Air Conditioning: Public Enemy

The title of this post may be misleading.  Although I sincerely miss, sometimes yearn for, my central air conditioning that I grew up taking for granted, I’ve come to look at it with a new perspective since living here in Italy.

It is no revelation that warmer climates beget warmer, more social people.  It is true across cultures all over the globe.  As a young girl I was always fascinated with the culture of the southern U.S. and often wished I had grown up on a sprawling plantation where I could dangle my legs from a porch swing and sip sweet tea all summer long.  My grandparents and even parents fondly remembered summer evenings of a time gone by when neighbors, friends, and family would flock to each other’s porches to play cards, gossip, and offer a cool drink while the children rode bikes or played ball in the front yard.  It was a time to catch up on each other’s lives, discuss politics, swap recipes, offer advice, to have human contact that would feed the soul.

Somewhere around the late 60’s and early to mid 70’s America goes frigid.  Central air conditioning units begin replacing swamp coolers and people in hot climates begin to shut their doors, crank up the a/c, and tune in to their favorite sit-com.  Decades later, the trickle down effect of this is neighbors who don’t know each other’s names, kids who don’t know how to ride bikes, and an unattached community.  I’m generalizing of course, and exaggerating some, but not by much.  Some neighborhoods have tried to return to America’s grassroots in their yuppy, Desperate Housewives sort of way, but it will never be recaptured.  It’s a time gone by.

I can honestly say, although cliché,  those social ties that bound small town America so tightly, still exist here in Italy.  As the sun begins to set and a cooler breeze comes up, windows begin to open and people come out of hibernation from the blazing heat of mid day.  My young son often goes out to play in the early evening with the neighborhood children .  He’s supervised by the nonnas of the neighboring buildings who are sitting in chairs chit-chatting about all the passersby and who occasionally interrupt playtime with an admonishment directed to the children to slow down or to take it easy for a while.  I will sometimes join them in their chairs or I’ll look out from my open windows and balcony while taking down the laundry off the line as the kids make their way around the buildings laughing and hollering.  When they’ve been called in for dinner, they will sometimes communicate from balcony to balcony showing each other various toys from their rooms and asking if the other will be going out to the piazza later on.  It feeds my soul to see my son experiencing this kind of simplicity and camaraderie and it makes me wonder if I would even ever install an air conditioner here.  Maybe I would, but I’d reserve it for stifling days when no one dares to go out.  After all, I wouldn’t want to shut out the neighbors.

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Top 10 Reasons Why Life is Less Stressful In Italy

I’ve been creating this running list for my blog post for quite some time now, and I think I have it pretty much put together in a top 10 format for you here.  (Of course, there could also be the top 10 list to counter this one proving that life here can be more stressful but we won’t go there.  Two words- no dryer.)

  1. Emotions are freely expressed.  In my old neighborhood in Fresno I probably would’ve placed a 911 call for domestic disturbance, but here I have learned that it is very acceptable to shout, curse, and speak your mind with your windows wide open.  Children are also not shamed for having public outbursts like they are in the States.  I can remember the looks I’d get for my son’s occasional tantrum that I somehow couldn’t seem to control no matter how many great parenting books I had read.
  2. Less censorship.  An American parent might be shocked to see an HBO program airing on a major TV network here at 9:00 pm, or flip on the radio to hear the uncensored version of the latest Eminem song, or the barber not turning off CSI during your 6 year old son’s haircut.  It does take some getting used to, but I’m finding that if I don’t make a big deal out of it, he doesn’t seem to either and we move on.  When questions arise, we will address them as nature takes its course.  Of course, he will not be watching Game of Thrones anytime soon on my watch!
  3. Lighter Schedule.  People here typically choose one extra-curricular activity and stick with it. It is very important in this culture to be thorough and to see things through to the end.  If a child plays soccer, he will typically play soccer year round but no other sport.  A common phrase is, “Quante cose vuoi fare?” in other words don’t bite off more than you can chew.
  4. Proximity.  For parents of young kids this should have been number 1 as I find it to be the thing I love most about being a parent in this small town.  Let me just tell you moms and dads that in one hour’s time I can: drop off my son at karate, pick up a prescription at the doctor’s, stop by my mother-in-laws, stop at the grocery store, and pick up my son with 5 minutes to spare so there’s time to chat with other moms.
  5. Social Network.  In a small town people know you even if you don’t know them yet.  If you change your routine for a few days, people notice, and will ask where you’ve been.  They are very loyal patrons here and most people have their favorite bar (for their morning caffe and pastry), their bread shop, their butcher.  It becomes a place for people to gather and chit chat even if just in passing.  An example I love of this is the local library.  I got my son an account and within a few times of our going in the librarian had learned us by name.  Once you’re a patron you don’t have to present any kind of card.  I asked her what the late fees were for overdue items and she looked at me perplexed.  When I explained that in the States it was 25 cents per book per day, she burst out laughing saying how “German” that rule was!
  6. Beauty. This culture appreciates all things beautiful.  The word bello and bellissimo are used freely to describe all things from food to people to an experience.  If a man compliments a small child calling her bellissima, no one would assume he was a pervert.  Just as no woman would be judged for standing and gawking at a nude David statue.
  7. Nature. This ties in to number 6.  The outdoors are very appreciated here.  All things God created in the natural world are highly valued.  It is not uncommon here to see a dog wearing a scarf around town because the owner is afraid he’ll catch a cold, or hearing that they cook for their pet.  Most people in our town either personally have a vegetable garden or their parents or grandparents do.  All the essentials are grown there and a lot of people still can and dry the staples for the winter.  Children are expected to spend time outdoors all year round in the warmest part of the day, and “get some air or get some sun” just as a house needs to be “aired out” daily by opening all the windows for at least a few minutes.
  8. Less Tabu. This ties in to less censorship, but it goes beyond that.  I could do a whole post just on this one, but in a nutshell, every aspect of societal tabus that I once thought I knew has been turned upside down.  Smoking, drinking (wine or beer with a meal), cursing, nudity, sexuality is all just out there in the open and I’m starting to see how this may be the reason why Italian college students don’t seem to experience the whole spring break phenomenon like American kids do.
  9. Food.  Food is at the core of Italian life.  The entire day is based on the main meal of the day- pranzo.  Most school aged children still come home for it, many working men still go to mamma’s for it, and it is the reason many nonnas are still alive.  It is a true purpose.  A daily mission to invent, to create, to inspire, to nourish.  The table setting must be just right- linens pressed, glassware spotless, plated and served to restaurant perfection.  Preschool children as young as 2 are served with real glasses and porcelain dishes because plastic is brutta or ugly.
  10. Sunday- Domenica. There are songs dedicated to it, there are programs on TV devoted to it.  In Italy as I imagine it once was in the States, Sunday lives on as a family day.  It is the day where a larger than normal lunch is served usually at nonnas and desserts are eaten by all.  Niente dieta oggi- no diet today.  After a leisurely nap, the day is still young and an outing with the family or meeting up with friends concludes the day and the week begins again with a fresh outlook on life.

New Fall Traditions

Almost like clockwork autumn appeared on its due date of September 23rd.  I was walking down the main via in town in the mid morning of what seemed to be a very warm day when unexpectedly, a cool breeze came up and rustled a pile of newly fallen leaves.  I felt a little chill and realized it was in fact the first day of fall.  Lost in my thoughts for a moment, I was taking it all in around me realizing that the Italians were already in their fall clothes or as they very specifically call it- mezza stagione (in between summer and winter).  I had scoffed at the lecture I received last year for my prolonged t-shirt wearing by my in-laws.  Suddenly, I felt quite naked and exposed in my short sleeves.

As a Californian I had always loved the fall season but longed to actually have a wardrobe just for fall like all the stores so desperately tried marketing to us.  I longed for cold nights, freshly picked apple stands, and the brilliant, warm colors of the season that the east-coasters got to experience.

Momentary panic struck!  What?  Fall without my pumpkin spice latte fix?  The horror!  Canned pumpkin is available at one store in Florence for about $4 a small can or of course, there’s fresh pumpkin that has to be cooked.  Neither option will work for a latte.  So I let it go and decided I would embrace the local fall flavors and traditions.

In the beginning of October our family had an outing to the foothills to gather chestnuts in the woods. This is quite a common practice in this area for families on Sundays in the fall and is something that my husband used to miss terribly when we lived in California all those years. Italians not only roast chestnuts (as in the Christmas song) but chestnut flour is used for a variety of recipes in the fall.  It has a distinct, earthy, robust flavor to it that takes time to acquire for some.  Apparently I’m acquiring it quite well because at the local chestnut festival this past weekend I managed to taste chestnut pancakes, dougnut fritters, cakes, and cookies.  It’s quite versatile and gluten free.

So goodbye Libby’s canned pumpkin, and spiced lattes and hello to the chestnut.  Goodbye to 85 degree October days and hello to my jacket, jeans, and boots.  After all, it is mezza stagione.

Italian Summer Top 10 List

Here we are smack dab in the middle of our second summer living in Italy.  I have some reflections as to why the summer is so beloved by all here in Italy. In no particular order:

1) Gelato is a healthy snack.  A fruit flavor gelato served up at the gelateria is  actually under 200 calories.  It is considered by moms and grandmas alike to be a healthy, refreshing snack for children during hot weather.  By the way “merenda” or snack is usually around 5 pm!

2) Relationships of all kinds blossom in the summer.  The beauty of it is that it requires little effort!  Just by going out after dinner for a stroll during any one of the town sagre or feste you will run into the entire town and if you have children, you will make automatic friendships with their families.

3) Children aren’t overscheduled.  Once school is out in mid June, kids just do….wait- what’s the word I’m looking for….ummm, oh yes, NOTHING.  Absolutely nothing.  They sleep in, they play, they eat ice cream, they nap, they stay out until midnight singing karaoke in the piazza, and they can be KIDS!  (except my 6 year old of course- he’s in karate and swimming and summer day camp- but at least I’m not making him do phonics or something!)

4) The beachil mare- is only about a 45 minute drive and comes highly recommended by physicians to cure all kinds of ailments.  It is especially wonderful for children with asthma, tonsilitis, adenoiditis, etc. so those kids (that would be mine) should spend at least a full month at the beach. Doctor’s orders!

5) They let it all hang out.  Young, old, very, very old, fat, thin, scars, birthmarks, nursing- Why should it be hidden?  Modesty in the US has clearly come from our northern European ancestry because it has no place in the Italian culture.  I mean how could the offspring of anatomical geniuses like Michelangelo and Botticelli possibly be expected to cover themselves in “board shorts” and “tankinis”?

6) Nourishment: summer’s bounty gives us exactly what our body needs to combat heat and humidity.  Fresh zucchini, melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, peaches, grapes,figs to name a few.  I love that people use seasonal ingredients here in their cooking and like my own grandparents did, find numerous ways to prepare each one.  Zucchini are used in pasta, stuffed and baked, prepared au gratin, fried and the blossoms are also battered and fried into the most delicious little fritters ever.

7) August.  Agosto. No matter how hot and miserable July is- August is coming.  For almost every Italian August means ferie or vacation.  In the States, we have become accustomed to summer vacation being about a 3-7 day getaway.  The Europeans really know how to do it.  The average Italian worker earns 27 days of paid vacation per year (yes, their first year on the job). Depending on their job, many are able to take 3-4 weeks off in August.

8) A full summer.  Schools in Italy do not start back until September 15th so it truly is a three whole months of summer vacation for kids and families and the teachers.

9) The music: There are certain songs that just exude summer.  When I hear songs from my childhood or adolescence I can pinpoint the memory of where I was and who I was with.  I can relive the moment rockin’ out with my friends in the car on the way to the lake in the summer of ’92.  The new summer memories I’m creating now will include more European dance hits and less Springsteen and Janice Joplin, but great music nonetheless.  I mean who doesn’t love a great summer mix tape (showing my age- I mean- CD, or iTunes track)?

10)  The Humanity of it all.  I pondered the right title for number 10, but there isn’t one word that can capture it.  It’s the life, love, heat, sweat, tears, lust, emotion- only humans could be capable of.  Imagine taking a stroll down your street in the middle of July at dinner time (that’s about 8:45 here), it’s not dark yet, but the traffic has calmed.  People are home from work and have congregated at the dinner table.  There is no air conditioning so their shutters are wide open in hopes of catching a cool breeze which allows the passerby an invitation into their home.  Their intimate moments are exposed through conversations some yelling, some crying, some laughing, some silence.  There is no shame in expressing emotions that rise and fall with the thermometer.  Plates are clanking,  wine is pouring, knives are slicing.  Every home and every family has a story to tell, including my own.

Here’s to a restful, healthy summer of 2015 wherever in the world you may be.