An Italian's view on British winter clothes

Schoolboys in Hampstead, north London, 1924 The British have a reputation for braving the cold

Italians like to wrap up warm because they fear a "hit of air" that can strike them down, says a Bologna-based Briton, in a feature that provoked a large response from readers. In reply, an Italian based in the UK explains the different attitudes to winter clothes and health.

Being Italian may be bad for your health. Being British could be fatal.

I am reminded of this once again when my four and six-year old Anglo-Italian children want to play outside in our garden in London.

It is an early morning at the end of November. There is a distinct chill in the air, frost on the grass and the sky hangs low and heavy, like a great big grey duvet.

The kids are dressed in flimsy cotton pyjamas. But my British partner doesn't hesitate to open the back door and let them out.

"Wait! What are you doing?" I hear myself cry. "They can't go out dressed like that! They'll catch their death!"

Start Quote

Manuela Saragosa

There was a definite downside to this Italian obsession with health”

End Quote Manuela Saragosa

I yank them both back in and bundle them in padded jackets, thick socks, boots, hats, and scarves. Oh, and gloves. Just to be sure.

My partner rolls his eyes. He hasn't quite got the hang yet of the Italian way. Then again, as anglicised as I am after decades of living here in London, I clearly haven't turned completely British yet either.

Yes, I admit it. I'm worried about the children getting struck down by that all-Italian malady, a "colpo d'aria", a hit of air.

Why? Because growing up in Italy, I was told repeatedly by Italian family and friends that the cold can kill you. It can strike you low, be the source of all sorts of other nasty ailments, and make you miserable.

In any case, it is not just an Italian ailment. I spent time in Indonesia too when I was younger. There they call it "masuk angin", or "the entry of air", an affliction which shares many similarities with Italy's "colpo d'aria".

I can recall the horror on my Italian cousin's face when she saw photos of British schoolboys traipsing mid-winter through rain and sleet, in shorts.

Girls in Bristol Come rain or shine, a British night out

"The British think it toughens them up," I explained.

"Blatant child abuse, if you ask me," she scoffed.

I won't tell you what they make of young British women in bare legs, mini-skirts and strapless tops pouring out of pubs late at night in the middle of winter. Or the men walking to their offices in gale-force winds, dressed in just their work shirts. Suffice to say it is met with a mixture of incredulity and incomprehension.

As a child, there was a definite downside to this Italian obsession with health.

Summers on the beach for instance. Swimming after food was a complete no-no.

We were fed horror stories about children who had disobeyed the no-swimming rule, only to be hit by intestinal cramps in the water, something which apparently turned you blue in the face and caused you to drown.

This meant the hottest part of the day - the hours after lunch - were spent sitting on the beach watching the foreign kids frolic in the surf. The Italians shook their heads sadly at this blatant parental ignorance.

A full meal required a three hour no-swimming rule. A couple of biscuits might set you back half an hour. Every minute counted. "Can I go in yet?" would be met by, say, "Eleven minutes to go."

Saragosa family in Venice, 1973 A young Manuela (not wrapped up) smiling on a family holiday in Venice

But nowhere is the contrast between British and Italian attitudes to health more evident than in each country's respective pharmacies.

In Britain, these are supermarket-style shops for personal and healthcare products. Cough medicine is stacked alongside hair dye. Vitamin supplements are two aisles up from make-up.

In Italy, pharmacies are old-style apothecaries. A little bell tinkles as you walk through the door. It smells of antiseptic. Products are stacked neatly on wooden shelves, sometimes behind glass. The pharmacist is someone consulted in hushed tones.

Who lives longer?

  • Italy: 81.9
  • UK: 80.5

Source: European Commission

Invariably, he or she will have at hand some drops, ointment, tonic or an old Italian favourite - a suppository - that helps your condition. They won't send you off with a packet of generic paracetamol.

Which brings me to another product which Italian pharmacies stock plenty of - vaginal washes or douches. They may not be common in Britain but enter an Italian home, and if women live there, you can be pretty sure to find one in the bathroom.

"But what do British women do about... down there?" my Italian cousin asks me. She's pointing southward and looks genuinely concerned. "They don't even have bidets!"

Later, she stops mid-sentence over a cup of coffee. "Ow ow," she says, rubbing her neck and trying to stretch it.

"It's my cervicaglia," she sighs. 'My neck really hurts. I must have caught a draught when I was driving with the window open."

"Do you know, " I say, "Some people in Britain think that's a made-up Italian illness."

"Really?" she says, arching an eyebrow. "Well if they can prove that cervicaglia is a cultural thing, I'll move to England."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    No swimming for 3 hours after lunch? I can understand a bit of warm clothing for the kids in cold weather but there's a difference between common sense and being a baby.
    Suggesting a painful neck injury from driving with the window open makes anyone sound like a hypochondriac.
    I think its time for a lot of people to grow up stop being a victim all the time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    The large pharmacies have lots of feminine washes you can buy, they are displayed near the other feminine products. In the winter we were always told to wrap a scarf around our neck so as not to get a 'chill'. I think the UK are used to colder temperatures because our summers aren't as hot as Italy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    As an Italian in Britain,i must make a few points. Firstly,despite the hot weather,wild horses couldnt drag me back to Italy to its misreable mood and shoddy economy,i love Italy,but its a dreadful place to live. Secondly,i live on the South Coast of England,the weather here is very pleasant thank you very much. And thirdly,cold weather has nothing to do with life expectancy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    I went to an Italian pharmacy on holiday once as i was running out of ibuprofen. They wanted 7 pounds for what costs 40p here! Which I think they can only get from the psychology of the pharmacy shop and the pampering attitude.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Exposure to cold can not cause a cold without a virus being present but can trigger symptoms that might not otherwise have occurred had there been no exposure to cold temperatures according the cold research.

    Huddling in warm houses with others is good way of receiving a virus, becoming a hermit seems to be a good way to avoid this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Btw the cold is in fact related to illnesses: breathing in cold air dries and irritates the throat tissue, making it much more vulnerable to viral infections and posterior bacterial infections, it is not that the bacteria and viruses come from cold air, they simply are there and get the chance to infect when the tissue is vulnerable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    If you are getting faecal matter in that particular orifice then you are doing something wrong.

    I tend to feel the cold more than most but still don't wrap up to an extreme degree, nothing worse than feeling hot and sweaty underneath mountains of layers. I'm a southerner but maybe I've inherited my parents northeast hardieness as I love the chill of a cold day on your face.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.


    Fair enough Peter - neither aerodynamics nor the laws of physics apply to you or your car it seems :) happy days

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    Well as they say. Only mad dogs and English Men go out in the mid day sun! Apparently we are the only ones who never learn!

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    We laugh at the Italians for their attitude to the cold ( and I'll admit i do too) but on the other hand the British attitude is a bit crazy too I live in Nrth Wales and I am sick and tired of hearing on the news abouts idiots who need to be rescued of Mt Snowdon after walking up there in trainers jeans and jumper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    it's simple really, we're so used to cold, wet, miserable summers by the time we get to winter we forget that you're meant to put something warm on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.


    Whilst this is an interesting an amusing article I'm afraid that you still lose the argument.

    You claim life expectancy is 81.9 for Italy V's 80.5 for England, however, you forget that tacked on to the top of England is Scotland - life expectancy 25 due to their fondness for deep-fried marsbars etc.

    The average for England is now 82.6 which is rather more than Italy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    So...why is it that the British call some -5° with some 30cm of snow "severe weather" with everything shutting down while Europeans can get -20° and half a metre of snow or more- and just get on with it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    @ #14 superjim

    Agreed. I genuinely look forward to and enjoy the weather turning cold. In contrast, whenever I'm on the Continent I find the Mediterranean climate oppressively hot and debilitating. Half the time I'm panting for breath and the other half I'm greedily swigging from a water bottle!

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    Spent a summer in Cyprus with no aircon, it almost killed me.
    I work on the principal, if you're too cold you can always add more layers, if you're too hot, you can only take so much off!
    I'd rather be too cold!

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    #128 I've got a 1.4L Honda Jazz... very small hamster powering a fairly puny heater fan but good economy at least.

    The other useful bit of info is that my commute is max speed 40mph and realistically an average of 20mph so drag from open windows is pretty theoretical!

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    127 I have whooped and yelled with joy when tearing down the face of waves, with air @ -15, wind @30mph, water @8C, icecream headache, blue / purple / pale skin, numb hands, feet, ears, nose. Similar when snowboarding/skiing/rockclimbing/scuba diving or just walking in snow - cold has no impact on elation if you are doing the right thing. I have rarely seen a happy bored person in any temperature.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    They're all just a bunch of soft southern european jessies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    @Those using 'floral balance down under' argument

    This would hold true if it became a known fact that women in Latin countries from Italy to Brazil, used to bidets, had a higher incidence of gynaecology-related problems. But that's not the case.

    If we move to toilet hygiene, tell me, if you got faeces on any other part of your body by accident, would you really just use toilet paper to clean it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    I like big warm hats and I cannot lie, you BBC brotha's cant deny ( this comment)


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