Sick as a Dog

Myth and Italian Medicine

by Lynn SantaLucia

The arrival of 1991 has brought to us a new round of common cold and flu symptoms and a recent wave of minor stomach disorders. Nothing atypical, no need to worry really. Who amongst us, after all, has not been troubled by an irritating cough, a runny nose, or a bit of heartburn during the chilly and damp, post-festive (or rather post-feastive) season? Cause for concern could arise, however, if you find yourself a first-time-sufferer in Italy of one of the above mentioned ailments, and only then begin to catch scent of the average Italian's approach to health care.

In Italy, medical authorities are regarded with suspicion. Scientific fact usually gets tossed out with last night's spaghetti. Superstition and folklore reign supreme.

In order, then, to prepare you for your mother-in-law's, portinaio's, boss's, or best friends advice on health matters, here are some of the more popular Italian rules of thumb to good health. You be the judge.

  1. Beware of drafts (draughts as well)! This includes those which come through open windows on trains and buses during 90 degree weather (non- Italians usually call them "breezes" in this case). In the Italian medical lexicon, a "colpo di vento" or "colpo d'aria" (literally an "air punch") is something to fear. It can come through an open window or door, or can attack while you're walking down the street. Nonetheless, for some strange reason it never strikes below the belt; for this you can find thousands of Italian women parading the streets in mid-thigh miniskirts, sheer stockings and short jackets in the dead of winter. It can cause everything from a stiff neck to arthritis and stomach cramps. Preventive medicine? Keep your window closed, your neck covered, and your eyes peeled.
  2. White food (mangiare in bianco) is the best medicine. If your stomach is upset stick to mozzarella, rice, vanila ice cream, mayonnaise, potatoes and other colorless nutrients. They have a calming effect on your system. At all costs, avoid anything red; it only exacerbates the problem. That's right, no marinara for the sick.
  3. Avoid drinking too much carbonated water, and avoid it completely with meals; it can cause your stomach to explode. Ideally, any type of water should be sipped in small doses, but only before or after meals. Taking a bath immediately after meals causes indigestion and heartburn, and has been known to even cause death.
  4. Stay dry. This means that on rainy days, even in the most narrow streets of the most crowded cities, make sure to carry a giant-sized golf umbrella.
  5. Smoking is not bad for you, and cigarette smoke is not bad for passive inhalers. In Italy smoking is not a health issue, actually, it's an inalienable right as precious as free speech and the freedom to strike. In fact, if you smokle cigarrettes in Italy you won't get cancer, you'll get commendations.
  6. Jogging is a health hazard, on the other hand. It is somehow tied to sweating and physical exertion. Don't do it. If you must exercise, take a stroll around the piazza... and then stop for a gelato.