Italian mammas spend their days measuring their child’s fevers. When a child has the flu, the mamma has to measure the temperature at least four or five times a day to report the specific number — 38.3, 39.1, 37.9 — back to the mother-in-law, husband and pediatrician. An Italian pediatrician under the National Health Service is obliged to visit your child at home if he or she has a fever.
I’ve learned to invent the appropriate fever figures to satisfy my needs — down a few notches for the husband and mother-in-law, up a few if I want the pediatrician to come. The mother’s obsession with her child’s temperature helps him grow and develop into a true Italian hypochondriac, taking full advantage of the national health-care system with frequent blood and urine tests and regular analyses to see if he has skin, stomach or prostate cancer, or other such deadly ailments.
Sometimes I play a little game with Italian male friends. If they say to me they are sick and have a fever, I say “Oh really, how high?” Then I count how many temperatures they give me. For example, a typical response would be, “Now it is 37.5, but last night it was 38 and the night before it went up to 39.” The winner of this game is always Pietro, a 32-year-old who works in my office and is finishing his engineering degree. He lives at home with his mother and frequently is afflicted with fevers. He admits he is little obsessive, but says he measures at least ten times a day and is always ready with the numbers. In between measuring his fever his mother fills him with liquids. She gives him liters of tea with fennel, liters of Rosehips tea, and liters of chicken broth. Then, he says, once he is over his fever and ready to leave the house, she makes him ‘dress like an astronaut’, every inch covered, to resist the severe Roman cold.
In addition, Italians believe that, if you have a fever, you must stay home in bed. It is the favorite excuse for getting out of work, dinners and any sort of unpleasant meetings. No one questions a fever. I’ve noticed whenever a male colleague calls in sick with a fever, he always has 38.9. I’ve heard the same number from friends bowing out of dinner parties, “My husband is in bed with 38.9.” For me, it is enough to know that a colleague is not coming to work or a couple is not coming to dinner. I do not need to know the number, but Italians do.
While an American mom might give a child baby Tylenol, and drag a sick child with her to the supermarket, an Italian mamma would not dare. One day I had an appointment for three-month-old Chiara to have a check-up with Dr. Guidotti. I brought three-year-old Caterina along with me. Caterina had had a fever on and off for several days along with a deep cough. She seemed better, and I had no choice but to bring her along. It was a steaming hot early-September day in Rome and we were dressed in sleeveless dresses.
As I walked towards the door of the doctor’s office, a couple raced past me carrying something. They stopped at the doorway, ringing furiously at the bell. As we got nearer, we could see the father had a boy, who must have been about three, in his arms. The boy was wrapped up in several baby blankets and we could only see his sweaty face. The mother continued frantically pressing the bell. No response. “Porco Giuda,” cursed the father. clutching his son tightly, “Porco Giuda.” “Are you going to see Dr. Guidotti?” I enquired. “Yes, but, Porco Giuda, where is he? “ responded the father clearly about to have a nervous breakdown. “Is your son okay?” I asked. The father glared at me with desperation in his eyes, “No, he has had a fever of 38.3 for three days now.” “Oh, so has my daughter,” I responded, looking down at Caterina who was about to engage in her favorite trick of pouncing on the handle of the baby carriage in order to tip it over and send baby Chiara flying. Both parents looked at me, their mouths agape in horror. At that moment someone buzzed the door open and the agitated parents charged up the stairs, leaving me struggling up with my baby carriage and rambunctious three-year-old.
It can be convenient to play with the fever numbers and all Italian mammas do it. A mamma can call her local pediatrician any time on her cell phone, declare fever and, by law, the doctor must make a home visit. It took me years to figure out this handy system, but finally, through Italian mamma friends, I caught on.
My local public health service pediatrician, Doctor Blassetti, is a wonderful, calm efficient, woman who can nail an illness in a few seconds flat. Because her services are free, she must see millions of sick kids a year. And someone that sees millions of sick kids a year develops some pretty good instincts. She is helped by her assistant, the indomitable Signora Luisa, who runs the waiting room like a military general while wielding the telephone in one hand, shaking off endless calls by anxious mammas. Signora Luisa is the only person in this world who has succeeded in making my three little beasts sit quietly and behave in a waiting room.
Despite her tranquil manner, Doctor Blassetti’s first question on the phone is always, “How high is the fever?”
One day. in exasperation, I said laughingly, “I have three kids sick with the flu. They’ve all been running a fever for days and I cannot be bothered to measure it. I just feel their foreheads.” Big mistake. “Well, measure now then, and call me back,” she responded firmly. So I waited ten minutes and called her back, “Nico 39.6, Caterina 38.1, and Chiara 38.3.”