Man Dies: Caught Cold in Stomach

Traveling to Italy, some visitors notice various oddities about Italian culture that seem to defy explanation.  Some are rooted in the socio-political history of the country, some are rooted in religious tradition, and others… the ones that are often the most seemingly nonsensical,  grew out of old wives tales.

One that has frustrated me for years is how Italians fear the dreaded ‘cold in your stomach’ and the almost-as-tragic ‘draft’ (colpo d’aria).  It can kill you, and the causes are many.

  • Did he swim too soon after having eaten?
  • Did he have a cold beverage on a hot day?
  • Did she leave the house with wet hair?
  • Did he sleep in an air conditioned room?

All of these things are sufficient for most self-respecting Italians to shrug and utter the word ‘Beh’ while hearing your fate, signaling to all within earshot that everyone is in agreement:  Whatever happened to you, you were asking for it!

A Californian Might Cramp Up

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, our mothers loosely passed own a twenty minute rule.  It was the amount of time we must wait before jumping back in the ocean or pool after having eaten lunch.  They worried that we might get a cramp, which could actually be a big deal in the cold Pacific Ocean with its strong currents.  Some of my friends had no such rule, while others had as much as a one hour rule.  Whatever it was, it was never respected, and never enforced.

Is there any validity to the rule?  I really cannot say.  But I am a person who spent years of his life going to the beach practically every day.  I’ve never seen it.  Not once.  And if it is going to happen, the cold Pacific waters would be the perfect place. Keep in mind that I am not talking about someone getting pulled down in the cold current.  This is something completely different.

Sound The Alarm!  They Are Swimming At 2PM!

Italians have their own ‘when to swim after you eat’ rule, and they take is very seriously.  The general rule is 2 1/2 hours.  Let’s say that slowly: TWO-AND-ONE-HALF-HOURS.  Children are raised with this rule, not being told that they risk a little cramp.  No, they risk the killer of thousands.  The Cold In The Stomach. You can get it.. and you can die!   Mothers obey the law.  Fathers live by it, Doctors defend it, and lifeguards at the beach may actually defend you from it.

This may not seem like such a big deal, but think about it like this:  You take your family on a vacation to the beach. The kids are excited.  Each day you wake up at 8:00 AM.  You have a bite to eat at 9AM, and head to the beach.

The clock starts.  The kids had food, so they are trapped by the sand, looking at the water until 11:30AM.  Lunch is at 1:00PM, so you need to start heading back by 12:30PM.  You finish lunch by 2:00PM.  The clock starts again, meaning no water until 4:30 PM.  If the kids are lucky, mom and dad may give them another hour in the water.  If not, they may deem the air too cold for swimming by that time.  Fear of the cold in the stomach means that the kids only got 1 or 2 hours in the water.  But at least they are alive, right?

Learning of the Deception

While my wife is Italian, she quickly learned of the deception she had grown up with after moving to the states.  Still, we always spent our summers in Italy.  One day at the beach, our child jumped in the water at about 2:00 PM.  Almost instantly, a lifeguard started running, as if to save her.  She cannot swim now.

It is too soon after lunch! Don’t you know she will catch the cold her her stomach?  Paola went on to say that she hadn’t had any lunch, but it didn’t matter.  It would seem that since the collective of Italy had just eaten, she could somehow catch the cold in her stomach by proxy.  We have seen it countless times.  If we are swimming at a time that doesn’t sync up correctly with cold-free times, people look at us as though we are from Mars.

Five Out of Five Doctors Agree

I’ve spoken with Italian doctors over and over, and they talk about all the medical evidence for the 2 1/2 hour rule.  In order to properly digest, we need X amount of time, and going into the water will cause the digestion to cease, thereby causing a — blah blah blah blah blah — you can die.

Each and every time I look at them and ask how it is that in my country of 300 million people, more than 20,000 kilometers of beaches, and over 10 million swimming pools, we have no such rule?  Are our doctors idiots?  Are we misdiagnosing thousands of people?  Was that jellyfish sting I got out at Zuma Beach really a symptom of the cold in my stomach?  Invariably they look at me in disbelief.  Somehow I must be misinformed, because this is a serious condition.

And Then It Hit Her… She Had Been Living a Lie

Wanna have some fun?  Take a visiting Italian to the beach, and don’t forget to bring a video camera.  Years ago we had an 18 year old girl named Catia visiting us from Italy.  One day we all went to Raging Waters, a water park just outside of Los Angeles.  We all spent the morning having a blast, and around 1:00 we had some sandwiches for lunch.

Our toddler daughter wolfed it down, and was chomping at the bit to get back in the water.  Paola and I did the same.  As we went back toward the water, we looked back and saw Catia holding back where we had been eating.  She said she didn’t feel like going back in.  We knew what was going on, of course.

All of these people will surely die!

We went on to explain that we had no such rule here, but she kept shaking her head in disbelief.  All the doctors say it, after all. Why would they if it were untrue?  Everyone knows this!  We finally gave up and said “Look at all of those people.  By this time, all of them have had something to eat.  Do you see anyone screaming in agony?  Do you see an ambulance anywhere?  We’re going back in the water, and if you want, you can stay here with your belief.”

We proceeded to go back into the water.  After about ten minutes we saw her edging closer and closer with a look of utter confusion on her face.  You could see her looking around, noticing that people were, in fact, not dropping like flies.  Finally she got to the edge of the water, and actually dipped her toe in, then quickly pulled back.  It was as though getting the toe wet would be the ultimate test.

The Trth Shall Set You Free

She was still alive.  Then she walked in to her ankles.  Still alive.  Knees.  Still alive.  Waist deep.  Still alive.  By the time she was fully in the water, she had an expression that I’ll never forget.  She had been living a lie.  She went on to enjoy the rest of the day.

On the way home that evening, she was in absolute shock.  How was this possible?  When she went back to Italy, she told people. Naturally, people told her she had just been lucky to have survived that time, but I’m pretty sure she was now cured.

There Are Easier Ways To Get Killed By The Cold

I’ve been going on about swimming, but if you want, there are far more efficient ways to off yourself.

Beware of Ice

You will find while traveling in Italy, you will not get ice in your beverage, with few exceptions.

Nowadays, the ice in your drink rule has been relaxed, but you will still see it in more remote villages.  The belief is that, especially on a hot day, ice in your beverage will cause it to get too cold.

When the super-cooled liquid comes in contact with your warm stomach, you will have caught the cold in your stomach, as if you had been swimming after having eaten.  I have had people refuse to give me ice for this reason… out of concern for me!

What I have never been able to grasp is why the same person that would refuse me ice would happily serve me a Gelato (Ice Cream) or Granita (Essentially a Slurpee).  In some twisted reasoning, that is somehow different?

Cover Your Children

In a practice that I believe borders on child abuse, you will find that many Italian mothers believe that they must always dress their children in warm clothing, even in blistering summer heat.  Go to Rome on a 95 degree day, and you will see women pushing strollers with toddlers that are dressed for winter.

Their stomachs must be completely covered to protect them from the cold in the stomach, and the rest of their body (especially the neck) must be protected from the draft.  That same mother will then hop in the car and let her toddler roam free with no car seat, and no seat belt.  Perhaps all of the extra clothing will protect them in a crash?

Air Conditioning “Fa Male”

Now we are getting away from the cold in your stomach, and into the realm of the ‘draft’.  Air conditioning is gaining more and more popularity in Italy, but when we remodeled our house ten years ago, we were the first in our area to have it.  Growing up in Southern California, I never knew life without central air.  But when I first liven in Italy, it was prohibitively expensive.

People used to say that they didn’t have a/c because ‘fa male’, meaning it is bad for you.  Falling prices have made it popular, so it appears that they meant to say ‘it is bad for your wallet’.  Anyhow, Having air conditioning is one thing.  Using it… well, that is quite another thing.

Air conditioning produces cold air.  As long as you are moving around, apparently you are fine.  But at night, when you are laying still, you have a problem. The warmer the ambient temperature without the a/c, the worse the problem.

The cold air will come in contact with you (pray to God it is not your stomach!), and you will get the  ‘colpo d’aria’.. the draft.  While not likely to kill you, you are certain to wake with temporary paralysis that can last days.  You will likely suffer from a bad case of Bronchitis, and life will be utterly miserable.  Is it worth it?

Some will argue that you risk a similar fate if you turn on a fan or open the window, so take such risks a fair amount of caution ;-).  Now try to imagine living life in the hot summer with no a/c and closed windows! Doesn’t suffocation ‘fa male’ ?   In fact, you will find a very small selection of ceiling fans in Italy!

2019 Update: Air Conditiong No Longer Will Kill You!

It seems that over the years, the “Split” air conditioner brought the price way down.  Suddenly, over the past 10 years, everyone is getting them, and somehow they are no longer going to kill us!  The new saying is “fa male a chi non c’e’ l’ha” (It is bad for whomever doesn’t have it).

Wet Hair At The Beach: OK!  Wet Hair At Home: Beware!

I used to own a motorcycle in Italy.  I would wake up in the morning, get showered, get ready, and ride into town. My hair would still be a little wet, since I have always had short hair. People would look at me as though I had been skydiving with a hefty bag as a parachute.

That crazy American!  He’s certainly going to get himself sick or die from the draft with wet hair!  So i would ask:  What do you do when you are at the beach?  When you have been swimming, do you run somewhere to blow dry your hair?  How on earth do you survive otherwise?  The universal response:  Beh, that’s different.  How?

Want to experience some of this?  It is truly fun, and our immersive culinary vacations in Italy get you up close and personal in a way that you will experience it!

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My Life in Italy, Part 5: “If feathers are floating, It’s chicken for dinner”
  • carolcarol

    Author Reply

    OMG…..hilariously well said!!!
    .-= carol´s last blog ..Help with the Dishes =-.

    • I am married to an Italian and have been for 41years. I’m sitting here having my morning coffee and laughing out loud at your hysterical blog!!!

      Believe me… after many, many trips to Italy, I’ve heard it all and I too have laughed at their fear of the cold!!

      We were just there this past summer. It was very hot and humid, which is usually the norm during summer months.

      We have our own little summer house, so thank God we always sleep with our bedroom window open, hoping for that rare but welcome little drop of air from time to time !

      When the family heard we were putting our lives in danger by doing this… they all shook their heads in disbelief !

      Well as they say, there is always a bit of truth, even to the seemingly senseless old wives tale!!

      Beware of the “Corpo di Aria” as I ended up with a horrible sore throat!! Just saying ??

  • I love this. I wrote one similar some time ago, but your story is much more vivid 🙂
    .-= Danielle´s last blog ..A Food Lover’s Top 10 List in Rome =-.

  • This is hilarious! My boyfriend would say to me, “ok well if you eat now, you won’t be able to go back into the water later.” I’d ask, “why’s that?” He said, ” because you’ll get a cramp in your stomach and you can’t digest.” I said, “really? How is it that when I spent my summers by the pool I always jumped back in later?” My mom told us we had to wait at least an hour after having eaten. Her reason was that she didn’t want us puking all over the place. I can see that reasoning, but I’ve never gotten a cramp.

    I’ve also experienced the wet hair scenario. If you don’t dry your hair, you’ll have a headache, my boyfriend would tell me. My response, “there are plenty of times I don’t dry my hair and I’ve never suffered from a headache.” One time I did get a headache, and he said, “see, I told you. It’s because you didn’t dry your hair.” LOL
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..What’s Cooking Wednesday: Spinach with Lemon =-.

    • Wow! You had to wait an hour? The actual truth (According to studies I have read) is that there is no science in waiting at all. Extremely strenuous exercise can cause you to cramp a little after eating, but it has nothing to do with water, and normal swimming is not strenuous enough 🙂

  • Well, what my husband forgot to mention is that I caused a small riot at the beach. You see, I told the lifeguard to go to hell and allowed my daughter to swim. All the other children started to cry and begged their mothers to let them go in the water. I don’t need to tell you the dirty looks I got from the moms. Now I was ” The crazy american!”

  • OMG!!!! Hilarious and so true! After living in Italy for 15 years there’s not much I could add to this list of things that “fa male”. I’ve gotten the lectures on the ice, the wet hair, the swimming, open windows, air conditioning…..
    On my in-laws farm these “cover the belly, don’t get wet” kind of rules extend to the horses! In summer after riding they hose down the horses completely EXCEPT for the horses back , where his kidneys are. Apparently you can’t get a drop of water on that part of the horse because it will give him the dreaded cold in the stomach!!!!

  • VisVis

    Author Reply

    Bah! In Portugal they have the same rule about taking a shower after the meal, which drives me nuts. Father of a friend of mine is even afraid TO GO FOR A WALK after the meal.

  • Io sono italo-danese e sposata con un americano, e posso confermare dopo aver letto queste stronzate, che siete dei poveri ignoranti, come del resto lo è il 90% degli americani.
    Io ho visto personalmente persone morire davanti hai miei occhi, per una congestione allo stomaco dopo aver fatto il bagno al mare, dopo aver mangiato, e i dottori italiani non sono certo degli idioti, caso mai è il contrario!! Per quanto riguarda il colpo d’aria e i capelli bagnati………coglioni ve ne accorgerete fra qualche anno, avete mai sentito parlare di cervicale?

    • For those that understand Italian, that comment helps illustrate my point 🙂

      • NateNate

        Author Reply

        Michael haha… right??
        You couldn’t even make up a response like that!

  • Of course, the proper Italian counter to Anna’s comment is that since she is the only one who has seen this kind of thing happen, then she must be giving those swimmers the Evil Eye!

  • Interessante ed anche divertente la tua recessione, ma:

    c’e una grande differenza tra una granita o gelato ed una bebita ghiacciata…
    il gelato vieni assaporato piano piano, la bevanda vieni ingerita tutta di un colpo non permettendo allo stomaco di abituarsi alla temperatura bassa…

    per i capelli bagnati – ora che siete giovani non vi rendete conto, ma un conto sono i capelli bagnati al sole, altro sono i capelli bagnati in macchina con il finestrino aperto…

    l’italia ha poco ad invidiare agli altri paese per quanto riguarda la cultura del bel vivere sara’ un perche’…quindi, noi continueremo a fare il bagno 2 hrs dopo pranzo, cornetto e capuccino per colazione al posto del wurstel e mangiare leggero alla sera!!

    • Be io sono nata negli USA è cresciuta in Italia. Ho fatto nuoto a livello di agonismo per 11 anni, ho sempre tenuto i capelli lunghi, ho 46 anni è mai avuto una cervicale. di cervicale ha sempre sofferto la mia nonna romana che ha sempre portato le sciarpe al collo è rifiutato ventilatori e aria condizionata … Quella americana ha campato 99 anni e 10 mesi senza mai un torcicollo.

  • Italians are not like Americans, and their stomachs aren’t the same becaus they are not brought up the same. At the end of the day look at the Italians’s longevity and look at that of the Americans’….

  • LolloLollo

    Author Reply

    pero gli svedesi superano i italiani in lugna vita ,e bevono freddo, fanno bagno ai lagi e mare freddo e ne si assiuggano i capelli dopo doccia, vanno in corto corto meno -10 (senza amalare)sobravivono quasi tutti le malattie senza antibiotica(raffreddore febbre tosse etc), anche i bambini mangiano pepe!! vanno pure scalze!!! mettono pure le mani in bocca ogni tanto i bambini!! mio compagnio ha dopo tempo dato piena fiducia in me di questi cosi. da quando nostra bimba e nata la lasciavo pure nuda e facceva l bagno in perfetta salute! non essere sul diffesa italiani fate domande! chi sono questi dottori? lo so anche io –spiegano e la umidita e differende la temperatura.. bla bla pero italia sta nell mondo non e tutto al contrario!

  • Michael –
    Your post was hilarious and true down to every detail. I am an American (Californian too), married to an Italian and living in Rome for the last 7 years. We usually spend our summers in California, but this year we spent our summer in Rome and you can imagine how I have suffered without ice. When I posted on Facebook how much I was suffering, I recieved a barrage of posts from my Italian friends about how bad ice was for you. When we installed air conditioning in our house the installer wouldn’t put it in our son’s room becuase he didn’t want to kill him. My mother in law has admonished our 4-year old numerous times not to drink anything too cold after playing outside and sweating and my husband has just started to get enough confidence to go outside with wet hair (he’s almost 40!) I felt like I had written your blog. The Italian/European posts just prove your point. Hilarious! I’m glad someone else gets where I am coming from… Look forward to similar blogs!

  • HZHZ

    Author Reply

    that’s ridiculous! There is no scientific proof that any of those will cause anything close to what they say. The worst drinking ice water in the heat of summer will do is give you a brain freeze for a few seconds. nothing so bad as death!

  • Michael, thank you so much for this article. I’m married to a Vicentina and here I was thinking I was the only one dealing with this. My suocera is visiting and I’m tired of my three year old walking around with her pajama pants to her chest like Steve Urkel. Fortunately for you, your wife has learned the truth. Mine sticks to her guns! Ms Anna’s comment was a perfect caveat to the article, perfect. May God bless all of us American men married to True Italians!

  • Yes Thomas, it is an uphill battle, and you cannot win it. Best just to laugh and embrace it all 🙂

  • ChrisChris

    Author Reply

    After visiting the in-laws in Italy for over 17 years, I am glad that I’m not the only one who thinks that Italians are a nation of people with a totally misplaced sense of danger.

    I have given up on trying to explain the flawed logic of the multiple health dangers that exist in Italy. La congestione, colpo di aria etc etc……” Ma che ne sai tu ?, sei Inglese e non capisci niente” (LOL)

    A few things to consider:

    I often see in summer in Italy people on superbikes doing about 80+ mph, dressed in just a pair of shorts and shoes…

    I’ve seen people take their kids out to sea on a small boat without life-jackets…

    I’ve frequently only just avoided oncoming cars in Italy, who have overtaken other cars on blind bends…

    Don’t get me started on fireworks……

    I guarantee that any of the aforementioned people will tell you that eating a sandwich before going swimming is like taking your life in your own hands……

    Sigh sigh sigh

    Probably something to do with being a Catholic nation. People are taught what to think, rather than how to think.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Italy in many ways and also the people, but this pseudo-scientific guff is a major source of irritation.

    Saluti !!!

  • Che risate! This is hysterical and confirmation for me. Thank you! I actually started doubting myself and googled “is congestione real”? I too am a Californian married to an Italian and am now living in Italy. Here’s to happy swimming!

  • This is amazing. I’m American and my husband is from southern Italy. We have gotten past the initial arguments in regards to congestione and the colpa d’aria. He gets it. I also NEVER blow dry my hair, and when spend our summers in Puglia with me in laws, everyone looks at me like I’m an idiot freak of nature. Yet, I’m 31 and no signs of cervicale as of yet. One thing I just have to add, my Italian in laws came to visit us once in America. It was spring time and my nieces (7, 4 and 2) were running around with their sippy cups full of ice cubes and water. You guys should have seen the look on my southern Italian in laws faces. It was like we were beating these poor kids. Straight up looks of horror. They literally still bring it up years later. Oh man. So so strange. My husband is still convinced that if he drinks milk after dinner or eats any mildly acidic fruit he absolutely can not eat any dairy after or it will curdle in his stomach. The road is still long friends, but at least air conditioning doesn’t make him sick anymore. 🙂

    • Yep, I just updated the article to reflect that air conditioning is now ok. Funny how when the price came down, it no longer was something that can kill you 🙂

      • Do you think part of it is a crabs in a bucket mentality?

  • PatPat

    Author Reply

    At the end of the day I think it broils down to a nation wide lack of confidence and irrational fears about almost everything, a nation wide hypochondriac affliction.This always makes me think of a play written by Molière : The Imaginary Invalid (French: Le malade imaginaire).

    • This is true, Pat. If enough people tell you all of your life that you will get a headache if you wake up before 8AM, I guarantee early risers will have bad headaches.

  • I can’t believe you haven’t yet mentioned the ever-present “mal di fegato”!!! I want to know how it is that every Italian is an Internist?! Do they emerge from the womb with a PhD?