‘Do you think it’s possible to die of lasagna-overdose?’ Chris asks one night, as we waddle back to our little apartment in Francavilla al Mare, my hometown, on Italy’s Adriatic Coast.
‘Well’ I answer ‘I doubt there has ever been a study on it in this country!’
We huff and we puff and we manage the four flights of stairs, somehow, before we collapse in a food-induced stupor on our bed. We’ve only been staying with my family for five weeks, and we’re already bursting at the seams. ALL of them. Normally, one would just tend to grow horizontally when over-eating, but we’ve been fed so much I have the distinct impression I’ve actually grown in height as well. I’m almost 40 years old, this is a near impossibility, but I guess when excess weight can’t find any other direction, it will also defy age and gravity. Bugger.
I make the near-fatal mistake of trying on my motorbike pants one morning. As I feel a little extra ciccia (fatty wobbly bits) around my waist, I am suddenly gripped by a terrorizing thought: it’s all good and well to put on a couple of kilos…but what if my riding pants don’t fit anymore ?!? What do I do then??? Ride in my underwear?
Geeeeeeeeeeeeeeez it’s a close fit. So close in fact, that as I pull the last inch of the zipper up, I feel an unfamiliar pressure in my eyeballs. I gather this is what glaucoma must feel like.
Oh great…they still fit…as long as I don’t breath, bend over, or sit. Hmmm…..
With only five days to go I have but one choice left: run like hell for an hour a day and shun all sugars and carbs. Yep, that usually does the trick. But of course, that would entail telling my wonderful zias (aunties) that I won’t be eating any more pasta for the duration of our stay. Good luck to me.
“What?” Zia Maria yells at the top of her lungs “What kind of rubbish are you talking! Don’t be silly! I’m making spinach and ricotta ravioli today, and I ordered 15,000 kilos of spaghetti alla chitarra for Sunday and Zia Lucia’s making this on Monday, and Zia Tiziana’s making this on Tuesday and….”
….by Friday I’ll be dead.
Now I know what you’re thinking: what on earth am I complaining about? If this is my idea of purgatory then you all want a piece of it right? You may want to rethink that…
Being fed ad infinitum when visiting Italy is on most people’s bucket-list, I realize, but trust me when I tell you that no human body was ever meant to consume THIS much pasta, in such a short period of time. I imagine that if I were working hard in a farm for 18 hours a day I may have a chance of burning the energy, but when our days are spent simply hovering from house to house, dinner table to dinner table, the most we’ll burn is the equivalent of just one, single, mouthful. Make that half.
My country’s (or is it just my family’s?) obsession with food is overwhelming to the uninitiated. Sure, come here for a holiday and you can chose what, when and how much you eat; but visit family and friends and all of a sudden you’ll be required, not offered, REQUIRED to consume more food in a week than you probably do in a whole bloody month. No joke. Moreover, food, its consumption and its preparation becomes the single, biggest, topic of conversation, especially (but rather unsurprisingly) among women. Take your first bite and watch how the table conversation turns to what they should make for the next meal. It’s pure insanity! Want to enjoy a morning caffe’ with your Zias and cousins in peace? Forget it! The first questions is….so what are we going to make for lunch?
But that’s not all! Not only must you eat often, you must eat in colossal proportions and, whatever it is you’re eating, it must be rated in order of your personal preference. This is like asking a parent to pick a favourite child! I have four aunties sitting at the table, all of them have, at some stage, cooked lasagna for me and now I must choose one as my favourite??? What have I…a death wish?
I opt for diplomacy and world peace and tell them they are all equally delicious, and that I couldn’t possibly decide, each being so delectable and all.
(Mum, if you’re reading this, I was just telling a white lie, because you know YOURS is really my favourite! Sorry, love you!)
The answer is, apparently the correct one. My prize? An extra serving of lasagna of course….urgh
Chris is at breaking point and even he (who stands at 1.94cm) is quite traumatized by the over-zealous feeding. As we sit for yet another family meal, beads of sweat start to pour down his neck and I can see that he’s dreading having to consume the equivalent of a small country’s entire food production, all on his own. He is bearing the brunt of it…he’s not only the main guest (which gets him triple servings at the best of time) but he’s also the tallest in the room (in all the rooms, of every house here) so logic has it that if he doesn’t manage five servings of Zia’s lasagna she’ll get terribly offended. And no-one wants to get my Zia terribly offended. Fark, poor bastard…
“Can you tell your Zia that I just can’t eat any pasta today pleeeeeeeease?” he whispers to me, ever so quietly.
“Are you nuts? Seen how she yells at me? You tell her!”
In this kind of jungle, it’s survival of the fattest; everyone must fend for themselves.
While poor Chris continues to suffer the pits of his hell, I continue to suffer the pits of mine.
In Italy, and within the bosom of one’s family, there’s only one thing worse than having to adapt to the food-obsession, and that’s having to deal with the infinite number of raccomandazioni.
The Italian ‘raccomandazioni’
My most vivid memory, of growing up in Italy, was having half a dozen women tell me what to do, every single minute, of every single day. The raccomandazione, is none other than a recommendation, a little piece of invaluable advice which adults (more often than not, women) impart on their children, grand-children, nieces and nephews. Only thing is, this kind of advice-giving is inherently cultural, it is painfully constant and, most of the time, makes no frigging sense at all.
While in Australia the most you’ll hear your mother say (once you’re over the age of 25 and have moved out of home) is: are you eating well honey? And, perhaps, “drive carefully darling!” That’s it.
These, in Italy, would be considered utterly inadequate, almost laughable really. Such amateurs…
Imagine this, if you will: sitting at lunch one day, my aunt starts. Without taking a breath, she looks at my cousin (her son) and delivers a long list of raccomandazioni: shouldn’t you take your jumper off indoors; you’ll catch your death when you go out! Should you really be having that second serving of roast peppers considering you ALWAYS suffer from heartburn! I don’t like your new haircut, you should change barbers! Did you go out without a scarf, are you crazy, you’ll get sick! What kind of socks are you wearing, cotton? That’s insane, you must wear wool in winter!” And so on, and so on, and so on…
If it wasn’t for the fact that my cousin is 52 years old, and my aunt nearly 80, this would almost be funny. What is really funny is the fact that my cousin is actually married, so the poor sod gets this twice a day; once from his wife and once from his mum. EVERY SINGLE DAY of his life he has been listening to the long barrage of recommendations which every single Italian must endure.
The Italian raccomandazioni are actually internationally renowned, and they are the topic of conversation among many English ex-pats who have lived here long enough. From what I’ve gathered, there’s not a culture on earth that can ‘recommend’ the way the Italian can. It doesn’t seem to exist even in other Latino-lands. Sure, mothers may be a little more smothering in Spain, or Argentina, but it is still not comparable to the Italian level of chronic, compulsive, obsessions.
The Italian recommendations can usually be divided into sub-topics actually; the two which have always driven me completely mad are: 1) the ‘going to the beach’ recommendations, and 2) the ‘cold weather’ recommendations.
Going to the beach in Italy
(First of all, consider this a first-hand recount of many, many beach outings I endured in Italy. Three months a year for twelve years in fact. This is by no means a complete recount, but it covers the basics.)
Planning a day out at the beach in Italy is no walk in the park. The usually laid back Italian needs to plan this meticulously well, even though they’ll be the first to admit that meticulous planning is just not in their genetic make-up. Hence the chaotic mess.
My hometown, as I mentioned earlier, is called Francavilla al Mare, a small-ish seaside town in the centre of Italy (Abbruzzi region) on the Adriatic Coast. The town is sprawled over 8kms of beach, and only about two kilometres inland. It’s a beautiful, bona fide beach town, meaning that from every balcony of my aunties’ houses, we can see the beach, the sand, and even the sun-deck chairs all perfectly aligned on the shore. So we’re not talking about someone living in the heart of Milan’s central business district who needs to deal with packing everyone in the car and drive through horrendous traffic. All my family needs to do here is pack a swimsuit, walk out the front door and voila’: they’re there!
Nope, even in a place like Francavilla, it takes them on average TWO HOURS to get ready. Every eventuality needs to be thought of in advance.
That’s where the raccomandazioni start.
1) The spare swimsuit. Every person needs to bring at least two spare swimmers because heaven forbid one lounges around in a wet costume after one has had a swim. Never mind that it’s 30 degrees, the sun is scorching and the swimsuit is set to dry in 2.3 minutes. Nope, the most important thing is that it does not dry on your body. This will cause untold misery in later years: chronic arthritis, chronic respiratory problems, possibly pneumonia, emphysema and maybe, you know, death. Yes, listen to your aunties’ rambling long enough and you may be inclined to believe that if you don’t bring a spare swimsuit (and use it accordingly) you will most probably die a slow, agonizing death. So you pack the swimsuit.
2) The fresh water shower. Sometime between your swim and you changing of swimsuit, you MUST take a fresh water shower. This is imperative!! Having salt dry on your skin is almost as bad (actually, worse) than having your swimmers dry on your body. You won’t even be given the chance to walk out of the water, that ALL your aunties are going to start telling you not to sit and sunbake, but to shower first. You have to! Do you know what will happen to you if you don’t wash the salt off?? Oh damn, no, don’t ask…just shower.
3) The full lunch. You’d think that having a slice of pizza at the beach would be sufficient but alas, no; a slice of pizza is an aperitivo, of course, not a full meal. And God forbid we go ONE day without a twelve course lunch. So before anyone goes anywhere, mamma has to cook a massive pot of (what else?) pasta salad to bring to the beach. But considering pasta does not eat itself, we must also pack plastic plates, cups, cutlery, bottles of sparkling water, tea towels, serving spoons, bread (because one type of carb is never enough) olive oil, peperoncino for whoever wants it spicy and, finally, fruit and cheese. Not just for us, mind you, always a few more in case Gino’s cousin’s friend’s mum is coming to the beach and she may want to eat as well (X 5). Mi raccomando don’t forget this, and mi raccomando don’t forget that….goes on and on for a good hour before everything is packed in two massive bags. Yes, I’m sure you get the irony…if only we’d left the pasta at home and walked back to eat it, it would have taken less time. Alas, we could also just buy a slice of pizza and a coke for lunch…
4) The after-lunch swim. This is the equivalent of raccomandazione-suicide. Not in terms of what a post-lunch swim will do to you, but it terms of what your aunties will do to you if you even dare attempt it. According to Italians, there is a safe waiting period between food consumption and a swim. Go in too soon, and you risk ‘blocking your digestion’, whatever the heck that means.
The time constraint? This can vary and is usually thought to be anywhere between two hours and 9am the next day, depending on which aunty you ask. Go against this particular raccomandazione and you will never, EVER, hear the end of it. By the way, skipping lunch all together in order to swim at will is a futile exercise. Because, obviously, you will be far too weak to swim if you happen to get caught in a rip. This is very much a lose-lose affair: there will be no swimming between 1pm and 4pm. End.Of.Story. Don’t believe me? Next time you happen to holiday in Italy just notice how many swimmers are actually in the water during this most critical time of day. Only ones you’ll ever see are tourists and those lucky enough to be on their own.
If going to the beach with your big, fat Italian family starts to sound like too much hard work, take heart, ‘cos it could be worse. You could be visiting them in winter.
The imaginary patients
When it comes to health concerns, Italians are unmatched anywhere in the world. Not only are they the worst hypochondriacs they also have the deepest knowledge of human anatomy, making them a doctor’s absolute nightmare.
Italians know where every single one of their organs is located and, moreover, can actually feel them. It’s very common for an Italian who’s not feeling well to tell you exactly where the problem is. While in the English speaking world, the most you’ll hear is ‘I have a tummy ache’, ask an Italian and he’ll be able to pinpoint exactly which part of the mid-section is impaired. He’ll tell you if it’s the intestino (intestine), the stomaco, la milza (spleen) or il fegato (the liver). No shit. They actually know where all these organs are and ‘feel’ them on a regular basis!
‘Mi fanno male i reni’ (my kidneys hurt) is one of my grandmother’s favourite complaints and this most common utterance is usually accompanied by a slight limp, and a rub of the lower back with her bare hands. Now, I’ve actually researched this because I needed to ascertain whether Italians are gifted with some kind of special x-ray vision, or whether even this level of detailed hypochondriac behaviour is cultural. Turns out the latter is infinitely more probable.
Ask any doctor and he’ll tell you that a) your kidneys are actually almost half way up your back and b) they would need to be almost twice their size and in a chronic state of infection for you to be able to feel anything. The fact that my nonna swears she can feel them ache at least once a week is nothing short of a medical miracle.
Yet when all is said and done, there is one major Italian ailment which is the most baffling of all. Not only is the ailment a mystery to the rest of the world, but so is its most common cause.
The infamous ‘cervicale’
If you think the summertime recommendations are bad, wait till you hear the winter ones. We had been at my Zia’s for just a few days, when one morning Chris and I were outside on the balcony having our first cigarette and coffee. It was a chilly, rainy and foggy day and my love, as usual, was out barefoot. When my Zia came out to say hi she almost had a coronary! She literally almost dropped dead right there on the spot.
‘Oh my God, he’s barefoot on the wet and cold tiles! He’s going to get ‘LA CERVICALE!’
When Chris asked for a translation, I was stumped. I never had to translate it before…
Anatomy of the cervicale…
In Italy, you can actually get critically wounded by a ‘hit of air’ (un colpo d’aria). It’s true, it can hit you when you least expect it and cause you to suffer the worst possible ailment in the Italian world: the cervicale.
Try as you may, you’ll never find a translation for this most serious and widespread of all Italian ailments. That’s because it ceases to exist the moment you cross the Italian border. I don’t even know what it is and I am Italian. I know how you can get it (that I’ve been told often enough) but I’ll be damned if I understand what it actually is. A pain in the neck is the closest possible translation, a really chronic pain in the neck, the kind which will keep you in bed for at least three days. Granted, only if you don’t cover your neck with a fluffy scarf and your head with a woolly hat at the first hint of autumn. You can also get it if you walk out of the house without blow-drying your hair, or if you walk around barefoot (like Chris), or if you don’t wear a woollen singlet under your five layers of clothing in winter.
The cervicale has been the subject of international studies, and the most experts can come up with is that every country has a list of illnesses which seem to be suffered by their citizens only, and the cervicale is simply Italy’s foremost ailment. Still buggered to tell you what it is though…
After five weeks, the long list of daily raccomandazioni is slowly dwindling. Mostly because my family has surmised that being German, Chris is simply inherently immune to the cervicale. If they ran around like he does, they’d be in intensive care after four days, and I actually believe they would be. This level of health-obsession is probably what makes them of weak ‘constitution’ to begin with and I’m starting to think that perhaps people of warmer climates are simply more susceptible to colds, flus and yes, cervicale too.
Where do I stand? Probably somewhere in the middle…
There is no denying that Chris and I are not built the same way. I don’t just mean our private parts either. We both rode soaking wet in freezing temps, yet as I nursed a shocking cold for four days, he barely had the sniffles for a few hours. I admit, my neck was a little sore too. Is it just because I am female, or is it because I am an Italian female? Is the cervicale a hereditary condition?!
Whatever the case may be, we bid farewell to my family and their Italian quirkiness and close the door on a rather enjoyable, but at times painful, stop-over.
I may not have been able to avoid all pasta dishes during the week, but I can still manage to zip up my pants. Just. As we indulge in the first sightseeing trip in weeks (in Venice) we come across a peculiar sculpture and both Chris and I start laughing hysterically. We have the same thought: she must’ve been visiting her family!!