Diseases in Macedonia enter through the throat.

Actually, this doesn't just happen in Macedonia. Diseases enter through the throat throughout the entire Slavic world, as I’ve found out by talking to some of the other Slavs visiting or studying here. So, for example, letting a kid go out during the winter without a scarf in the Czech Republic is considered tantamount to child abuse.

Macedonia takes this health mythology one step further, though, and prescribes throat-based cures. For added Balkanness, pretty much all the cures involve that omnipresent Balkan brandy, rakija. Rakija does everything. It’s a drink! It’s a disinfectant! It makes making julienne fries a lot more enjoyable! And it’s the key to a proper cold cure here.

So three ways of using rakija I’ve heard so far:

Mix rakija with water and sugar. Heat it up (which is gross–-rakija is drunk cool or at room temperature) and down it. This custom has been updated for the modern era with an explanation that fits into the germ theory of disease. The bacteria supposedly go swarming for the sugar in your throat. But then the rakija comes through and kills them all off. This image was delivered to me by a Macedonian over (guess what) shots of rakija with highly amusing sound effects I wish I could reproduce here.

Rakija and cold (cold!) beer. Drink one gulp after another from each. Wake up the next morning cured of all flu/cold/whatever. The theory here is that the shock of heating rakija and cooling beer to the throat confuses the germs and they commit suicide from identity angst.

And the old classic, the total favorite approved by babas and dedos everywhere: pour rakija on a cloth, put some pepper on it (peppercorn pepper? red pepper? I still don’t know), wrap it around your neck and go to sleep. You'll wake up the next morning stinking of alcohol, but at least your sinuses will be clear enough that you can tell.

As far as health mythologies go, it can be amusing for an American to hear about these wonder cures. But the fact is that, unless you've gone through medical school or you're spectacularly well-read in the area of human anatomy and metabolism, everyone has ridiculous ideas about how disease works, no matter the culture. The American folk model of disease, in which 'toxins' are 'flushed' or 'neutralized,' is equally inaccurate and equally unlikely to survive empirical testing (and not just 'the test of experience': one of the lessons of the Enlightenment is that experience lies). From that perspective, curing everything with rakija is just another interesting way we tell ourselves stories about our bodies.

And who knows? Maybe double-blind studies will someday uncover a statistically significant advantage to dousing yourself with brandy for recovery from common viruses and infections! It's certainly no less likely than finding out the same about chicken soup.

Originally posted to the blog Polysemic.

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