never got sick when I lived in Rome. The occasional cold, and one New Year’s Eve I couldn’t hold down a meal of lentils and zampone, stuffed pig’s foot. My boyfriend had let all the fat from the zampone soak into the lentils, creating an indigestible stew.
I did go to the dermatologist once or twice — at the Vatican’s then-respected Istituto Dermopatico dell’Immacolata (IDI), recently in the spotlight for corrupt financial practices.
My first visit there was for an eczema flare-up, and the doctor prescribed a treatment that involved rubbing ointment on my skin and covering it in Saran wrap overnight.
The second time I thought I had an irregular mole. At least it looked irregular to me, and according to what I’d found in my boyfriend’s dated Reader’s Digest Health Guide (he was two-and-half decades older than me). The doctor thought otherwise: he teased me and sent me on my way.
My third encounter with the Italian healthcare system came when I found a lump under my armpit. My mother had breast cancer, so I panicked. At the time, I was awaiting renewal of my permesso di soggiorno, Italy’s temporary residency permit, so technically not entitled to the battery of tests I wanted. I remember wrangling a little with a public hospital administrator, crying my way into approval.
There was, of course, nothing wrong with me, except perhaps that I was run down. Intense worrying takes its toll on the body. Italy did a lot to break me out of my anxious shell, but it didn’t free me from my hypochondria.
As a child, I was called a “worrywart.” My mother, a nurse, perhaps inspired my fears. When I wouldn’t eat my vegetables at dinner, she listed the diseases I could get from malnutrition. Sobbing, I turned to my father, who told me not to worry and gave me ice cream.
But worry I did. One of my biggest concerns was choking. At some point, I heard the legend that 1960s pop singer Cass Elliot, known as Mama Cass, had choked to death on a ham sandwich. In fact, she’d died of heart failure, but from the moment I heard ‘choking,’ I cut my food up into tiny bites. Going out to dinner became an interminable affair —my slow eating an excuse for my older brother to steal my fries.
Gradually my fear of choking subsided — until I actually choked. I must’ve been nine or 10 when one Sunday afternoon, while gnawing on homemade English muffin pizzas, a glob of stringy, melted mozzarella lodged in my throat. As I gasped for breath, my mother scraped the cheese out with her long finger nails.
Perhaps because of that, I ate like a bird until I moved to Italy in my twenties, where eating ravenously was a show of respect toward the cook. Picking at food meant you didn’t like it.
I still gobble my food, but I make sure that my daughter Julia pecks at hers. She’s a just over a year old, and only recently started eating finger food. The reason? I’m worried she’ll choke. She sometimes gets mistaken for a little boy because she wears her thick, wavy hair free of bows (I find them silly), and barrettes (they’re a choking hazard).
I crush her Ritz peanut butter crackers into crumbs, and grate her apples. My aunt teases me that I chop up Julia’s food into bites that are too small for her to grasp. When recently, she ate a clementine for the first time, I carefully removed the fruit’s membrane, then cut it up into tiny pieces. When I turned my back, she had gobbled it all up.