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Living Slow in Italy - Summer Heat

Valerie Schneider

The last few weeks I awake each morning with beads of perspiration formed on my brow. My heartbeat is quickened and my body feels clammy. A recurring nightmare? Nope; summer has arrived in Italy and I am feeling the full effects. Spring lasted a whole three days then we slid right into a season we call Roaring Hot.

I've learned that I'm a rather spoiled American, after all. We are accustomed to air conditioning, which in New Mexico comes in the form of a contraption known as a "swamp cooler". This gizmo is a basic unit which pumps water over birch pads then a fan blows on it, thus pushing cool, damper air into the house. Yep, it's so dry we can add humidity to the air to cool it down. Here, the humidity is high and the air feels ... well, I can feel it and I'm not used to having a sensation of feeling weight and mass to the air around me. You can laugh all you want about the old cliched adage regarding New Mexico ("…but it's a dry heat"), the lack of humidity absolutely makes a difference. Inferno seems an apt word, maybe more appropriate in Italian since it means "hell".

Valerie in the fountain in Piazza Popolo

Valerie in the fountain in Piazza Popolo

I thought our apartment would stay cooler than it has because, being placed inside a 300-year old building, it has thick stone exterior walls that I'd naively imagined would act much like adobe and prove to be insulating. It does to a certain extent; newer concrete construction does heat up much faster, but after the first few days of maintaining a cool interior, the relentless sun just warmed up the exterior stones and now we're in a constant struggle to find relief. We open the windows wide at night to try to catch the breezes once the sun goes down, then in the morning we close everything up tight to try to keep the hot air at bay. This has moderately worked; at least when we return home the air outside feels more oven-like than the air inside.

Our neighbor thinks this is an insane notion. She has asked me several times if we have air-conditioning, and thinks I'm lying when I say no. Why would you close the windows? I try to explain the principle to her, but she shakes her head vehemently. "No, signora; you must have the breeze." But, I respond, when the breeze is coming from a blast furnace, I'd rather try to keep that outside where it belongs.

She still doesn't believe we're not sitting in a climate-controlled room and has lectured me about the deathly dangers of air conditioners. "It is extremely unhealthy," she tells me. "You can catch pneumonia from those." I initially attempted to put her mind at ease by telling her we spent months on end with the swamp cooler pumping chilled air into our home night and day. "You Americans! You must try to control the environment and you put your health in jeopardy!" She's amazed I've lived to the ripe old age of 40 with such foolishness.

I've discovered, though, that distrust of air conditioning is widely held in these parts. Few establishments have it and those who do seem to be embarrassed by it. One bar we frequent turns it on, then opens the door, as if having both will save them from the risks while giving some mild form of relief. The day I walked in and felt the blessed coolness blowing down from the unit, I automatically closed the door behind me and sat down at the table in the direct path of the airflow, sighing in relief. The barista clucked at me and waved his finger, "No, Valeria! You don't want to sit there. L'aria cosi fredda e pericolosa! The cold air is dangerous!" Relax, I said. Sono Americana. Merely stating my national heritage covers a multitude of faux pas and lends understanding to my strange habits. He shrugged and went about making my caffe while grumbling that my death would not be on his hands. That's when I looked around the room and noticed all the other patrons were huddled together on the periphery, giving wide berth to the dreaded colpo d'aria, while maintaining a slick sheen of sweat on their faces.

I will say, though, that by not moving from one air-conditioned building to the next, the body does seem to acclimate a bit better to the heat. In America, too many business establishments set the air at glacial chill that would make me stiffen like celery in ice water. Exiting a cold building into the desert air would make the outside temperature feel even hotter and more unbearable. I'd have to tote a sweater if I wanted to dine out or take in a movie, and always felt a little silly carrying a jacket when it was 97 degrees outside. Sundresses languished in my closet because I knew if I wore them I'd end up with cold legs and goose bumps. Here I put them on without fear; I'll be hot and the sundress will help. Period.

We snake our way around town for errands keeping to the narrow streets instead of the wide avenues. In Ascoli these little alleyways are called rua, which I'm told derives from the Roman word "ruga." Since the centro storico maintains its Roman street pattern I have no reason to doubt the name attribution. The slender streets run between stone buildings and are kept in perpetual shade. We exit into the piazza to drink and splash from the fountain, then retreat again into the maze until sunset, when we can stand to walk out in the open again.

Taking a drink from the fountain in Piazza Arringo

The Italian answer for the heat is always spelled mare. We are asked daily, usually three or four times, if we are heading to the beach. The season has started and every day we see people in beachwear enroute to their cars or the bus stop for the half-hour trip to the coast. Sundays mark a mass exodus from the centro as half the population transfers themselves in droves in a ritual-like fashion to worship the sun, to congregate and reestablish friendships, and to break bread together at one of the many seafood restaurants.

Despite the availability of decent public beaches in Porto d'Ascoli and San Benedetto, not a single person of our acquaintance utilizes them, opting instead to park themselves at one of the many stabilimenti balneare, shore-side establishments that provide ordered rows of umbrellas and chairs as well as services such as showers, bars, food, and games. Most people continue to frequent the chalet, as they are called locally, that they went to as children, ensuring that they can pick up the relationships and have friends around for card games, gossip, dining, and merriment. We know a guy who was recently best man in a wedding; the groom is someone he met on the beach 30 years ago when they were kids. Long-lasting ties remain bound at these stabilimenti. That we inquire about the public beaches shows our foreign-ness and lack of established friendships.

The trouble with the beach is it's still stinkin' hot! The main activity is to crisp oneself to a golden brown; despite paying for those big, colorful umbrellas, most people opt not to use them, dragging their chairs out into the full sun to prendere il sole. Sunscreen tends to be more of a moisturizer than sun protection, with SPFs much lower than we're accustomed to; anything with an SPF higher than 20 is clearly marked "per bambini". Last summer a friend of our hosts asked why I acted like a blond. Thinking she was cracking a joke at my intelligence level, I was about to take offense when she said, "you're so light and you always sit in the shade. You're at the beach ... you should be abbronzato!" I tan rather easily but apparently just not deeply toasted enough.

Cooling down is difficult because you splash in the water then lay in the heat again. This stretch of the Adriatic is very shallow, meaning you must walk nigh a kilometer to reach water that is waist deep and I rarely see people actually swimming. It's telling that in Italian you don't say "go for a swim" but "fare un bagno," take a bath.

This, too, can be dangerous business, however. I've been severely warned about the need to acclimate my body to the water before immersing myself by methodically splashing water on my body little by little first, lest the shock of the cold cause my intestines to seize up and cease functioning. My friend, Francesca, was absolutely adamant, citing as reference her cousin who nearly died after entering cold seawater (in August, no less). His internal organs could not handle the shock and his eventual recovery was nothing less than miraculous. That at least three people have told me of similar incidents makes me stop and think before I just plunge right in. Especially in the nearby river, where we prefer to go to cool down, as it is not only within walking distance, but the shade provided by the trees and the chill emitting from the mountain-fed river drop the air temperature a good ten degrees along the trail that skirts it. The water is icy, coming into the fiume Castellano from the Sibilline Mountains. There are several little waterfalls along the trail that create pools for swimming and some are deep enough that kids jump off the falls, disappearing below them. I'm personally afraid of hitting rocks down there, but Bryan reports the depth is ample. I like to take a book and lounge in the shallow part of the river while reading.

River near Ascoli Piceno

Back in town, the way to beat the heat seems to be food-oriented, not surprisingly. In Italy, it really is "all about the food," which suits me fine. There is gelato aplenty, of course, and granitas are available in every bar, too. Some have specialty fruit-based drinks served on ice. White wine is always chilled and ready, and caffe freddo is frequently ordered. I like the caffe shakerato, a shot of espresso with a bit of simple sugar syrup that is shaken up with a good quantity of ice, which I think is even better when my neighborhood barista adds milk to make me a cappuccino shakerato, but he reports that I'm the only one who orders it that way. (Innovative me!) Cold pastas and salads made from rice or farro are popular and refreshing, and most hot pasta dishes are dressed in a simple fresh tomato sauce that is barely cooked. The fritto misto is very popular in the summer; I'm not quite sure the reason behind this one as a dish of deep-fry seems rather heavy-feeling to me. Cold seafood salads are on every antipasto plate now.

It is during this time of year that I truly value the tradition of the afternoon siesta. It's not just a luxury, it's a necessity. After running my errands in the morning, I normally tuck away inside until well after lunch. I don't normally exit again until 7:00pm, like everyone else, craving some personal interaction again after the hours of hibernation. Some days, even my little laptop seems to generate too much heat and I wrestle with myself, saying I need to write but then putting it off, not wanting to have one bit more of warmth-producing electronics operating. I sit on the couch with the fan blowing directly on me (please don't tell my friends!) while perching the laptop on a chair cushion to keep my legs from scorching.

Summer also brings a load of activities, though. I think this is to divert everyone's attention from the heat. Sagras are held every weekend and we're looking forward to attending each one around town, as each sestiere holds their own. There are concerts and art exhibits scheduled all through the upcoming months, and our local palio event, La Quintana, starts up the beginning of July with the culminating event – the jousting match - in August. Unannounced events seem to creep up in the piazzas nearly daily, encouraging the good citizens to crawl out of their homes to see what is going on. The Ascolani are always asking us why we would move from America to little Ascoli Piceno where there is nothing happening. Are you kidding, we respond. There is always something happening and it is usually free!

The biggest problem for me is that it is only June! What are we going to do come August? We'd contemplate rigging up a swamp cooler, but we don't think it would be a good idea to add even more moisture to the already-humid air. So, we struggle through it like everyone else, agreeing that the heat is "da morire" and hoping it won't last until September. If you happen to meander through Ascoli this summer, I'll be the one walking slowly through the back alleys in a sundress ... without a deep, dark tan. Say hello; I'll treat you to a cappuccino shakerato.

Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2007

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