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“What is un colpo d’aria?”

colpodaria copyWe have been driving with seven people cramped in the compact car for over an hour; it is not entirely clear if I will ever walk upright again.

When we arrive in the town center of Corato, my mother, sister and I hop — or rather limp — into the back seat of our cousin Franca’s car for the remainder of the ride to Zia Rosa’s house. And lucky me, I get stuck in the middle seat, which only furthers my rapidly developing case of scoliosis.

I sit back and the leather scorches my skin. It is August in Puglia and not surprisingly, it is hot. Fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk hot. And yet, the AC is not on, and all the windows are zipped up tight.

Having just been in a freak bomb-scare situation on a train days before, I am a little claustrophobic and somewhat anxious. I lean my crippled body over my mother’s and turn the handle to lower the window.

I breathe in a wall of warm air just as Franca yells, “Daniela! Chiudi il finestrino, che ti prendi un colpo d’aria!”

Eh?

Without moving my contorted body, I begin searching the internal dictionary in my head, trying to remember what “un colpo d’aria” translates to in English. I studied abroad in Italy for six months and yet this phrase is completely unknown to me.

Before I have time to ask anything, my mother wraps her hand over mine and rolls the window back up, and then she gives me the eyes. The eyes that say, “don’t cause a scene, don’t ask questions, just shut up and go with it.”

keep-calm-and-beware-of-colpo-d-aria-4Of course, I ignore the eyes and ask, “What is ‘un colpo d’aria?’”

Franca looks at me not only as if I have three heads, but also as if I have been living under a rock.

There I am, an awkward three-headed-rock monster, dripping sweat in the back of a Fiat 600 that had seen better days.

My mother breaks the silence and explains that ‘un colpo d’aria’ is being hit by a gust of wind … which can cause a myriad of health issues ranging from stiff neck, headache and even influenza.

I glance at Lisa, but she hasn’t understood a word of what is going on; she’s half melted into the car seat and is humming along to Gwen Stefani on the radio.

I’m quietly mulling over my mother’s explanation in my head when Franca continues in Italian:

“Daniela, just yesterday I was hit by a gust of wind while I was on the balcony. And now I have a stiff neck. Hai visto? That is why I’m wearing this scarf.”

I hadn’t noticed before but there it is — a soft pink scarf wrapped several times around Franca’s pale neck.

Is this a joke? It is has to be a joke.

I look at my mother. She has the eyes again; it is definitely not a joke.

This time, I heed the warning of the eyes and shut my mouth. We make small talk for the rest of the ride. Or they do. I just sit back, pick off my chipped nail polish, and let my thoughts evaporate along with the rest of my body.

We arrive at Zia Rosa’s house to a feast of cured meats, pasta, carne di cavallo, fruit and tiramisu. Everyone is in attendance and we are squeezing about 15 people around a table made for eight. And again, there is no fan and no ac.

We are sardines.

Sweaty, salty, Pugliese sardines.

The door to the balcony is open, but the hanging beaded curtain protects us from any evil breezes that might try to steal our lifeblood. Even my mother looks miserable and suggests to Zia Rosa that we go to the IperCoop the following day to buy a floor fan for her apartment. The ensuing yells and outrage from my cousins and aunts about the dangers of fans creates a symphony of superstition that is just too much for me.

I try to breathe in through my nose and out through mouth, like I do in yoga. It doesn’t help. There is a TV running in the corner and Lisa’s eyes are glued to the screen. The Simpsons is on, dubbed into Italian. Lisa watches it skeptically as if she doesn’t believe that Homer will still love beer with an Italian accent. I can’t even focus on that, so I just keep drinking wine.

Later that night, Franca is setting my sister Lisa and I up in the guest room. She leaves us with fresh linens, towels, and bottled water before bidding us buona notte. She closes the door behind her and we are alone.

I listen for the shuffle of her slipper-ed footsteps down the hall. As soon as it seems she is in her own bedroom, I fly to the window and jerk the blinds up and open in one strong swoop. I’m a bit tipsy from all the wine and I feel rebellious; it is as if I’m sneaking a man into my room. With the blinds up, the locked window is exposed … I look to Lisa with an evil, joyful grin.

“Hurry up and open it!” she whispers.

My hand hovers over the crank, “do you think we’ll get in trouble? They think we are going to catch a wind or air or … something.”

“I don’t know what the heck that means, Danielle. Just open the damn window.”

So I do.

Since Corato is not a coastal town there isn’t much of a breeze. But at least there is fresh oxygen moving into the room. We sit in front of the window for a few minutes, watching the vespas soar around the narrow streets below. It is peaceful and it is beautiful and so Italian. We are still sweaty, but eventually we climb into bed.

I wake up in the morning to a massive headache. Lisa is still sleeping while I chug water, down four Advil (anything less is for pansies) and make my way to the kitchen. My dad is sipping caffè latte and looks at me sympathetically, conspiratorially, miserably … he is hung-over too.

“Do you want some Advil?”

He shakes his head yes and so I mosey back to my room to fetch the orange pills of salvation. When I open the door, Franca is standing in the room, in front of the open window, looking very concerned.

Busted.

“Buon giorno, Franca,” I say softly.

I pick up the bottle of Advil off the nightstand with sweaty palms. I tell myself to act casual; I’ve done nothing wrong! I swipe my free hand through my hair and glance over at Lisa … her eyes flicker open and closed. She is only pretending to be asleep.

“Daniela, did you sleep with this window open all night?”

“Ahhhh, yes … we were so hot, we needed some air…” my voice trails off.

“But that is when it is most dangerous. You are more likely to catch un colpo d’aria when you are sweating! ”

“We didn’t catch any winds! Not one wind! I promise!”

She turns to me and her eyes fly to the bottle of pills in my hand. Merda!

“What are those for? Does your neck hurt?”

“Noooooo, I just have a headache from all the wine.”

She clucks her tongue.

“Penso che hai preso un colpo d’aria. I hope you learned your lesson. I’m going to go get you a scarf and an undershirt. We are going to Alberobello today and I don’t want you to risk your health anymore.”

Defeated, I nod and follow her to breakfast. I gorge myself on due cornetti con cioccolato and 7 million biscotti. When I’ve finished my blood sugar is singing in my ears; I ask if I might take a shower.

My question shocks Franca. I am a 3-headed monster again. She gestures wildly to my stomach and says, “You can’t shower now … you just ate!”

“Ohhh … of course, let me guess … un colpo d’aria?”

“Daniela, don’t be silly. The bathroom window is closed. You won’t catch un colpo d’aria in the shower! But the water is simply horrible for digestion. You’ll have to wait an hour before it is safe to shower.”

I don’t say a word about her reasoning, or lack thereof. I’m hungover, hot, and about to experience the sugar high of a lifetime when my mother enters the kitchen.

She appears well-rested and cheerful, takes one look at me and asks why I look so ill. I’m pretty sure it is because of my cookie and Nutella binge, but I just shrug and say, “ho preso un colpo d’aria.”

About Danielle Festino

Danielle was born and raised in Stoneham, now resides in Medford, and has roots in Puglia. In 2004, she graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in International Relations and Italian Studies. She is passionate about telling stories and hopes to provide a glimpse into what it means to grow up Italian-American.

10 comments

  1. I never heard “un colpo d’aria?”. But I do remember being stuck in a car with my aunt, in a very similar scenerio as the story, and she would yell to close the window because of “la correnda”, which was Neopolitan dialect for electricity.

    • Danielle Festino

      @prisco–thanks for your comment. Perhaps un colpo d’aria and “la correnda” are distant cousins with the same malicious intent?

      • Colpo d’aria e la “correnda” (la corrente) are close friends la corrente is the cause il colpo d’aria is the effect, corrente is actually current or electricity but in that case refers to a draught (definitely colder than the room temperetaure) coming in which may strike your neck or any other part of your body making you ill, the following day you might get up feeling stitches at your rib cage or at your back.

    • I loved this post so much. Being from Italy I am all too familiar with the colpo d’aria. As incredible as it may sound, the colpo d’aria is a belief shared by pretty much the entire Italian population. During summertime I live with fans and air conditioning always pointed at me and I can assure I’m considered a complete fool. People will go out of their way to tell me that I’ll get sick :))))) I find it hilarious and I wish I could explain some of the weird fixations of us Italians.

      @prisco by the way, la correnda is literally “the flow”… so, you are right, it can be electricity, but… it’s also the infamous FLOW/hit of air.

      • @criwave–thank you so much for your comment. I am just delighted you enjoyed the story and can relate!

  2. @prisco I should say that the proper Italian term for correnda is “corrente”… stai attento alla corrente d’aria o ti verrà il raffreddore.

    You might find interesting that most Italians would also rather die than have ice in their drinks. You’ll get a stomachache, for sure! ;-)

    • Criwave you must have been told not to drink icy water during summer time or better you should be slowly sipping it. Am I right? lol

  3. Fantastic post! You’ve done such a great job of describing the heat and the colpo d’aria nonsense! There is another one, the frescatta. It seems to be most prominent in Tuscany!

  4. Being victims of the Colpo d’Aria conspiracy is what bonds so many of us Americans that live at least part time in Italy! Four year ago, I *ALSO* decided to write about it, and so many of the other things here that puzzle me… http://www.culturediscovery.com/tuscany-umbria-cooking-vacation-blog/culture/man-dies-caught-cold-stomach/

  5. Stefano Puzzoni

    I really love this post! Lol
    It’s very good!!!