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.
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.
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!