Map of Italy

A HEALTHY ATTITUDE

The common stereotype about the cheese-eating and cigarette-smoking continentals is that they live life to the fullest and damn the consequences. It is true that diet soft drinks have little place in Europe and gyms still aren’t quite as widespread as on the other side of the pond, but Italians seem to live to a ripe old age nonetheless. The 100-year-old Italians, when asked for their secret, routinely attribute their success to one glass of red wine per day. Maybe the toast salute! (to your health!) has some meaning after all.

Italians may smoke more than they should (though not more than the average European, according to EU surveys) and give off the impression that the present is more important than the future, but the reality is that they are adamant about keeping in shape and do a pretty good job of it. Whether it’s the way they choose their food, how they dress for the cold, or what they put on their skin, they subscribe to the doctrine of preemptive health: It’s better to keep the doctor away than run to the hospital for every ache and pain.

Popular wisdom about maintaining good health, though, contains a few traditions that can be dubious, or even downright superstitious at times. The most common threat to one’s health is apparently the colpo d’aria (draft). Air-conditioning is widely believed to bring on a cold. Few public buildings use anything other than a fan, even in the dead of summer. Similarly, no one leaves the house with wet hair, regardless of the temperature outside. Grandmothers still scold young women for sitting on cold benches, as it allegedly renders them infertile. Do not be surprised to see these same women wearing fur coats in April.

In general, Italians work hard to make a good impression. Making una bella figura (a good impression) requires some practice. It is an air of confidence, patience, intelligence, and respect for other people, all delivered with a dazzling smile. It can also include more material representations of success, such as showing up in the right sort of car and wearing the right clothes. It’s hard to put your finger on what exactly constitutes una bella figura in any given situation, but it will be painfully obvious when you’ve made a bad one. A few examples of making una brutta (ugly) figura would be showing up to a dinner without a bottle of wine, or with a clearly cheap one when the occasion calls for something nice; tripping and falling; confusing someone’s name, or forgetting it altogether; letting out a closely guarded secret; forgetting someone’s birthday”basically the same sort of buffoonery that gets you into trouble anywhere else in the world.

Birthday parties, incidentally, have their own peculiar nuances. You, as the person celebrating your birthday, host the party, or maybe even buy the dinner at a restaurant. Gifts are almost always presented in public. As a foreigner, you might consider it a little gauche if someone opens each of the presents in front of the invitees, but in Italy, this is standard operating procedure. Outside of those sorts of celebrations, don’t feel obliged to pick up the check at dinner if it was your idea. It’s always a nice gesture, but Italians”young people, especially”will often decide to pay alla romana (the Roman way), which is to say everyone pays for themselves. Who knew the Romans were such cheapskates? In English jargon, it’s usually the Dutch who are treated to this stereotype. (Guys, don’t take this as an invitation to go alla romana on a date. You’re usually expected to pick up the tab.)

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