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Air conditioning hits Italy, or the end of the open-door policy

Jun
13
2006

With fond memories of previous summers, I pull on a ratty pair of cut-offs, add a striped tank top and open the door to my Milan apartment. I’m not going anywhere, just settling in for another sweltering afternoon at the computer.
In the concrete capital of Italy, the temperature has already reached a capillary-bursting, muggy 102° degrees. With a squat plastic fan drawing in cool air from the thick-walled corridor of the 18th-century palazzo, the heat is bearable. I learned the hard way, until gaining admittance to the muumuu sisterhood. Growing up in naturally cool San Francisco and unnaturally hot (but always air conditioned) Arizona hadn’t adequately prepared me for an Italian city summer.
There are plenty of expats who spend years longing for trash compactors and whining about the lack of waffle irons. Not me. I was determined to find ways to adapt without the creature comforts of my childhood. There was getting up at 5:40 a.m. and spending the hottest hours with the heavy wooden shutters closed in near-delirium with limp washcloths on my forehead. Then came hourly baths. And freezer-cooled underwear, which probably worked with starchy, Marilyn Monroe girdles but doesn’t do much for microfiber. One afternoon, after unsuccessfully trying to fend off heatstroke using a plant mister filled with ice water, I headed for the neighborhood pool.


Every front door in the palazzo was open. There was a soft echo from a post-lunch, pre-siesta viewing of “Beautiful” (that’s “The Bold and The Beautiful,” to you) and the distant clatter of ice cubes for a caffè shakerato. Irene, a nearly blind woman at the end of the hall, mistook me for Antonietta next door and invited me in. Silvia from upstairs, blessed with a fairy tale good-granny face and a true talent for the chignon, drifted down and asked Irene whether the vet had come to see her arthritic cat.
I could barely make them out in the darkness. They had abandoned crisp uniforms of smart city wear for no-nonsense shifts, floating house dresses, caftan variants and, yes, gelato-colored muumuus. This was the ticket. It cost no more than running the fan, gave an excuse to socialize and, best of all, it worked. It was easy to get used to the open-door policy, a relaxed conviviality unknown to Italy’s hardest working, least friendly city. The good sisters, known to arch eyebrows on the stairwell at a handbag that didn’t coordinate with a coat, even overlooked my non-muumuu attire.
Once, over a glass of heavily-sugared cold tea from Antonietta, I had the nerve to mention air conditioning. She and her daughter scowled in unison, air conditioning! Yuh. Didn’t we foreigners know that air conditioning is unhealthy? All that cold air, it causes the colpa della strega, which, as far as I’ve ever been able to make out is kind of a combination whiplash – lumbago, but much much worse. And the germs! Why, the idea is nearly as disgusting as that other bacteria breeding ground of the Anglo-saxon world, wall-to-wall carpet. One might contract bronchitis, or worse, they scoffed.
Well, as I open my door this afternoon, something is different. Not a muumuu in sight. Where is everyone? A mystery soon solved after investigating the whining buzz of an outside drill. Signora Antonietta is having air conditioning put in, or rather put out. A hugely inefficient and noisy unit, dislodging almost all of the geraniums on her balcony, will sit in direct sun and pump cool air into her house. And hot air into mine. Half the balconies of the building are loaded with them, I notice. It seems Italians have had a collective blackout on the evils of AC. Sales of these stand-alone units, not enough to count before 2001, have skyrocketed to over two million this year. Evidently, my nonne neighbors aren’t going to be parked at the local air-conditioned supermarket, as Italian health minister has suggested should last year’s infernal temperatures sweep through the country again.
Dismay doesn’t get farther than an Italian architect friend, a declared radical, who says this is what happens in a country too sentimental to know when to knock down buildings and start over. Centralized heating and cooling systems are what people want now, so let them have it, she says. What about clothing the palazzo in cooling green vines, you know, sustainable development and all, I suggest. She gives me a pinch, lest I imagine we’re in some Scandinavian country where people stick together and try to collectively come up with a smart solution.
Silvia from upstairs pops by my lonely open door the next day, giant fly-eyed sunglasses propped on chignon, on her way to the market. Tesoro, she says, eyeing my spaghetti straps askance, I thought you might need this. The business card reads “Air clima,” with little icicles trailing off the second word, “air conditioning rental, installation and easy payment plans.” It is the end of an era.

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