Got a Hit of Air
by Lisa McCumber
Call them "old wives tales" urban legends, folklore, or superstitions, but every culture has some beliefs or stories passed from one generation to another. In Italy, I became familiar with one of them, a "colpo d'aria."
Italians fear getting a "colpo d'aria" (a punch of air, or in other words, a draft of air). Getting a "colpo d'aria" can result in all kinds of medical ailments, everything from a cold to stiff muscles to partial paralysis. You can get a "colpa d'aria" by sitting in an open window, by going into a air conditioned bank on a hot day or by having a fan blow on you.
We once met a girl who had one hand clasping her cheek and chin while the other hand supported her elbow so that she could maintain pressure on her face. We asked her what was wrong. She explained that she'd gotten a "copla d'aria" because she'd gone into the bank on a hot day. Banks are one of the few buildings in Italy (at that time) that were air conditioned. She explained that the rapid change in temperature shocked her body and resulted in severe and lasting pain in her cheek and chin.
This is what happened to us while my friend and I were living in Rome. While waiting for the bus, my friend sat down on the marble step of a building. It was late fall; the weather was chilly, but not icy cold. An older woman hurried over to her; "Get up. Get up," She scolded. Didn't my friend know that she'd get a "colpo d'aria" from sitting on the cold step? Clearly the woman could tell we were foreigners and she must have thought we were very silly not to know that sitting on a cold step would lead to medical consequences. I can't imagine what harm she thought would strike my friend. Perhaps she thought the "coplo d'aria" would hit her in the bottom, rise up her spine, and cause full or partial paralysis.
She may have thought we were silly, but we secretly thought she was silly. Later that day, and many days afterward, we laughed as we recalled her urgent chiding. Jeni did not become paralyzed nor did she suffer any other ill effect from sitting on that step.
Who knows why old wives tales persist. Perhaps in this case it is so that mothers can make sure that their children wear a jacket in the winter and that they don't sit on a dirty stair and risk spoiling their clothing. Perhaps it ensures that young people remain distrustful of modern conveniences like air conditioning. I'm not sure, but I sure can get a chuckle out of this cultural bit of folklore.