Catching a Cold: Italian Style

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It’s that time of year again. No, I am not referring to Christmas. I am talking about cold and flu season. The time of year my germaphobe self particularly loathes. If you thought being a germaphobe was a hard knock lifestyle in America, it’s a downright torturous in Italy. You see, Italy has some rules and ideas about sickness that we don’t prescribe to as Americans. And, as such, it means that one, there are more germs floating around than there should be, and two, the modes of catching said germs are entirely different. So, in honor of the inevitable sniffles, I give you: Rules about getting sick in Italy

Rule #1: Ambient temperature is arbitrary; it’s the months that matter. Starting October 1 everyone should immediately begin covering their neck and toes. Want to look like an American in Italy? Wear flip-flops in October. It doesn’t matter if it is 90 degrees with a UV index of 10; you better cover up because this month marks the beginning of the cold weather months. The powers responsible for sickness wake-up from their summer slumber, ready to infect anyone who might…

Rule #2: Get hit by air
Literally called a hit of air, coplo d’aria is a real thing. Lest you leave your house with a morsel of skin showing, this powerful phenomenon will find you and you will of course immediately be rendered ill. How ill? Well that depends how foolish you were. That 90 degree October day when you decided shorts and a t-shirt were oh-so-right? Wrong. Pneumonia is certainly in your near future.

Rule #3: Speaking of getting hit by air, be sure you never, ever prendi freddo. This “taking of cold” can happen from something as simple as drinking ice water or riding your motorino with your stomach exposed.

Rule #4: You may suffer from cervicale. This serious sounding aliment is actually a vague description for a cold/aching neck. It is entirely different from sleeping on your neck wrong and developing and kink, this ailment is brought on almost exclusively by exposure. How to avoid it? Never leave your home with wet hair and don’t even think about going out without a scarf!

Rule #5: Let’s all talk about poop. Bowel movements in Italy are an indication of health (to be fair, I should have realized this one, my Italian grandfather used to start every conversation with, “How are you?” immediately followed by, “Did you poop today?”). It’s not unusual to have a discussion with your friends about your intestinal function. Also, if you get the vague American “stomachache”, a word we use to describe a manner of ailments from heartburn to raging diarrhea, be prepared to get specific. One time after a horrible food poisoning incident, I was tactfully recounting the day to my friends. Truthfully, I had spent the entire day vomiting every 15 minutes but I told them I was “sick with a stomach bug.” Instantly, I was bombarded with questions. Was it my intestines that hurt or my stomach? My liver? Maybe my neck was exposed or I walked barefoot at home? Did I have cervicale? Had I drank ice water recently? Before this, I had no idea that I was supposed to be able to feel every one of my digestive organs and pinpoint the exact cause of my distress.

Rule #6: Germs don’t cause illnesses, exposure does. This goes back to rule #1 but it deserves its own point because for a germaphobe, this is the most difficult thing for me understand. You see, when I am sick, I wash my hands, take care not to infect others etc. Italians, due to the overwhelming belief in rule #s 2-4 don’t feel the same way. Sneezing into their hands and then shaking yours? No biggie, just make sure your neck and stomach are covered!

Rule #7: Your liver, get to know it intimately. In Italy your liver is a very fickle organ. One day, it can hurt, the next it can cause you to eat like gaining 40 lbs. is your New Year’s resolution. The same liver can cause you to lose weight, give you acne, mess up your period and generally wreak all manner of hell upon your life. Before moving here, I was vaguely aware that I had a liver and it did cool things like allowing me to drink wine. Now I know that when I get a huge zit or gain a pound, my liver is to blame. So far, I haven’t encountered anyone who knows what to do about this tempestuous organ, minus vague indications that I should “listen to what it wants” and eat extra artichokes.

Rule #8: Antibiotics cure everything. I have never seen so many people abuse antibiotics as I do in Italy (and that’s saying something because we love antibiotics in America, too). I have watched them handed out without a prescription for someone who had a minor cough, and I have seen them taken at day 2 of a cold, before the cold even has a chance to really develop. I also have a friend who carries an old antibiotic prescription in his wallet at all times. Whenever he feels a “tickle” (due to cerivcale or cold exposure, obviously) he heads to the pharmacy for a handy candy pack of amoxicillin.

Rule #9: Any sickness can and will turn into another sickness. So, you have a cold, your life sucks for 7-10 days while your immune system fights it out. Not so in Italy. In Italy, without the proper precautions and medication, your cold, can quickly become the flu, bronchitis or diarrhea (see #5). Germs here are tricky buggers, they can morph into any random illness at any given time lest you are unprepared.

Have you ever heard of these or experienced similar stories? Please keep in mind that obviously, not ALL Italians believe ALL these rules!  A special thanks goes out to my best gal pals, S.G and C.M for their invaluable input, patient explanations and always putting up with my bare (Italian) American neck.

(photo credit: Leonid Mamchenkov)