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.