When my teenage son winced and put his hand to his side recently I asked: “What’s wrong?”
“It’s my spleen,” he said.
“How on earth do you know where your spleen is?” I wondered.
He knew because he has been raised in Italy, where people have a frightening knowledge of where organs are, what can go wrong with them, and how to fix them.
Not only will Italians know when you need a scan, but will tell you whether it should be an X-ray, an MRI or an ultrasound. It is part of a fixation with health that persuaded Italians to mask up during Covid, helping to keep the country’s death rate down, but also means they spend time worrying about some deadly health issues only they are aware of.
A noted example is the dreaded colpo d’aria — literally a blow of air — which is a sudden draft that stiffens the neck, explaining why Italians in air-conditioned gyms sometimes wear scarves.
Expect to get odd stares at the pool changing room if you try to enter the shower without flip flops, seen as essential protection against bacterial infection. Children using public loos are taught to cover the seat with lavatory paper before sitting down, yet Italians snigger when British tourists protect their kids on the beach with wetsuits and hats before taking a dip on a sunny day.
Some extreme measures have fallen out of favor, like all-year vest-wearing under shirts. Known as the maglia della salute, or health shirt, mothers once said it was needed to stay warm in winter and to absorb sweat in the summer in case their children got in the way of that sudden cold draft.
Not only will Italians know when you need a scan, but will tell you whether it should be an X-ray, an MRI or an ultrasound.
Regional differences play a role. Northern Italians see southerners wincing needlessly at the cold, as immortalized in the 1956 film Totò, Peppino e la Malafemmina, when two southerners show up in Milan dressed in fur, like Cossacks. But very few Italians, north or south, risk leaving a pool with wet hair, which means changing rooms are a racket of hair dryers.
I realized I had gone native when, during a trip back to London, I was alarmed to see people on the Tube in the morning with damp hair. I now get slightly itchy when confronted by British wall-to-wall carpeting; something few Italians would have at home as they know carpets are harmful dust traps.
In Rome I have taken on some healthy eating habits, including never using butter as a condiment — jam and toast can survive perfectly well without it — and I have become more accustomed to only drinking alcohol with meals, although I still panic when I have to hold a conversation at a social event without a glass in my hand.
But if Italians are health obsessed, it seems to pay off since in 2019 they lived to an average of about 83, nearly a year and a half longer than Brits. They also seem to stay active longer. A friend who ran a detergent factory near Rome told me the staff due to retire were full of plans for their future. “I also ran a similar operation in the UK, where the workers due to retire looked like they were ready to collapse,” he said.
To gather more stories about Italians in the UK who tremble about British attitudes to health, I rang Carlo, who moved to London around the time I moved to Rome. He did not react the way I expected.
“Italians who get sick are too inclined to self-diagnosis, and since they don’t trust their doctors, they consult the Internet, which generates confusion,” he said. “In the UK, you go to your doctor and say ‘I feel bad’, and the doctor tells you what you need to know.”
Just as I have gone native over in Italy, Carlo was going native in the UK. “Italians will often say ‘I need an X-ray and blood tests’,” he said. “You’ll never hear a Brit say that.”
Tom Kington lives in Rome and has been in Italy long enough to have covered one World Cup victory celebration, two papal conclaves, three earthquakes, and 12 governments. He was born and raised in London