Monday, August 20

Hot Time...Summer in the City (III)

I’ll never forget my Italian great-aunt, and how she would spend the dark cold days of winter, pining away for that first glimpse of summer sun. Only to spend the summer, sitting in the dark, windows closed and shutters, well, shut.
During the days, the Italians smartly shut the shutters in order to keep the intense heat from coming indoors. But in the evening, when things cool down to 75 degrees outside and 90 degrees inside, they shut the shutters all the same. Because ‘out there’ lurks something more insidious than a peeping tom or more dangerous than a rapist or burglar. Air.

The Italians’ fear of air (or, air currents, more precisely) is legend. In the heat of a summer night, the mere mention of, ‘why don’t we crack a window?’ causes them to spring up on cue and lock down the house as if preparing for a monsoon. Heated discussions ensue. In Italy, it is not religion, sex or politics you should not mention at the table (all are freely discussed and debated with relish); but mention opening a window in blistering heat, and all hell breaks loose.

One sweltering evening at a friend’s, a baby was overheating so much, his entire body turned scarlet, but the mamma refused to even crack a window for fear of immediate death by contact. Like the Wicked Witch of the West, I imagined the baby would simply have melted not from heat, but from the cool air that would have wafted in.

Even on buses or unairconditioned trains in the midday heat, one by one, like life-sized Jack-in-the-boxes, the Italians will spring up and shut those windows, no matter how insignificantly they were cracked open to begin with. Italy’s public transport is nothing short of a war zone; waged at the windows between the hardy foreigners and the feeble locals time and again.

One Herald Tribune reporter surmised that the Italians’ fear of air goes back to the Bubonic Plague -- when an open window or a breeze really meant ‘catching your death of a cold’ (note: last known mass outbreak 1900). The Italians even have an expression for what happens when your body (or neck) freezes up from a draft: “colpo d’aria”, or ‘hit by air’. But as for me, although the more modern versions of the Plague-- Sars, Ebola or even Shanghai flu- may eventually prove me wrong, I’ll take my chances and keep on sleepin’ the whole night through, windows wide open.

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