03/03/2014 12:22 pm ET Updated May 03, 2014

A Blast of Air, Italian Style

Last week I was "feeling poorly," as my British friend would say. I would describe it with much less eloquence, and say that I had the flu. But, I had the flu in Italy. I quickly found out that in Italy, simply getting the flu is not that simple. Italians are obsessed with staying well, getting sick, and all things relating to digestion.

The lady at my local bakery had missed me during the week I had been absent. I explained to her, when I arrived for my usual schiacciata order, that I had been sick, with the flu. She looked a bit perplexed, and I wondered if influenza had made it all the way to Italy. Finally, nodding her head, she let me know she understood.

"Ah, si si," she said. I had been the victim of the colpo d'aria. I had been hit with a blast of air.
Who knew air could be so dangerous?

Apparently all of Italy knows, and has known for generations. If you live here long enough, you will know as well. A blast of air on your neck, throat, or head is the root of all illness. Because of it, an Italian would never leave the house without having the neck and throat area securely covered with a scarf.

Wet hair, sitting in a draft, going barefoot whether inside or out, or failure to wear a "maglia della salute" (undershirt) in the winter months, are all open invitations to get sick. (Although in Italy, they don't just get sick... they suffer.) To live so brazenly is to invite head shaking, finger wagging, or a tongue lashing by those that know better. As for the rest of us, we can suffer the consequences, or "soffro di cervicale," the dreaded disease of the neck.

I tried to explain to several concerned citizens that the flu really wasn't in my neck. It was stomach flu, a ways away from the whole throat area. Yes, they assured me, it may have ended up there, but that is not where it began.

And since it was February, I could possibly blame it on the change of seasons, which is almost as dangerous as a blast of air.

To thwart the changing-of-season disease, clothing choices seem to be dictated by the month, rather than the forecast. It may be 60', but if it is February, the coats are quilted, down or mink. Necks are covered with woolen scarves, massive fur trimmed hoods are pulled up, and small children are miniature Michelin Men, waddling down the sidewalk. Moms and dads push baby strollers encased in plastic, while the babies inside are cacooned in blankets. They appear to me like little hothouses on wheels. (Are you sure they can breathe in there?)

I never have considered myself especially hearty. While I rarely get sick, I am a wimp in the cold and complain profusely in the heat. But, walking alongside Italians this month, I had felt quite robust. I daringly wore just a heavy sweater, and had switched to a linen scarf. I'd even taken to opening my windows to let some fresh air blow through my apartment, much to the dismay of my neighbor across the way. She made no secret of her disapproval as she looked across the terrace and shook her head.

"Yes, I know," I said under my breath, "it's truly life on the wild side."

It's an interesting country, my new homeland. Rich in art, culture and history, it is a confident country. Italians never seem hesitant to express their opinions on their health or yours. They know, for certain, what caused your ailment, and just how to prevent getting it. I guess I was long overdue for the corpo d'aria. I'd been walking barefoot on my tile all month, and going outside without an undershirt. Next February, I will know better.