Culture Quiz, Exercise I

According to Italian mothers, which of the following threats to life and limb is MOST to be feared?

a) drafts

b) damp skin (from perspiration, bathing, or swimming)

c) ice cubes

d) a and b combined

The correct answer is (d), though ice cubes are nothing to be trifled with.


There’s an expression in Italian: L’aria di fessura ti porta alla sepoltura.

A draft carries you to the grave.


It’s something Italian mothers — and Italian sons of a particular generation — take seriously. A draft can blow in all kinds of worrisome things, from headaches and “the influenza” to a kind of breezy whiplash to heaven only knows what other as-yet-unimagined frights. It can even blow you into the dental chair for a root canal.


Antonio, for one, doesn’t mess with drafts. In what is now a familiar ritual, he and I will settle into our chairs at a trattoria only to get up abruptly and change tables — sometimes more than once — because he detects air in motion somewhere around his person.


I once developed a pretty severe toothache he chalked up to my having slept with the window cracked. Never mind that I’ve had constant dental troubles since I chipped my first tooth at 9 years old and have a mouthful of crowns and root canals that no dentist ever blamed on an open window. That contrarian evidence is dismissed with a wave of the hand. And I can almost guarantee that if Antonio were to recount the story of my dental distress and the open window, a little audience gathered around him would nod gravely.


If you’re wet or sweaty and catch a draft, you might as well start giving your valuables to your heirs. When Antonio sweats, he doesn’t shed a layer; he puts on a sweater. If he wakes up in the middle of a summer night having perspired in his sleep, he goes into the bathroom and blow-dries himself to an arid crisp. Then he dons a wool cap just for good measure before going back to bed. He brings a couple of swimsuits to the beach and high-tails it to the nearest sheltered spot to change after a dip.


Then there’s the matter of ice. Italians aren't big fans. Sure, in summer they'll drop a cube or two into a glass of rose' or white wine that hasn't been properly chilled. Other than that, though, ice is an extreme to be avoided. Once when I was carrying an icy drink and some drops of condensation from the glass fell onto Antonio’s trousers, he actually recoiled, then sprang to his feet and ran upstairs to change.


An acquaintance who was teaching in Rome once quoted her Roman boyfriend as saying that, if he wanted to kill his mother, he’d call and tell her he’d just finished a long, hot jog and was sitting drinking a glass of ice water in front of the fan.


The iceman didn’t cometh.

In my experience, Italians think about as much of hard liquor* as they do of ice. And they think very, very little of the two together. One stinking hot late afternoon in Rome, I ordered a scotch on the rocks at one of those outdoor tables in the Campo de’ Fiori. The waiter came back with a scotch, no rocks. I asked again that it be served on ice, and he looked at me uncertainly before returning to the service bar inside. When he came back, the drink still had no ice. He said the bartender had refused. I laughed uncertainly, not sure whether he was kidding or whether I had misunderstood him. He wasn’t and I hadn’t. He told me I’d have to speak to the bartender myself. I went inside and explained — sunnily, good-naturedly, I thought — that I’d like to have a scotch on the rocks. The bartender —humorlessly, I thought — shook his head no. I pressed. In the end, he grudgingly handed me over a little bowl of ice on the side, clucking his tongue as he did. I guess it was the only solution he thought he could live with should I succumb to some kind of spell.


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