Cultural Differences: Beware Friday the 17th!

“Um… Crys… I think you mean Friday the 13th” I can already hear many of you whispering under your breath. Funnily enough no, I don’t mean Friday the 13th. I am aware that in the vast majority of Western countries 13 is the unlucky number, and Friday the 13th is an “unlucky” day. In a bizarre twist on the usual superstition, however, Italians believe that 17 is an unlucky number, and therefore Friday the 17th is the day to watch out for. It is also the 17th row that is missing from old Alitalia planes, the number 17 that no one will have on their jerseys, and the number 17 that was retired from Formula 1 after Jules Bianchi crashed his number 17 car and died on… Friday the 17th of July 2015.

Last Friday was a Friday the 17th, and the various Italians I work with mentioned it in some passing, humorous way. This made me think about why, exactly, 17 is “unlucky” in Italian culture. Why 13 is supposedly unlucky is relatively easy, as it stems from Christian mythology. The story goes that there were 13 people at the last supper, and the “13th” person was Judas, who went on to betray Christ. It is also supposed that Jesus died on a Friday, and so Friday the 13th is an especially unlucky day.

Given the origin of this superstition you would think that Italy, a deeply Catholic country and home of the Vatican, would also hold to a superstition of Christian origin. So, I asked myself, is it a Mediterranean thing that predates Christianity? A few questions to my Greek and Spanish colleagues revealed that their cultures too have 13 as the unlucky number. As far as I can tell, Italy is the only country in which 17 takes this special position. So, why is that?

Google here I come.

[Read more…]

When Catholic Fake Science Saved Lives

I think I’ve railed on bad science and woo enough on this blog to make my views on the matter perfectly clear. I think it is exploitative, dangerous, and contributes largely to the dumbing down of our society. However, in an almost “the exception that proves the rule” kind of way (though I never really understood why that phrase makes sense), I have come across an interesting story that I had never heard of before, despite the fact that it took place in my hometown of Rome. In this ironic twist fake science, perpetrated by Catholic doctors, actually saved a good many lives.

In the fall of 1943, German soldiers in Italy began rounding up Italian Jews and deporting them—10,000 people were sent to concentration camps during the nearly two-year Nazi occupation. Most never returned. But in Rome, a group of doctors saved at least 20 Jews from a similar fate, by diagnosing them with Syndrome K, a deadly, disfiguring, and “contagiosissima” disease.

You have probably never heard of this highly infectious and contagious disease. Don’t worry, it has been eradicated, by which I mean that it never actually existed.

The disease did not exist in any medical textbook or physician’s chart. In fact, it didn’t exist at all. It was a codename invented by doctor and anti-fascist activist Adriano Ossicini, to help distinguish between real patients and healthy hideaways. (Political dissidents and a revolutionary underground radio station were also sheltered there from Italy’s Fascist regime.)

The fake illness was vividly imagined: Rooms holding “Syndrome K” sufferers were designated as dangerously infectious—dissuading Nazi inspectors from entering—and Jewish children were instructed to cough, in imitation of tuberculosis, when soldiers passed through the hospital.

OK, so now you’re probably thinking wait, that doesn’t count! They didn’t really believe that there was such a thing as Syndrome K, that’s not fake science! And yes, you have a point there.

Still, they did manage to convince the Nazis of the existence of this deadly disease, contributing to and relying upon their ignorance of medicine and science. Furthermore, these were in fact Catholic doctors, working in a Catholic hospital, risking their lives to save these people not in order to convert them, or because of a Vatican mandate, but relying on their own sense of human decency. I shit on Catholicism a lot for what it has done around the world, but I will certainly acknowledge good Catholic people doing brave and heroic things when they do.

While the overall tally indicates that the world would be better off without both fake science and Catholicism, I still can’t help bringing this story up as the exception to the rule. It was a stroke of brilliance, and it really did work. While it is impossible to say exactly how many people were saved by a Syndrome K diagnosis, it is also true that 9,000 of the 10,000 Roman Jews managed to evade arrest, and the doctors at Fatebenefratelli definitely played their part in that.

Cultural Differences: Fatta la Regola, Trovato L’Inganno

I have talked about the cultural differences regarding following rules many times on this blog, as it is one of the most famous cultural stereotypes that Italy has. I talked about things like jaywalking, being flexible, speed limits, and telling on your peers. Today’s post is somewhat in the same vein, and is a perfect example of an old Italian adage used to describe Italy’s most famous cultural characteristic:

Fatta la regola, trovato l’inganno

Which means: The rule is made, the way around it is found.

This loose relationship with the rules is considered by many to be both Italy’s downfall and its genius. It is at the heart of why a country with so much tourism and such a large economy could get so complicated and pear-shaped. This post is not going to be about big ideas as to how to fix a broken country, but rather is it a small, simple and elegant example of how true that adage is when describing the Italian culture.

[Read more…]

Italy Just Threw Its Hat In The Ring

2016, you’re just all-round sucking. First, we had Brexit. Then, we had Trump being elected. Now, Italy has just voted No for a constitutional referendum, causing Matteo Renzi to step down.

While I am not surprised, I am incredibly pissed.

Usually, the Italian people are quite politically savvy. When I say that, I don’t mean that they make the right choices (never forget our own brand of Trump: Silvio Berlusconi), but rather I mean that many more people are politically informed, and vote, than you will find in many countries. While, for instance, you will find many more Americans being somewhat informed and/or invested in the stock market than you would find in other countries, you will also find the average Italian engaged in political debates not just about their own country, but having a rudimentary knowledge about the political processes of others as well.

Not this time. This time, the misinformation reeked.

[Read more…]

What Do You Think About Identity Murder?

A recent horrifying case of partner violence in Italy has sparked a discussion about the law, and whether or not the destruction of someone’s identity should be recognized as another form of murder.

The case involves a woman by the name of Carla Caiazzo, a young woman who was stalked and brutally assaulted by her ex for having the audacity to leave him while she was pregnant with his child. Paolo Pietropaolo stalked his ex girlfriend and, upon discovering that she was seeing another man, cornered her and set her on fire in her car while she was 8 months pregnant with his child.

She managed to extinguish the flames, first on her abdomen in a desperate attempt to save the life of her baby, and then on the rest of her body. Amazingly they both survived, her baby was delivered prematurely in a local hospital, and she has had 21 surgeries and is scheduled for more to deal with her extensive injuries.

[Read more…]

Enough Earthquakes

If I were superstitious, I would say that Poseidon had a beef with Central Italy this year. You’ll remember the 6.0 earthquake that hit Amatrice in August, completely leveling it, and followed by very large aftershocks. A few days ago we had two seperate 5.5 and 6.1 earthquakes, both in the same general area, and both with their own significant aftershocks.

And now, this morning, the same area of Italy was hit with the largest earthquake since 1976, a 6.6 blowout 7km from Norcia that managed to shut down the Rome metro service, cause damage on both coasts, and level another handful of towns.

Unfortunately, this problem is not going to be resolved by burning half a cow in honor of Poseidon. In reality, Geologists tell us that we can only expect more of these kinds of earthquakes in the future, given how the tectonic plates are shifting under Italy right now. So, be prepared for a fierce battle going forward: How do we update our ancient and medieval treasures without making them ugly, and how do we pay for that, given the sheer number of artefacts to preserve and Italy’s massive debt? We simply can’t. On the other hand, if we don’t, we’re probably not going to have any left very soon, and thousands more will die for being in close proximity to pretty much any one of 80% of the buildings in Central Italy when the next inevitable earthquake hits.

To think I only just found out about it as my Grandmother started her Happy Birthday phone call to me with the phrase “we’re all fine, by the way”.

So, in light of that, I have a few more phone calls to make. More posts to follow.

Elephant in the Room Part IV: The Elephant Has Been Spotted

A few days ago, I posted about a woman who died in Italy of sepsis after miscarrying twins. Her family claimed that she died because the doctor on call was a conscientious objector, and refused to complete the abortion she needed to save her life because he could still detect a foetal heartbeat. The hospital denies the charges, but a manslaughter investigation is still underway to assess whether or not the family’s claims have merit.

While Italian law allows for conscientious objection only in the matter of the voluntary termination of a pregnancy, I pointed out that it should not be allowed under any circumstances, particularly in public hospitals. If performing an abortion goes against your moral values, I argued, you need to go into a different specialization or profession. Similarly, if you are a pacifist and owning or firing a gun goes against your moral code (and Italian law also permits conscientious objection to firearms), you cannot be a police officer. I pointed out that no one was really talking about the deep problems with conscientious objection in the medical field, and how our country has a two-fold problem of Catholic hospitals with emergency rooms, which can lead women needing emergency pregnancy-related care to be brought to those hospitals, and conscientious objectors being hired in non-Catholic public hospitals as well.

Well, the elephant in the room has been spotted at last. The controversy surrounding that poor woman’s death is sparking debate and outrage which is not dying down, and I am finally seeing articles addressing the problem of conscientious objection. A study has been conducted to investigate just how many conscientious objectors there are working in hospitals across the country, and the results are mind boggling.

[Read more…]

Cultural Differences: Italian Linguistic Diversity

Many people do not know how culturally diverse Italy actually is. By that, I do not mean that there cultures from all around the world living there in large numbers, but rather than Italian culture itself is a misnomer. It has only been 150 years since the country was unified, and the differences between the different regions are still staggering. Even when it comes to food, there is not a single dish that is native to the entire country, not even the most globally famous like pasta or pizza. This cultural diversity is most evident in the various languages, dialects and sub-dialects spoken to this day, which have been studied and put together in this language map.


While this map is in Italian, you can see from a mere glance that there are so many different languages and dialects spoken that they had to repeat color palates and add labels simply to represent them all. Not only do you have the various regional dialects, some of which on their own reasonably qualify as completely separate languages (Sardinian, for instance, is said by many to be closer to Catalan than it is to Italian), but you also see a big pink chunk of German, spots of orange Slovenian, yellow Occitan, pale yellow Croatian and red Albanian scattered throughout the country. For a country of its size, the language variation is impressive.

This map partially represents why Italy is a country so divided, despite its political unification 150 years ago. A person from Sicily can seem as foreign to a Venetian as a person from a completely different country, and often that can also bring with it hostility, wariness, or simple frank curiosity. This also means that, when visiting Italy, there is no one place you can go to “truly experience Italy”, because there is no such thing as a unique Italian experience. Venice is a completely different world from Trentino, from Tuscany, from Rome, from Puglia, or Sicily. I was just as much a tourist in Taormina as I was in Barcellona, because political unity means nothing in the face of culture.

I tell you this partially because I find it interesting, but also to visually represent the complexity of Italian culture. While I love to give people holiday tips and travel advice, know that I can be as completely ignorant of parts of my own country as anyone else who has never visited it. On the other hand, I kind of like being able to be a tourist in my own country, and I hope to have the opportunity to visit more of it.

Right now, Puglia is on the top of my list of priorities. But that’s only because I’ve already visited Sicily, and it was glorious.


The Essence of Romans

There has been a Roman controversy on social media going on over the past couple of weeks. I have been passively witnessing it, and I have decided that these three images perfectly summarize the essence of Rome, and Romans.

It all started with street art. Those of you who have visited Rome but did not venture far from the tourist hotspots might not know this, but Rome is overrun with graffiti. It is everywhere, and most of it is stupid tagging. However, there is also a decent amount of street art, and this most recent mural by the artist known as Maupal is no exception.

[Read more…]

Elephant in the Room Part II: And It Happens In Italy

and I am deeply disgusted with my country.

Many of you will be familiar by now with the story of Savita, who died of sepsis in Ireland when she was miscarrying and medical staff refused to cure her due to the fact that they could still detect a foetal heartbeat. Her death understandably sparked worldwide outrage and a national debate, centered around the fact that it is still, to this day, illegal to obtain an abortion in Ireland.

Despite also being a predominantly Catholic country, Italy legalized abortion back in the 1970s. For the first three months, a woman can seek an abortion for whichever reason, and she can get the procedure done in a state hospital. After three months, abortion is legal for medical reasons. While on its face the law provides Italian women with more reproductive rights than in Ireland, it is not true that Catholicism has not left its mark upon it.

Italian law allows for doctors to be obiettori di coscienza, or conscientious objectors. This means that no doctor in Italy is forced to perform abortions contrary to their religious or moral beliefs. While most Italian states require doctors to register as conscientious objectors, thereby making sure that there is at least one doctor per hospital who will perform abortions, this regulation is not very well enforced and women in more conservative parts of the country can find themselves falling through the cracks.

The results, of course, are predictable.

[Read more…]