Wandering around the streets of Rome in early spring, one can tell exactly who’s a tourist, and who’s a local.
Yes, the tourists are the ones with selfie-sticks in their hands arguing over a paper map of the city with backpacks on. But more revealingly, they are the only ones in spring attire. In April, a typical Italian is still wearing a jumper, coat and scarf, albeit with their sunglasses on, even on a warm day.
This kind of preventive measure is vital if trying to avoid one of the many illnesses that you can catch in Italy – and only in Italy.
All-year-round, an Italian mother tells their offspring to cover themselves up. She knows it is 30 degrees outside, but without a scarf on she is scared they might get "hit by air". A "colpo d’aria", as the Italians call it, is defined as an illness caused by a sudden fluctuation in temperature.
If you’re unlucky enough to be "hit by air", you’re highly likely to suffer from a myriad of ailments including a stiff neck, sore throat, earache, headache and even indigestion. But, more seriously, it could lead to pneumonia, or so Italians fear.
It’s not an illness confined to the winter months, either. A common way to get it in the summer is to be blasted by air-conditioning in a shop on a hot day, before going back outside.
Leaving the house with wet or partly-dried hair can also provoke symptoms, regardless of the temperature.
Sweaty bodies are also problematic, with people fervently protecting themselves from “dangerous air” as they step out of the sea on a hot day by way of scarves and even socks, albeit cotton ones. In fact, beach hawkers do brisk business with these socks in the summer.
Of course, that dip in the sea would have to been taken long after lunch.
While a tourist will enjoy an afternoon swim after eating, an Italian will likely avoid the pool or sea, preferring to take a nap.
Coming from a French and Italian family, this was always a rule while growing up: no swimming for at least an hour after lunch, or you might get muscle cramps, or worse, drown. Not questioning the elders’ wisdom, I would sit by the pool watching the others play, full of envy.
Years later and having done my research, I can now swim stress-free after lunch: no case of drowning caused by a swimming on a full stomach has ever been documented. Nor has any medical association ever advised people to wait half an hour after a meal before swimming.
But an Italian mother is tenacious. When you finally leave home, she will message you every day asking if you have eaten and how much, what the temperature is like and what you are wearing.
A beginner’s mistake was easily made by an Italian acquaintance: telling her mother she was ill. The following day, her mother arrived in the student house, cooked dinner and refused to leave until everyone was safe and sound.
She also came with an essential tool to assess the situation: a thermometer. Touching your head and determining whether or not it is warmer than usual isn’t good enough for the Italian mother, she needs to know exactly how many degrees your forehead is.
And if above 37 degrees, be prepared for an extra week of motherly care.
The other cure, other than a good meal or two from mum? Plenty of rest and Camomile tea.
By Anna Pujol-Mazzini