Monday the forecast called for a high of 62 and a low in the mid 50s. These have been the average highs and lows for the past week and yet when I got on the bus this morning at 9:30, the Italians were dressed in wool or down coats and bundled in scarves and hats. In the Midwest, where I lived for many years, and in Philadelphia, where I now live, 62 degree weather means maybe a light jacket, but probably just a long sleeve shirt, and for some a short sleeve shirt and shorts.
I have to confess, I was not totally surprised to find a bus full of people dressed for the dead of winter. For two months now I have been watching Italians run around in 45-55 degree weather in down jackets with scarves wrapped tightly around their necks as though they are avoiding those Midwestern U.S. wind chills that hover around 20 below on some days.
It’s not simply that Rome, or Italy for that matter has a warm climate and therefore when it gets the slightest bit cold, they bundle up. It’s a bit more complicated.
My Italian cousin Guido who is a physician explains it like this: Italians don’t believe in the germ theory as a way of spreading or contracting colds. They believe you get a cold when you catch a draft. So, if you catch a draft you might get a cold and if you get a cold, you might die.
These drafts are most likely to appear between the months of September and April so in order to avoid catching a draft, you must do the following:
Start wearing your winter coat in September and don’t put it away until April because those are the months when the weather can tend towards the cold and you don’t want to take a risk by not being prepared. This rule, according to a friend, also pertains to the dogs whose owners feel compelled to dress them for winter weather. You don’t remove the dog’s sweater until the end of April
Seldom is it acceptable to open the windows in the bus, the tram, or the train, even if the bus is filled with people. Windows let in drafts.
Gyms are kept at temperatures that hover around 75 degrees (you are comfortable in short sleeves and shorts, but not comfortable if you start moving on the equipment) and if you try to open a window with anyone over 55 in the room, you will likely be scolded.
Don’t even think about leaving the house with wet hair. This is a death sentence.
This weekend, over lunch at my cousin Rafaela’s house (Guido’s sister), we got into a conversation about Italians and their fear of the cold. About two years ago Guido’s daughter, Virginia spent a school year in Boston living with an American family and attending an American high school. At some point after being there for a while, she called her mother and exclaimed “Mom, here EVERYONE walks around with wet hair!”
This attitude toward the cold in general, and toward drafts in particular was brought to the U.S. by Italians over the course of the past two centuries.
My mother, who grew up in Upstate, New York, was not allowed to go outside without a snow suit on until the end of April. No matter what the temperature was.
Then, according to my grandmother, going out of the house with wet hair was tantamount to suicide. She would only wash her hair in the evenings before bed or in the early afternoons if she wasn’t leaving the house until evening so her hair would have a good four hours to dry. I asked her why she didn’t just wash her hair in the morning before church (she went to church every morning) she looked at me perplexed and responded “I can’t, catch a cold . . . and die”. In fact, whenever she was visiting my parents and got a cold, she would blame it on the fact that SOMEONE (typically me) had made her wash her hair at a time when there wasn’t sufficient ‘drying’ time before she left the house.
What I love about this is that the cold you get from the draft or from the wet hair-draft combination is not your average-run-of-the-mill-sniffles-type-cold, but rather a put-you-in-the hospital-with-a-priest-hovering-around-your-bed-waiting-to-say-the-last-rites-kind of cold.
My father who was always amused by my mother’s Italian family’s attitude towards cold, recently pointed out to me that there is a scene in the movie ‘Donnie Brasco’ in which Al Pacino, an Italian mob boss, scolds Johnny Depp who plays a mobster who is actually an undercover cop character for leaving the car windows open, “What are you doing?” Pacino says “you wanna kill me with that draft!”
If you don’t believe me, here’s the clip from YouTube