‘Un colpo d’aria’

‘Un colpo d’aria’

Thu 12 May 2005 12:00 AM

Homeopathic doctors will tell you that illness starts as a psychological issue and has to do with your state of mind. Not only. It also has to do with the state you happen to be living in. Life on the peninsula has convinced me that health, in reality, is a cultural variable. Try, for example, to be sick in Italy. Just for the sake of cultural research complain that you have a pounding headache. Say that your eyes are redder than usual or that you have lacerating stomach pains. The closest you will get to sympathy is the ever-present Italian expression used to dismiss the ever-minor medical calamities, “Si vede che hai preso un colpo d’aria – it seems you have been hit by a gust of air.”

If you haven’t been living in Italy long, you might be unaware that air is a dangerous element. Hurricanes and tornadoes aside, you might still think that a little bit of good air can do a body no harm. Think soft summer breezes. Think wind rippling through amber waves of grain. Think open car windows on a summer drive through the country. Now forget about it. Italians will have none of it. According to popular consciousness, un colpo d’aria is the number one bearer of bad health in Italy, and should be avoided at all costs. Mention a dull ache at the back of your neck or a sudden pain in your lower abdomen. The culprit will always be found in the end. And usually air takes the blame as causa causorum of anything from sore gums to strep throat.

Last June, I was driving with a group of friends through the countryside in Emilia Romagna. We were going through a field of poppies towards the sun, but could have easily been on it. There we were, windows rolled up, five of us melting along in the old Fiat Punto that my friend Alessandro had been able to borrow from his sister by promising to clean the upholstery after. Needless to say, air-conditioning didn’t come along that day. “I’m boiling! Can we open the windows?” I yelled trying to be heard over the Genovese lawyer singing cabaret music on the radio.

“Do you want us all to wake up with a sore neck tomorrow morning? We can’t open the windows now, we’d all get un colpo d’aria, for sure,” Alessandro answered, incredulous.

If he was incredulous, I was beside myself. “Ale, it’s 45 degrees outside. We would be LUCKY to get hit by some air!”

My friends laughed, but the windows didn’t budge. No one would risk it. “Getting hit by air when you are sweaty is the worst thing that can happen.  It’s very bad for you,” Alessandro explained.

Illustration by Leo Cardini

Illustration by Leo Cardini

“Is it as bad,” I asked, “as getting hit over the head with a pogo stick?” Nobody knew what a pogo stick was, but that wouldn’t have convinced them anyway.

In winter, of course, it’s worse. During my first Florentine winter, I came down with the flu. As expected, most people blamed my influenza on un colpo d’aria. Signora Ida, our third-floor neighbor across the alley, went a step further. Having seen no undershirts on my clothesline, she had known I would catch something sooner or later. Didn’t I know that going out in winter without a maglietta della salute, a health shirt, was a risk? Of course, the neighbor lady talking freely about my underclothes shocked no one but me.

Invariably though, if you get sick in Italy you are sure to learn many things. Be sick in this country and you will discover the secrets of wellness. Black liquorice is good for your blood pressure. Honey heals all infirmities. If you put a raw potato in your mouth it will heal your toothache. Wire bracelets combat rheumatism. Artichokes are good for your liver. Lemons treat colds and flu. Sulfur springs are good for asthma. Garlic is for bronchial problems. Boiled bay leaves and lemon rinds work on stomach pains. Blueberries are good for your eyes. And most importantly, an undershirt can save your life, because aria is a risk, especially if you’re imprudent enough to get hit by it.

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