Italians and Hypochondria

On The Road Travel Essays

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Italians and Hypochondria

(COURIER: This is an all-purpose section, to be used at any time along the way when there's not too much going on outside the bus: no dramatic landscape, no famous cities.)

Little things along the road reveal much about the character of the people living there. For example, Italy abounds in thermal spas, which you can detect from many of the town names. When a town's name ends in "Terme", you can be sure there's a spa in or near the town, as this is the word for "spa" in Italian.

Spas are popular in Europe, and have always been. Let's face it: Europeans are great hypochondriacs, particularly in the Latin countries (France, Italy, Spain). They worship such spas as cure-alls, and will head for them at the drop of a headache, or at the slightest rumbling of indigestion. The spa, and the bodily rituals which go along with it, have become a part of the Italians national culture.

Europeans may be as healthy as anybody else, but they enjoy feeling unhealthy, and fussing about themselves as if on the verge of collapse. They've counted and classified each of their internal organs, developing an elaborate mythology about each one. The capstone of the whole system is the liver. Americans tend to be concerned about the heart or the lungs, but in Europe, the liver takes center stage. If the liver is happy and content, a European feels that nothing can happen to him; he's invincible. If his liver is upset or irritable, he knows an attack of something is on the way. A European always knows how his liver is feeling: he recognizes its subtlest moods and whims, and knows how to satisfy each one. He's got all kinds of potions, pills, exercises, special diets, and hot-spring baths to keep the liver happy. "How are you?" asks one Italian of another. "My liver isn't feeling well today," replies his friend, despondent. But the Frenchman is the most liver-conscious of all. He has a classification of moods of the liver that makes the Italian seem positively insensitive by comparison. When a Frenchman is really upset and wants you to know it, he throws up his hands and exclaims, C'est une crise de foie! ("It's a crisis of the liver!") The Italian praises his mineral water, for example, not for its tart effervescence, but because he's convinced it's good for the liver.

Acqua Minerale  Hypochondria aside, you owe it to yourself to try some of the Italian mineral water. It's quite cheap in Italy — much less expensive, and better for your teeth, than Coke. It doesn't have a taste of its own; what it does is to cleanse the mouth and stimulate it for the food to follow, thus enhancing the flavor. It's the most refreshing thing you can have on a warm day, especially at the beginning of a meal. Notice the label on the bottle. There is always a long, technical statement given by a renowned physician, singing the praises of mineral water and of this brand in particular. (The statement usually dates from the 1930's or 1940's.) The point he's working up to, sometimes printed in italics (no pun intended), comes when the physician gives solemn testimony that this brand of Acqua Minerale is especially beneficial to the liver (Italian: fegato). That's what sells the bottle.

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