by a pair of Italian comedians, “squaraus” is actually a fake word, one lovingly used to replace the oh-so-unpleasant diarrhea. If you eat too much and then “take cold” you will get squaraus. You will get squaraus and you will die. Well, you won’t die but we all know it’s unpleasant. Though I can’t relate (luckily!) this is one of my favorites simply because it’s hilarious to say and especially hilarious watching my Italian friends run around like worried chickens pulling their hair and saying “squaraus!” while they try to find warmth so that in one hour they won’t be running around holding their stomachs while they try to find a bathroom.
Pronounced churr-veee-cahl-eh (think hooked-on-phonics, not linguistics) cervicale is actually the seven vertebrae of the spinal cord that support the head and allow it to move. That is, the neck. In layman’s terms cervicale is used to refer to any sort of problem or disturbance of this area – more correctly “cervicaglia.”
I had heard this “cervicale” excuse used multiple times for why someone wasn’t well, usually as they rubbed their neck or temples, but really just assumed they meant “headache.” While cervicale often causes headaches it’s really so much more than that. Especially prominent in the winter because of the cold and humidity, symptoms are a rigidness in the muscles of the upper back and neck, a headache that can also be in the forehead and over the eyes, problem with sight, lightheadedness, muscle contractions …. you get the idea.
Leave it to Italians to not only have a fancy-schmancy name, but to use it widely and knowingly, giving it enough importance that you can use it to call off work. Funny, because real cervicale can only be diagnosed with x-rays or an MRI. Apparently cervicale actually does exist, but I think us in the Midwest just consider it another one of those things are dads tell us to “walk off.” It’s sleeping funny, it’s a sore back, it’s allergies, or most likely, it’s “life.”
Change of seasons
This is the most recent of my conversions. I’d heard of the ubiquitous change in seasons effects, but never fully experienced them, or perhaps never noticed. This year I had a solid ten days of exhaustion. No matter what I did or how much I attempted to sleep I still felt bone tired, my eyes heavier than even allergies usually caused. Probably I was just fighting off some sort of end-of-winter infection, but when I told Marco’s parents they both nodded knowingly. “Yeah,” they shrugged, “It’s the change in seasons,” His mother added that she felt the same.
I ignored it until recently when I began to feel lightheaded. My head spun every time I stood up, like it didn’t weigh enough, and my eyes couldn’t focus well enough for the lightheadedness. One day I woke up to do yoga and instantly started in a cold sweat, tiny black dots covering my vision. I ended up on the couch to rest with a series of cracks in my cured nonchalance. It was unnerving.
The next day I told a colleague of mine about my strange yoga experience. His response? “Oh yeah, it’s the change in seasons!”
They say if you can’t beat them, join them….
“So it is,” I responded.