To Be Absolutely Frank

Standing the Heat

Think of it the Italian way: cold is infernal.

By 8.22.03

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The death toll is mounting from this summer's European heat wave, now well into its third month. An estimated 10,000 Frenchmen have died from heat stroke, dehydration and other heat-related causes this month alone. Portugal's national health institute reports 1,300 heat-related deaths since the beginning of July. And in the same period, high temperatures have reportedly raised mortality rates in Naples, Italy, by as much as 50 percent among the elderly and 70 percent among infants.

Most of us, thankfully, have nothing worse to fear from the weather than extreme discomfort. As a native of Washington, D.C. (which the British Foreign Office supposedly once classified a tropical posting), I ought to bear 100+ temperatures with aplomb. Yet nothing in my upbringing prepared me for this. Because Washington, like every other American city south of Boston, lies within the domain of climate control.

As everybody knows who's ever been here in warm weather, Europeans are strangers to the charms of artificial cooling. While nearly 75 percent of U.S. homes have air conditioning, according to the New York Times, the figure for France is under 5 percent. My guess is that it's lower in Italy, though it gets even hotter here.

Higher electricity rates and environmental concerns are two commonly cited reasons for Europe's resistance to AC. These might be significant factors in France and elsewhere, but I can't take them seriously with regard to where I live. Italians spend more than any other E.U. nation on clothes and shoes, and if they cared about staying cool, they would find the money to do it. As for the environment, recycling is still a foreign concept here, and dumping industrial waste one of the Mafia's fastest growing businesses. No one I've met is eager to sweat to save the ozone layer.

A more plausible incentive for staying hot is the excuse to go on vacation. It'd be pretty hard to justify the exodus that Italians make every August (along with the French, the Spanish, etc.) were it not so obviously unbearable to stay in town. But offices and shops are increasingly air-conditioned, and open year-round, so this is yet another battle that leisure is bound to lose to globalization.

The essence of Italians' aversion to air conditioning is not prudence, altruism or sloth but something much harder for even the most powerful economic and social trends to beat; namely, fear. Italians are utterly terrified of the cold, in particular of cold air. There's no end to the list of maladies -- including backaches, kidney trouble and paralysis -- that Italians attribute to drafts (colpi di freddo).

My Italian wife is a woman of science, a biology teacher in fact, yet she cannot shake off traditional beliefs. That's why our almost-new Japanese air conditioner has sat in storage for the entire infernal summer. It might be all right to experiment with such technology if we didn't have a small child.

In this respect as in others, four years' residence here have taken their toll on my common sense. The low temperature in Rome the other night was 66 degrees, yet I found myself waking in the dark to what felt like an icy blast through the window, worried that my son might have caught a chill.

Of course, we Americans exaggerate too. After her first visit to a Stateside multiplex, my wife quite reasonably asked why it should be necessary to wear a sweater when going to the movies in July. Occasional contact with the open air, even when it's muggy, is a salutary reminder that we are part of nature.

But this inevitably brings me to another complaint about Italy. Given the lack of air conditioning, and the abundance of mosquitoes in so much of the country, why has it never occurred to anyone here to put screens on the windows? I could speculate but there'd be no point. Italians, like any other nation, are ultimately unfathomable to strangers. And after all, summer is nearly over.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.