Cultural Differences: On Shop Keeper Parenting

In order to illustrate what I mean by this, I need to fill you all in on the magical, wonderful myth of the congestione, which has been floating around Italy for as long as anyone can remember.

Italy is not the only country in the world in which children are advised not to go swimming immediately after lunch. In some countries you are supposed to wait 20-30 minutes, in others a few hours. The idea is that if you swim (or do any strenuous exercise, for that matter) immediately after eating a big meal you can get a cramp, and it is generally not good for you. While most of us can agree on this point, the myth of the congestione takes this to a whole other level.

There are two ways that you can get a congestione, according to Italians. One is swimming after lunch, which is why many pools in the summer are not even open between 12:30 and 4pm. The other way is to drink a very cold drink on a hot summer’s day. According to Italians, congestione is lethal. If you drink something cold on a hot day, or if you so much as wade in the shallow end of the swimming pool after lunch, you take your life into your hands.

I was raised by an American mother, who didn’t believe in such nonsense. Neither did my father, for that matter, as he had lived in many different countries and noted that, if the congestione were real, surely some of the other people in the world would have heard about it. I was allowed to swim in the sea in the early afternoon (and received death stares from other jealous kids while doing so) and drink water or juice or soda which was as cold as I wanted it to be. However, by the age of 11 I was going to the beach by myself, and thus I had to battle with the cultural practice of shop keeper parenting.

In central Italy, at least, everyone thinks themselves a parent when they come into contact with a child. They will intervene if they see kids misbehaving on the street, and they will give you a lecture if you come to them asking for the fourth soda or third ice cream of the day. They will also, if it’s a hot day, give you a soda or a bottle of water which is warm, if you are an unaccompanied kid. I hated this, and had this argument more times than I can remember:

Me: This Coke is hot. Please give me one from the back of the fridge

Bartender: But it’s dangerous! I can’t give you a cold soda! What if you get a congestione?!

Me: There is no such thing as congestione. I will not die if I drink a cold soda. Now please give me a cold soda.

Bartender: Of course congestione is real! Why, just last year, there was a guy at the next beach club over who was really thirsty, and drank a cold beer all down in one, and dropped dead on the spot!

Me: I love how these stories always happen at the next beach club over. No one has ever actually witnessed someone dropping dead from a cold drink, funnily enough. Can I have my soda now?

Bartender: Sure they have! A friend of a friend of a friend of my cousin saw someone die of congestione

Me: OK whatever, give me my soda now please

Bartender: Where are your parents? I should really ask them first

Me: I’m here by myself. They don’t have a problem with it. Now give me. A cold soda.

Bartender: Um…. but…. um…. OK, but promise me, promise me you will drink it very, very slowly! Actually, drink it here, just to be sure.

Me: *eyeroll* OK I promise

And I would scurry away with my hard-earned soda.

That’s if I was lucky. Often, they would pretend that they didn’t have any cold sodas.

The fact that complete strangers will parent you is something that is expected where I grew up. But this is not just funny in the odd myth about congestione, that millions of Italians believe, it is also extremely ironic.

It is much easier for a child to buy cigarettes and booze in Italy, than it is to buy a cold soda or bottle of water in the summer.

When I was 9, I used to buy cigarettes for my father. When I was 10, I used to buy wine and whiskey for my mother at our local liquor store. They didn’t know me, but they never asked me a single question about it. Why? Because they just assumed that I was buying these things for my parents. It is normal to send your children on errands, and sending them to buy cigarettes and wine is just one more errand.

Of course, if they ever saw a child actually smoking those cigarettes they’d throw a fit, but the act of buying it did not spark any questions or concerns.

Funny, isn’t it, how cold Coke was harder to get my hands on than alcohol or tobacco. When I became of age, and my peers around the world were celebrating about being able to buy beer, I was relieved that I wasn’t going to have to fight about how cold my water was anymore.


  1. rq says

    In my country, it was drinking ice cold milk after a hard day of labouring on the field. Same result as congestione, with the grudging concession that well, maybe nobody actually dropped dead, but they certainly got fatal pneumonia due to drinking this cold milk. So this is why children don’t drink cold milk in summer, they will get pneumonia. Or a heart attack, either or.
    And drafts. Don’t even get me started on drafts (in short, they’ll kill you). Drafts and minor sort of ley-lines (the cause of your insomnia is being wrongly oriented with respect to the lay-lines running through your house).

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      oo what country is that? I’ve been asking everyone I know about the cold drink in the summer myth, and you’re the first person to ever tell me you have a myth about drinking cold anything!

  2. badgersdaughter says

    Oh, shopkeeper “parenting” hasn’t gone away, especially in America, where it is called “covering our asses from liability”.

  3. smrnda says

    Someone could probably make a career out of studying congestione and other health myths/superstitions? It’s particularly interesting when you have a sizable number of immigrants living in an area with conflicting/competing such myths, and parents and grandparents are rationalizing why those other kids, being from somewhere else, are immune but to *you* it’s still a huge danger, or that some local factor is at work. With the waiting to swim, I’ve heard a variety of numbers, along with there being a huge difference if it’s salt water, fresh water, or a pool, all with precise number of minutes. Whenever I actually bother to listen in on what people are saying at the gym, I hear some strange rule someone is following, all with equally strange justifications, with different people having heard contradictory things.

    Sometimes I wonder if people really *believe* in congestione type things, or view someone’s willingness to go along with the game (sort of like the US idea of Santa) as part of being a good ‘team players.’ I mean, I recall the horror that my consumption of coffee as a child caused some USians, but yet the same USians were giving their kids sodas with more caffeine and sugar and couldn’t be ignorant of the fact.

  4. Wounded King says

    I remember a Saturday Night Live sketch with Chevy Chase that touches on this topic. The sketch is pretty old, older than I am, and in it Chase mentions cold milk giving one a sudden heart attack during summer. There’s a rather poor quality version of it here; the comment about the heart attack starts around 1:10. So at least some people in the US had this idea in their heads.

  5. badgersdaughter says

    This is not exactly the same thing, but I learned from some Scientologist material that I read (because I’m one of those people who will read the damndest things) in the home of a Scientologist acquaintance that people who read the bits about Xenu without proper preparation/authorization are doomed to die of pneumonia. Being a foolhardy 20-something, I read it anyway. I’ve read it many times since. I’m turning 50 this year, and I didn’t even catch the chest cold my husband just got over.

    If you, too, are feeling a trifle bulletproof and your daily bad science fiction needs have not yet been met, you can find the actual text of the material (which includes the pneumonia claim) here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *