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 198.


    What are you talking about? What racist comment? Saying the word 'African' is not a racist slur - it's a continent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    The incidence of Pneumonia probably has more to do with the fact that was have cold damp winter conditions in the UK, the healthiest year round climate in the world was found to be Valencia (a while back) as the temperature does not fluctuate as much. A lot of us are careful about the cold, although people not being able to afford their heating bills can't do much for preventing Pneumonia cases!

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    I am convinced that going outside in the cold, blustery, bracing weather, just for a few minutes and wearing as little as possible. . is good for the mind.

  • Comment number 195.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    I like to smear goose fat all over myself this time of year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    Brits running around in shorts during the winter are not tough, but stupid, or their parents are. They will pay for that later in life suffering from rheuma, arthritis etc. You won't find many Russians doing that. Of course, the Walrusses in the winter cut a hole in the ice of the river Moskva and take a 1 or 2 minute dip, but as soon as they come out they wrap up very warmly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    Well it's not an Italian thing. Being born in Siberia where -40 in winter is normal, later living in Lithuania where winters reach -30 and summers +30, I would not call myself or those growing around me as not used to cold. However I've been shocked too seeing almost naked brits during winter. Short exposures to extreme cold is healthy and toughening, constant exposure to cold wind is not wise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    I honestly fail to see the value in this rosie eyed nonsense of an article, a daft load of garbage. "In Italy, pharmacies are old-style apothecaries" I mean, really! The Italy I visit regularly for work has all sorts of pharmacies just as modern as Boots or anything else over here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    164.alb1on "Britons are the fatties of Europe provides additional protection"
    As I said before, our much harsher N Euro climate has resulted in our evolving to store reserves more efficiently than Meds. Not cause for 'shame' or moral panic, just an evolutionary mechanism which has served us well over the centuries (and which with possible fuel / food crises we now try to 'override' at our peril).

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    I am half Italian and this is EXACTLY how I have been brought up, in fact its been so drummed into me that I actually read the article and though...what? you can actually go swimming after a meal? I remain sceptical. It even extends to having a bath straight after a meal actually.

    brilliant article that has made me realise what I am doing to my own kids now!

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    I have just spent the weekend in Rome. Daytime temperature was around 16 degrees ( 61F ) During the day, especially when the sun shone I was walking around in a short sleeved shirt although I did carry a coat, just in case! The Italians were walking about wearing more layers than I would wear if I was on a skiing holiday in the Alps

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    This article rings so true! My wife is French and she'll always say someone will catch a cold if they go out doors when it's below, say, 15 degrees, without a coat on. I suppose lowering ones core temperature could briefly weaken ones immune system enough to 'let a cold (virus) in, but walking between the house and the car in a t-shirt won't bring on pneumonia!

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    "4.Cogito Dexter
    ...I'm not saying Italians are 'soft' (I wouldn't dare, I'm related by marriage to many of them!) ..."

    Is that legal? :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.


    And i suppose you believed the study which claimed that New Zealand was both the fattest and the nost danegerous country in the world?? anyhow,only the Women came top,British men were supposedly not as fat as the Maltese men. And if you do travel to Italy a lot,as a Italian myself,im glad Brits dont destroy their lungs with countless packs of cigarettes like my countrymen do!

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    147. Elwes
    I think you'll find that any lower life expectancy in Scotland is more likely due to a fondness for alcohol, not deep fried confectionary. And once Salmond has got his way with independence and we don't have two beans to rub together once the oil has run out, watch that figure take a further nosedive

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    Aaah, I geddit now! I think some here are confusing vaginal douches with having a wash at a bidet? These are two entirely different things, people! One washes the inside, the other the outside.

    Bidets, yes, I'd like to see more of those in the UK. (Please wish me luck as I try to shoehorn one into my tiny bathroom.) The douches which the article refers to should not be encouraged, however.

  • Comment number 182.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.


    Of course swimming after food can be dangerous. Try holding your breath in water before a meal, then do it again afterwards. There can be quite a difference as your body concentrates on food digestion and leaves less for physical exertion.

    Same for running etc but obviously that's not going to risk you drowning. The winter cramps story is indeed rubbish though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    Have seen locals in north Norway, in March, in short sleeved shirts and t-shirts underneath (1*C), and Italians, in southern Sardinia during November, in greatcoats (18*C)

    How would the latter ever seal with the former? Wrap up in a husky? Guess it's just what you are aclimatised to

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    96. P1t_Bu11
    The cause of cold-induced infection is due to longer lasting water vapour delivery vector, not any -ve effects to potential hosts. If a potential host didn't have any negative effects from cold, they could still get cold-induced infections if the vector is intact. If that infection loses its delivery system, the only way to get infected is through temperature independent pathways.


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