An Italian's view on British winter clothes
- 13 December 2011
- From the section Magazine
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!"
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.
"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."
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.
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."