Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The infamous Colpo D'Aria

After coming home from work the other night, as soon as I got into bed I was struck by a weird headache in the left side of my head.  It lasted about 2 hours, and felt like someone punched me in the head with a hammer, which is needless to say, not a pleasant feeling.  I've never had a headache like this before, and the next day when I went to my therapy, I discussed it with my physical therapist.  He listened, nodding, and reasoned that it might very well be that I got a little colpo d'aria.  Manuel's mother, upon hearing the symptoms, confirmed the diagnosis.  I sighed, and laughed, and walked away as everyone started chiding me about proper clothing at night and leaving necks uncovered and other dangerous things in Italy, as they already know my feelings about the infamous Italian malady, the colpo d'aria, or "hit of air".

I first heard about this dangerous hit of air a few years ago, and laughed for a solid five minutes, chalking it up to another odd Italian health quirk, like not eating peppers for dinner or eating pasta with butter and cheese to clear up your skin.  Long in the habit of leaving my house with damp hair (curly hair does not work well completely blow dried, I'm sorry), I've been a target of older women and even some men, chiding me about making myself susceptible to illness, chills, pains, and other colpo d'aria symptoms.  

The common wisdom is that this mysterious hit of air, something akin to getting a chill on your neck, can cause any number of ailments and sicknesses.  Sweating during the summer then disrobing makes you especially prone to wind gusts "hitting" you.  A girl last summer in the Cantina ate dinner after splitting 3 bottles of wine with her 2 friends, then went outside to smoke and promptly got ill.  The cause?  Not the wine, no, or the cigarette - but that she went outside and got a colpo d'aria, and the sudden cold wind made her sick.  I've heard this mysterious Italian hit of wind blamed for everything from fever, to sore bones, to stomach problems, headaches, and, of course, general fatigue.  

My friend from Calabria asked me last year how you translate it in English.  I responded that it doesn't exist.  You can catch a "chill", I explained, but it's not enough to cause you digestive problems, a migraine, swollen wrists and heart palpitations all at once.  He refused to believe me, then asked me if it's because we have different air.  I tried to very politely explain that we don't have it because maybe for us it is something of an illness that isn't exactly, for lack of a better word, real.

He shook his head.  "Americans," he muttered, again annoyed and befuddled about our odd little ways of doing things, as I laughed for the exact same reason about Italy.

When you see the population of Monterosso in these early May days, when it gets chilly at night and as soon as the sun slides behind Punta Mesco, it's disturbingly easy to pinpoint locals and tourists.  Older women from the village are still wearing winter coats, scarves, jackets and layers.  I've long joked that part of the Italian woman uniform is a scarf, especially at night.  This is to ward off any sneaky little air gusts coming your way.  American girls studying abroad are ok in a bikini top and jean shorts.  As they walk by, eyes narrow.  I know those old women are internally thinking "colpo d'aria victim" as they saunter on by.

Another weird one is the mysterious pain of cervicale, which is a neck pain that can bring on anything from headaches to that old favorite, general sluggishness.  I tried to explain that I've never even heard of such a thing, though every single woman I know here suffers from it, and I was told that it's because we don't have the same sea air in America.  Hm.  My continued efforts to explain that these ailments simply do not exist in America are constantly responded by shocked, blank stares.  Here, when the air changes, people who suffer from cervicale are susceptible to it's pain, and though I'm not diminishing anyone's discomfort or doubting that people are not feeling well, it's just always interesting to see how different cultures reason through these symptoms.  

Since I am American, I have decided that I am officially immune to evil wind gusts and sea air neck pain, and have continued trying to leave the house with my 80% dry hair and little cardigan, though my efforts are sometimes thwarted.  Last week, the saleslady in the store next to the Cantina flipped out that I wasn't dressed appropriately enough for the cold air breeze that I didn't feel, and made me wear her sweater the rest of the day.  Sighing, I have no other option but to go along, and to avoid having to wear someone else's sweater, I have now started dressing myself in more layers then I need just to avoid the discussion.  

Much to my amusement, after googling the odd colpo d'aria, I discovered I'm not the only American/English/Australian ex-pat who giggles at this quirky piece of Italian health information.  The following articles elaborate more the health-folklore-wisdom that you run into every day here.  And by no means is it something I'm making fun of to be spiteful or to poke fun at Italians - I do not think people are making up pain and I'm sorry that people feel terrible- it's just a little cultural quirk I thought I'd share, lest anyone even think of stepping foot in this country without a scarf and cardigan.

Note: while writing this, Manuel wanted to remind me that it is ridiculous to even write about something like this.  It is totally logical, not interesting, and further added that colpo d'aria is something very serious.






  1. I'm on your side, Christine! All those things we in America have been taught are "old wives tales" are alive and well in Italy. My husband and I laught at the Italians wearing heavy clothing in spring when we are stifling in a light sweater. We joke that Italians dress according to the calendar not the actual weather. Heaven forbid one should be in shirt sleeves before June 1. Glad to hear you are feeling better and brace free!

  2. Great article.
    I have found out that Italians are apparently only susceptible to the Colpo d'Aria when they are in Italy. On a recent trip to Australia I saw two Italian ladies in the hotel lobby - they were heading out into the Australian heat from the cold air conditioned lobby - quite a temperature change. They didn't seem to be worried about it despite having wet hair. I doubt they would have dared to do the same thing here in Italy.
    When my Italian friends warn me about the Colpo d'Aria, I just laugh and say that I am not Italian and therefore an immune to it. Cue blank stares.

  3. Hahaha, it's one of the most unexplainable things in this wacky country