Sulphur Sticks and the Myth of Nation Building

by Bertie Castello

6 AM on a Tuesday morning. Florentine friend sends me a link, possibly reminiscing our transalpine past with the typical sarcastic grin that comes naturally with our undying emigrant superiority complex. Italians are interesting creatures. Recently, it has been asserted, intra Orielensia moenia, that we may in fact be Untermenschen, as we maintain a distinction between blue and light blue (blu, azzurro). As an Untermensch myself, I would certainly deem it inappropriate to express, or have, an opinion on the matter. Azure blood can only perish under the sway of cerulean mastery.

Anyway, I reply ‘lmao’. Then start pulling out my best catalogue of pseudo-scientific, hypochondriac memories. ‘Na na, remember when we couldn’t leave with our hair wet if we didn’t want to get hit by the air’ ‘yea lol what about the old people complaining about their cervical’ ‘what even is a cervical’ ‘dunno’. But then, everything unravelled. My next text was ‘swear people still use those sulphur sticks to like absorb the cervical pain until they break’. My friend replies ‘wut’. I’m confused. How could she not know? Every Carrefour has them. Every homoeopathic pharmacy. Every salt and tobacco shop. Even most newspaper kiosks have them, generally between the football / animal sticker albums and a pile of dirty magazines that survived the cold war but not the demands of the market.

She didn’t know. She had genuinely never heard of those sulphur sticks. I was flabbergasted. After around 15 seconds of googling, I found out they’re a traditional Genoese (or, as I like to say, Genoan) remedy for joint pain, which isn’t really found anywhere else in the world except Argentina. Interestingly, the origin of the remedy is controversial. It is really a chicken-and-egg kind of controversy, with Hispanic sources overwhelmingly claiming it was imported to Europe by the Genoese, and Italian sources claiming that it was brought to Argentina by the enormous flux of Genoese migrants in the late XIX and early XX century.

Wherever they came from, they caused a breakdown of communication. However trivial and irrelevant, the sorfanetti are just another example of the utter ridicule of nationalism, or nation building. In 2022, this is basically a platitude, but we face an epistemic and ontological problem when defining a nation. In other words, is it a thing and, if so, how do we put a line around it? Garibaldi was born in Nice (former Genoese territory). Funnily enough, Nice has consistently been governed by Gaullist or outright Pétainist mayors since the second world war: pretty proud of being French for a city that didn’t speak French until the late XIX century. But then again, who wants to be Italian, anyway – whatever that means.

I’m not going to go into the ramifications and flaws of the concept of nation (if interested, I’d suggest the ‘Fichte → Arendt → identitarian suicide’ pipeline). Truly, I’ve ran out of fucks to give. But it’s quite funny how a nation seems to agree in nothing but in its being a nation, a glorious lineage which seems to reach ever greater heights of magnificence. When listening to the pathetic panegyrics of the plentiful wannabe-caudillos of Italian politics, the historical tropes of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, and the Risorgimento seem to come up metronomically. But too many forget that the empire was Roman, the Renaissance Florentine, and the Risorgimento was fought by the French.

And the sulphur sticks are Genoan.

Editor’s note: The link referred to in the first paragraph is to a 2011 BBC News story by Dany Mitzman titled ‘How to avoid getting “hit by air” in Italy’, available here:

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s