Wednesday’s Child: Natural Hypochondria
The weather’s changed, we are now into the rainy season, and the crowds in pharmacies are out of control. The British equivalent of the Italian drugstore is the local post office branch, because there, too, people socialize while waiting in the interminable queue, with the dispatch of a parcel a mere cover story not unlike the quest for advice regarding a cold sore. The gum-chewing, nose-pierced, orange-haired girl in the window, however, is nothing like the patrician figure of the pharmacist – always male, and portly enough to exude authority – a single word from whose august mouth can make a big difference to an Italian’s mood, his or her diet, and very possibly his or her marital happiness. Moreover, while the British post office queue is a lower-class environment, here the drugstore is a meeting place for all ranks of society, demonstrating that the rich and the poor are not as anatomically dissimilar as they sometimes choose to believe.
Sickness is the most basic form of democracy. And just as democracy has its failings, its falsities, and its simulacra, so sickness, too, can manifest as hypochondria. And that, of course, is the Italian national disease. The most common ailment of which one hears people complain to the pharmacist is cervicale – typically, a sufferer will point to the back of the neck while contorting facial features into a lemon-sucking grimace – and which, as I have ascertained on querying my doctor in London, does not figure in any medical text and does not describe any known medical condition. It is, in short, the exact equivalent of “housemaid’s knee” immortalized by Jerome K. Jerome.
How does one get an imaginary disease? Obviously, this can only be accomplished by means which are just as imaginary. Foremost among these is something called colpo d’aria. When we hear a person of sturdy constitution speak of a draft, we instinctively visualize it as air or wind – as Aeolus, in other words, being a little more boisterous than usual – not something like a brickbat that one gets hit on the head with. Not so a hypochondriac, who visualizes it as the “stroke” that crushes his cervical vertebrae and leaves him down with cervicale.
As islanders fear the sea – in Sardinia, where I’ve spent some months, the insuperable chasm between shepherd and sailor is deeply ingrained in the national psyche, while here in Sicily somebody who swims out for more than twenty yards is a rare presence on the beaches – so the Italians, embosomed as they are in nature at its most attractive, fear and mistrust the surrounding natural world with its floods, avalanches, eruptions, ingrown toenails, stomach bugs, and kidney stones. Cambio di stagione may sound innocent to an Englishman – after all, there are four seasons to a year, and in following one another they do “change” – but here in Italy it is shorthand for blight, mayhem, pestilence.
That’s why the pharmacies are getting so crowded now, with both rich and poor preparing for the worst. Living, to them, means living under a volcano.