My liver is something I've never thought much about, that is until I moved to Italy. The Italians, it seems, have a very close, personal relationship with theirs.
"I can't eat vegetables. It disturbs my liver," my Italian brother-in-law said.
I'd never heard this excuse before. I've tried everything to minimize the portions put on my plate, but to little success. My mother-in-law is the perfect Italian hostess, always with more food waiting for a clean plate.
My brother-in-law often makes grand statements and then refuses to say more. You have to beg him to share. After much prodding, I learned the sad facts. Vegetables give him diarrhea.
A few weeks later I went for a walk with the neighbor ladies. My mother-in-law had cooked her usual six-course meal for Sunday lunch and I rattled off the menu.
"Oof. I can't eat all that. I have a small liver," one of the ladies said.
"Ah, my liver is normal, but that is too much food," another said.
What size is my liver? I had no idea. Panic. I am terrified of getting sick in a foreign country. What if I have been eating too much and jeopardizing my liver's functionality? I don't even know what side my liver is on.
For the rest of the walk, the ladies’ chatter buzzed in my ear while I made a mental checklist of all the things I needed to research.
Back home, I rushed inside to find my husband, Massimo, laying bricks around what will be our new front door.
"Massimo, what size is your liver?"
He stopped, looked me square in the eye, slapped cement on his brick and continued working. He gets impatient with my questions about why Italians say and do things I don't understand.
So, I went to the Internet. I discovered that the liver filters your blood for sugars and nutrients and produces bile, which helps digest food in the intestines. Over or under production by the liver can cause bloating, diarrhea, and other assorted symptoms.
Soon after, one of the ladies in our walking group declared that she was bloated.
"Ah, your liver. Does it hurt?" another lady asked.
"Mmm, I don’t know. I have this pain in my back," she said and shrugged her shoulder forward. "You're right; I should get my liver checked again."
Bells rang in my ears. Bloating can be uncomfortable but it causes pain in your upper back?
I've tried to ask, but Italians assume I'm having problems with the language and change the subject. English speakers think I'm making a joke.
"Checked again?" I asked. "You've had problems with your liver before?"
"Yes. When I was pregnant. They cut me open and my liver was full of stones." She then stopped to pull up her shirt and show me the scar. This led to all of the ladies pulling up their shirts and comparing liver scars in the middle of the street.
Fascinated, I inspected each one. It was like a timeline of medical practice, each scar getting a little smaller with the most recent surgery patient having a barely noticeable line along her upper rib cage.
Not wanting to be left out, I yanked up my pant leg to show my knee scars but it just wasn't the same.
Later that night, my head still reeling from the idea of liver stones, I turned to Wikipedia. I thought they meant kidney stones. But I typed in liver stones and found gallstones.
Aahh, I thought, that explains it. The Italians eat meat with ritual devotion twice a day. They put olive oil on everything. Fat and oil overload.
I looked up gall bladder in the dictionary. They have a word for it (cistifelia) but I've never heard it used. Then I saw the translation for gall (fegato), which is the same word for liver. So, if I were to say in Italian, "You have a lot of gall." I would, in essence, be saying, "You have a lot of liver."
It seems they roll the gall bladder and liver into one. And given their diets and high cholesterol it's no wonder that the doctors also check the gall bladder/liver regularly.
I tried to explain the simple solution to my sister-in-law. As I pointed out the facts about fat, meat and oils in regards to the gall bladder/liver, she was right there with me. Then I mentioned cutting out the second course — meat and cheese — at every meal.
"No. That won't work. It's part of the culture." She pursed her lips and did the hand gesture that means, 'Unfortunately, some things can’t be changed,' and reached into the freezer to get some pork for dinner.
I guess I'll go alone in my crusade to save the gall bladder.
"No cheese for me, thank you," I say. "It makes my liver hurt."
Works every time.