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.




Anonymous said...

Would it keep it cooler if you hung the blankets and quilts outside the shutters so the sun doesn't hit them directly and heat them up so much in the first place?

Hate a/c and do everything I can to avoid it but living in NY city with no air circulation makes it difficult sometimes.

Love reading your blog.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

In the really hot season I do this. But it's tricky to accomplish on the second floor, leaning out the window, esp. while the sun is busy blasting you to your component molecules.

John said...

I live in NJ and today is the first day I caved in and turned the AC on. I have resisted thus far. Anyway, tomorrow, I'm heading to my ancestral homeland, Portugal, and my parents have a house there in the Aveiro region along the coast. They're telling me it's unseasonably cool there and they know nothing about any heatwave hitting Europe! Certainly don't need air-conditioning there!

I also enjoy reading your blog. Please keep writing....about these type of things and not about that weirdness going on in Rome!


Anonymous said...

I LOVE air conditioning. I think the inventor should be given the Nobel Prize.

KCK said...

I live in Florida, and than God for AC! I also love natural light, so keeping things dark in the house would bug me. I do appreciate the Italian way of doing things, even if I may not want to emulate them... I just don't get why they don't believe in screens to keep bugs out. My sister and I took an overnight trip to Florence (her husband was military, stationed outside of Venice, and I was visiting them). We went back to our hotel room after a nice dinner where we both drank a bit too much wine, and every time we looked at the bug splats on the wall, we started giggling.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Yeah, the no bug screens is just about the weirdest thing imaginable. In their defence I can say that it isn't an exclusively Italian thing, but widespread in Europe, even in countries with a lot of mosquitoes and a history of malaria. It's bizzare. My own house has screens on one bedroom window and the dining room (that Italians call the "salon") but not the workroom or the bathroom. You can buy zanzare curtains though, at every hardware store, which I've done. the kit comes with a sort of velcro strip that's sticky on hte back, so you do a strip of velcro at the top of the window frame and stick the curtain to it. It works pretty well. I've also got net curtains (pretty ones embroidered with flowers) over the interior doors of the flat, so even if a bug gets in it's contained and won't get in my room or the workroom. That and nets over the bed works really well. Haven't had a zanzara inside the nets in two years.

But I am covered in bites from head to toe by spending time in the garden. Oh well. There are worse things. A little dab of Polaramine and it stops being a problem in ten minutes or so.


Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Also, I never travel anywhere in bug season without a net and a few clothes pegs in my bag. I once stayed at a very beautiful monastery on top of a mountain near Gubbio and spent the entire visit tormented by mosquitoes. From then on had the net-in-the-bag policy.

Anonymous said...

My German relatives live in the lowlands of Lower Saxony. Mosquito central and no screens either.


Anonymous said...

I'll keep you cool, Hilary! ===>>>

Rico S.

dan simmons said...

awesome blog, great information perfect for Air conditioning Gloucester

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