Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Reflections on Italy - the ins and outs of air conditioning

During this summer's incredibly long heatwave, one of the “hot” topics of conversation is air conditioning. Many people assume that there is a lack of air conditioners in Italy due to the high cost of electricity and the expense of the units themselves, and while both are true, they are probably not the real reason. 

The truth is that Italians have a love/hate relationship with this technological means of overcoming high temperatures. While they can recognize the benefits of not having to swelter in their homes and offices, for many it is still considered "dangerous and unnatural", likely to cause a series of maladies, ranging from the common cold (often referred to as a frescata) - a direct result of getting "hit by air" (the famous colpo d’aria), to headaches and stiff necks (the dreaded torcicollo also called colpo della strega - which literally translated means hit by the witch!) Ever notice how many Italians wear scarves even when the weather seems too warm for them? The list of associated risks is a long one and it helps to explain why so many people avoid using these machines (even when they have them!)

I remember when buying my first car in Italy (about 20 years ago) asking the salesman if it was possible to have a/c; he literally laughed in my face, remarking that if a utility car had air conditioning it wouldn’t have enough power left to move! Luckily, he has been proven wrong over time and today just about every car produced has a/c, no matter how compact or budget it is. Whether its Italian owner will turn it on is still debatable - but it’s there! 

As an American I have known/had air conditioning for my whole life. My father, a "hot blooded" European immigrant to the US, was a living example of someone who had quickly learned to love this luxury offered by his new homeland and we had central a/c in our house starting in the ‘70s. I can’t remember ever having a car without a/c either (until I moved to Italy!) Today, at least 90% of Americans have a/c in their homes - while in Italy it is about 30% (and yes, I am one of them). The funny thing is that it took me a few years to convince my Italian husband that it was worth the investment - but today it is his favorite “americanata” that I introduced into our lives. (I would also definitely include the clothes dryer on that list - another good blog topic for the winter season!)  

Living here I have heard (and experienced) all the gripes we expats have about the a/c situation and my conclusion is that when it is too hot, it’s just plain too hot and something needs to be done! An Italian friend once said, "Air conditioning only hurts those who don’t have it!" I prefer to claim that if used properly (without excess) it can only be an asset. While there is no reason to make your living quarters a refrigerator -no one will convince me that it is healthy to sit in a room that is more than 30°C (86°F)!  

In defense of the Italians, who do voice their observations/criticisms about the way foreigners use this commodity, I will admit that when I return to the U.S. I sometimes find that there is an excessive use of air conditioning. Why should people need to wear a sweater in August to enter a supermarket, mall or office building; even at home, is it logical to sleep with a comforter in the middle of the summer? I once asked someone in a large chain store about the ridiculous cold and he said that the a/c was regulated by their headquarters in Boston - we were in NY, by the way! This practice is both foolish and wasteful. 

As usual, what’s needed (but often lacking in our society) is common sense. If you use moderation, you can probably make most people happy. Technology has come a long way in improving the machinery that produces cold air - so as long as we pay attention to how we set our thermostats and position our vents we should all be able to live happily together, even in our multi-cultural families, and avoid being hit by that treacherous air!