Draft Dodging

Italians are afraid of drafts. Really. They believe that a draft will literally cause you to catch a cold, much sooner than a virus will. It used to be said that there was an Italian law which stated that even at the burning height of summer, if just one person in your un-air-conditioned train compartment wanted the windows closed for health reasons, it would have to be done. (There are tons of proverbs about this... "Aria di fissura ti porta alla sepoltura"--or more or less, "A draft will blow you right into the grave"--and the Venetian "Megio suar che tossar"--"It's better to sweat than to cough.") While the airlines insist that one isn't more likely to catch a cold because of recirculated air, I nevertheless seem to get one every time I fly. As a result, the elderly neighbor of my Italian in-laws asked, "What is it with everybody catching colds every time they fly in airplanes? Do Americans fly with all the windows open??" (She was serious.)

One danger of writing about another culture is to seemingly belittle it by fixating on the incomprehensible. How many films and books have been written about "those wacky Mediterraneans," for example? Still, these moments can be enlightening! As Robert Darton, a brilliant cultural historian, writes in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, "anthropologists have found that the best points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an alien culture can be those where it seems to be the most opaque. When you realize that you are not getting something--a joke, a proverb, a ceremony--that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it."

What does it all mean?? Do Italians presuppose more or less control than Americans over getting sick? Who knows? I suspect, however, that Americans would believe that their best weapons against illnesses like colds would be largely super-technological, while the Italians I know would believe that they should just shut the window... Who's to say who's right??


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