It’s a glorious Summer morning in the Roman Ghetto. Sheltered from the heat by straw hats, some tourists are queuing outside the local kosher bakery, while a couple of pensioners sit on a bench in the shadow, making comments on passers-by. A young waiter is lazily getting ready to serve lunch, setting tables and chairs outside. Now and then, one can hear the noise of kids playing football around the fountain in the piazzetta nearby.
But today Signora Mancini isn’t in the mood to appreciate the joy of living in the neighbourhood. Oversized sunglasses and several stuffed bags in her hands, she has stopped on her way to the butcher to lament her misfortune. In front of her, a friend nods in bewilderment. Signora Mancini isn’t well. The proof is in the scarf – I suspect a vintage Hermès carré – she’s tied around her neck like it was a brace, in spite of the hot weather. Signora Mancini, she reveals, has caught a colpo d’aria!
Literally meaning “hit of air” (although the expression is hardly translatable) a colpo d’aria manifests itself through multiple symptoms, including: redness of the eyes, ear pain, nasal congestion, sore throat, muscle contractions, ache in the neck or spine, headache, indigestion, death of firstborn.
Every year, with the arrival of Summer, the high temperatures registered throughout the Italian peninsula force us to find relief in drafts and fans, generating flows of cold air that have terrible consequences on our systems. Thousands of Italians are exposed to this treacherous sickness, which remains inexplicably unknown to people living beyond our borders.
A stiff neck, also known as cervicale, is the worst manifestation of a colpo d’aria and must be avoided at any cost.
Incidentally, it might also explain Italians’ fondness for scarves and garments in general. It’s not that we’re fashionable. We’re just hypochondriacs.
In obedience to the secret teachings passed on by our matriarchy – in one word: nonna – we are brought up to be suspicious of any source of cold air. In particular, its combination with sweat and humidity is known to be fatal.
In every Italian park, grandmothers have been gathering together for generations to address their grandchildren with the mantra: “Non correre che sudi e ti ammali” (Don’t run, else you’ll get sweaty and you’ll get sick!). Following a similar logic, there’s little wonder the temperature at Italian gyms in summer settles around the same as Kuala Lumpur during a heatwave.
A special mention must be made of the use of air conditioning.
As fierce descendants of Aeneas, we tend to frown upon common mortals’ modern findings such as the clothes dryer, automatic transmission, and AC.
Even if we have long capitulated to the inexorable progress of technological innovation, and today the majority of Italian public offices have installed AC, some doubt remains.
Reliable sources of information on the subject were not available at the time of writing, but I’m pretty sure the most common cause of workplace conflict in Italy is on how to operate air conditioning.
And how could you possibly ask that cab driver – with a running nose and a wool sweater on, even if it’s the middle of August – to switch the air conditioner on? Suffer, and sweat, in silence.
Italian Summer Paranoia, of course, is not limited to air drafts, but it also typically includes animated discussions on the recommended time of eating before taking a dip in our beautiful seas. Being a former lifeguard with an anxiety disorder, I personally sympathise with the concern, also considering the habits of some Italians to have Lucullan luncheons by the beach. Like colpo d’aria, the fear of a congestione is another scourge of Italian Summers. While the worry is serious, in the typical Italian fashion, we all have different opinions on this, and act accordingly.
One year, as a kid, I went to the seaside with both my mum and grandma, each of whom had solid beliefs on the matter.
My grandma, a militant traditionalist, would champion the wait-3hours-after-lunch rule.
At the opposite side of the spectrum, my mum, who remembered all too well the inconvenience of being allowed to get into the sea only when all her friends were already home having dinner, has always claimed the best time for a swim is right after lunch, before digestion starts.
Following the strictest Montessori method, both of them insisted on testing their theories on me.
The following year we went mountain-hiking.