Friday, June 28, 2019

Italian air conditioning

20 inch thick stone walls, a big floor fan and shutters = coolth.

So, the temps have finally become seasonal here, which is to say that  this week we've gone abruptly from the more or less reasonable 31-35 range, to shoot up to the late 30s early 40s. Now, Italians don't believe in air conditioning. They think, probably rightly, that AC makes you sickly, weak, enervated and dependent on artificial things that just divorce you from reality. At first it's pretty purgatorial if you're from a temperate climate like England or Western Canada. I spent a little time as a child in Manchester, UK, but mostly grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, a place that is famous for possibly having the best climate for human beings on planet earth. It pretty much never goes above 28 degrees in summer and rarely snows in winter. It doesn't really have humidity or mosquitoes either.

So, when I left to go live on the Mainland (people from The Island divide the world into two places, The Island and the Mainland, the latter defined as anywhere that isn't The Island) I was shocked to discover that you could live in a place where it got to be 34, 36 or even 40 degrees in summer and not simply explode or drop dead in the street. I did my five year stint (obligatory for Canadians) in Toronto - which still has the worst weather I've ever lived in and four years in Halifax NS, where I experienced the hottest day of my life (until the Great Drought Italian Summer of 2017, which I'll get to) at 42 degrees. That was where I learned to take a plastic water bottle or two, fill with water and freeze. Then when you go to bed, you take the block of ice, wrap it in a tea towel and put it between the sheets. It acts like the opposite of a hot water bottle, cooling the air under the sheets by several degrees.

But I've been in Italy nearly eleven years now, and I've found that no matter how old or stodgy you are, you do slowly adapt. This summer I have been out in the garden, digging and puttering around until noon in 33 degrees and thought, "Huh... I wonder when it's going to get hot..."

Where I'm from, if the house is too warm, you open a window. This would be a bad plan here.

Instead, you start to do things Italianly. You buy electric fans of course, but you also learn the heat management strategies that have served this country and other Mediterranean places for millennia. First, your house is made of stone that's 20 inches thick and the roof is terracotta tiles. So the heat of the day won't be getting through. You also have double glazed windows, but more than that, you have shutters. And you learn which direction your various windows face and you use your windows and shutters in sequence depending on where the sun is.

And most important, you adjust your life schedule. You don't sleep late; that's disastrous. You get up at six or earlier. The first thing I do every morning is go onto the terrace and put up my sunshade umbrella to cover the front door in shade. This immediately cools the air that comes into the kitchen. All the windows are open from bed time the night before until about ten am, when the air outside starts to warm up. The houses are all designed so that the air flows smoothly from one room to the next when the windows are opened. This means your house is lovely and cool most of the night. Even in the hottest weather, I'm still using covers on the bed to keep the late night, early morning chill off. Though the fan runs 24 hrs a day now, and helps with the airflow.

The kitchen, front door and terrace face due east, so the morning sun pours into the kitchen. About ten or eleven am I shut the east and south facing windows and shutters. This means the air inside stays cool as the sun swings around to the south west side of the house. The bedroom and workroom face west/south, so about three pm, I close the shutters on that side. This also means the house is darker, but it's a nice, intimate cave-like darkness that's very restful. And the ferocious Italian sun lights the rooms sufficiently anyway, even with the shutters closed.

This method means the house is warm, but not hot (about 10-15 degrees cooler than outside) and dark between 3:30 and about 7:30. This, typically is Italian/Mediterranean nap time - Siesta in Spain, and "riposo" in Italy (pronounced to sound like "repose-oh"). Given that you've been up since five and in the garden all morning in the warm sun, or busy with work or whatever you do, you're pretty tired by four pm, and the interior conditions of your home are very restful, so napping just makes sense.

This timetable heat-management strategy is why Italians eat dinner so late and everything closes in the afternoons. No Italian restaurant will serve you dinner until 7:30 at the earliest and lunch is never served after three pm. In most Italian towns and villages, you go home for lunch and take a rest after, and go back to work about 4 pm, until eight or so. So normal is this that there are usually bylaws restricting noise in the afternoons, though sometimes not at night - you sleep in the afternoons, so you're usually up late with the fam at night. This is why Italian shop hours are so odd to us Anglos. You don't shop in the afternoons. You're supposed to be at home resting.

The only trouble I have with this system is that my shutters are made of metal - aluminum, I think. This means that when the sun has been on them for a few hours, as it is now, they are like barbeque grills. And even though they keep the light out, they just heat up the room as if you've turned on the oven and left the door open. The glass of the windows can get quite hot. So when the temps get up to the mid 30s or higher, I take clothes pegs or metal clips and attach blankets and quilts to the insides of the shutters, essentially insulating the space between the shutter and the window.

In the Horrible Summer of 2017, even this was insufficient. We shot up to 35 half way through May, and the temps crept up to the mid-40s - without a single drop of rain - until the end of September. (It was a year of disasters. The previous October, the worst earthquake in 300 years knocked down the town I had been living in. The following winter - when people in Norcia were living in tents - was the coldest and snowiest in 70s years. Then the next summer devastated Italian agriculture. My landlady said the ladies in the village thought it was all a sign from God of His displeasure with the modern world.) That summer the nights never cooled lower than 25 degrees, so the house just got hotter and hotter. I was keeping six plastic water bottles in the freezer, and sitting at my desk with my feet in a bucket of water with the ice blocks in. I was packing everything I could find into the space between the shutters and the windows. Sofa cushions, floor rugs, blankets, quilts... I felt like I was fighting to keep zombies out.

At least it was something to offer up for my manifold sins and wickednesses.

We anglosassone of the 1st world assume that we are entitled to have the world - even the natural world - conform to our demands. If it's above 72 degrees we consider ourselves very hard-done-by and devote all our resources, including considerable quantities of cash, to damn well make it 72 degrees AT ALL TIMES! At least indoors.

One of the nice things about living in the 2nd World is that you learn you can adapt. It's rather relaxing to not be in such a panic to have your own way all the time.



Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The pursuit of holiness; how to train your brain

What is procrastination anyway? Most of us assume it's a moral failing. This is probably a bit true, but it's certainly mixed with a bunch of other psychological brain-trickery.

As a good friend recently reminded me, a big theme of my writing over the years is that "your brain is not your friend." In simplest terms, we have habits of thought - often deeply engrained - that do not correspond to reality. This messes us up.

There's a whole huge deal of stuff that psychologists are just now starting to get hold of - the ideas behind Cognitive/Behavioural Therapy (it's been a long day trudging around in the blistering summer heat, so I won't go into it right now - Google it) and all of it corresponds beautifully with Thomist thinking on how the path to holiness is through the subordination of the passions to the intellect and will - the right ordering of the human faculties.

In other words, procrastination, fear, anxiety, depression - all of these are mental habits that involve us indulging in things that are not in keeping with reality. Procrastination especially is a way of avoiding reality. The method of overcoming it is to exercise the will to choose The Real over Fantasy - defined as adherence to a personal preference in conflict with observable reality. This is the way to overcoming poor self-discipline (endemic in our culture), procrastination, fear, anxiety and depression - but much more crucially of rooting out our habitual sins and faults. The saints and theologians all talk about the methodology of sanctification, the "purgative way," and this, in essence, is it.

This is the work of the interior life that has to be done before we can start advancing in holiness. This is what the whole thing is about, getting yourself under control.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Catch of the day

It's the time of year when we pretty much get a lizard a day.

Lizards are a specialty of my little silky black and white ninja, Bertie. But lately it's been a favourite of Pippin. I kicked him outside this morning because he was doing his usual trick of finishing his own breakfast and then shoving Henry aside to steal his. All their little lives I've had to feed Henry separately. He's so good natured he just lets himself get bullied out of his meals. Pippy's a real lovey-dove, and just the sweetest little guy, but he's an incorrigible scamp too.

I can't resist picking them up and taking a close look. In life these guys are lighting fast, and it's difficult to get a close look at their markings.

The daily lizard. It should be the name of a punk newspaper.

The terrace in June.

Snap dragons finally getting close to finished. They never died back this "winter" and were already starting to flower in February.

Still some pansies holding up.

Sweet peas finally starting to blossom. The dill are all volunteers from last year's stray seeds.

First passion flower.

If you keep them in a shady place they will flower almost to July.

Four years ago yesterday I got a call from my friend Emanuele to come down to the shop to pick them up.

A friend had come to Norcia to visit, but had picked a day when the monastery guesthouse was all full up, so Br. Ignatius called me to ask if he could camp in my living room. He had to put up with this all night.

I took this one just about a week after they arrived. I kept them in the study for a few days to let them get used to me. Bertie was the first one to claim me as his own.

Bertie and Pippin helping in the garden in Norcia.

Bertie's favourite perch in the evenings. He likes to keep an eye on things.

Henry napping yesterday afternoon.


Saturday, June 08, 2019

Egg white and cauliflower pancakes

Finally figured out what to do with the egg whites left over after making egg tempera medium.


whites of two eggs
2 cups finely grated raw cauliflower
salt n pepper
handful of almond flour, coconut flour or other keto/low carb friendly flour of your choice
oil for cooking (I've just bought a hella-spensive jar of coconut oil... not sure about it yet)


Whip egg whites to stiff peak and fold in the "dry" ingredients. Season. Heat up the oil in a pan to just under smoking-hot. Spoon the mixture into the nice silicone crumpet rings someone sent you in the post but you can't use anymore because you're not eating carbly anymore. Fry over a low heat. Remove the rings and gently flip. Toast a bit on the other side.

Top them with sliced avocado, soft goat or sheep milk ricotta, load some sauteed mushrooms on top.


The pancakes come out sort of cakey, not at all cauliflowery. They'd be fine for a sweet thing too, with a little low-carbly-approved sweetener (stevia... barf...) or stewed fruit, or tahini or something nice like that.