It is hot. Hot, hot, hot. There are no other words for it except perhaps %$£&* hot. Yesterday my husband phoned me from his car at 8.30am to tell me it was already 30 degrees and high humidity and so to prepare myself. As if i wasn’t already prepared. It has been hot since the end of May. It is now mid August. One of the reasons it gets so hard to handle the heat is that a) it goes from May to October without breaking, b) romans don’t really believe in air conditioning. I know many other countries are hot but mostly they a) have cool changes, b) have airconditioning.
Most people don’t believe me when I say Romans and air conditioners are not close in their relationships. How can they not be? Its so hot here. But Rome is affectionately called “the Eternal City”, meaning it has always been there, and is in the minds of its citizens “eternal”. Part of its charm and character is the fact that it retains parts of its ancient beginnings mixed in with post industrialised edifices. The Roman stock exchange is housed inside an ancient Roman temple. But a city can’t be both. It can’t be on the vanguard of modernity and have its roots in antiquity and so it must choose, and so must its citizens. Rome has only three underground metro lines in a city of 5 million because every time they try to dig a new one, they find more Roman ruins and have to stop.
Air conditioners came on the market about ten years ago. Around twenty years after they came on the market in Australia, for example. They were prohibitively expensive but by now are just about affordable. Many Roman families have it. In fact so many that in the first few years of them becoming a familiar household item the Roman electricity grid couldn’t support them all, and we had regular electricity blackouts throughout every summer.
But in general Romans believe that air conditioning is bad for you. This comes from an ancient fear of fever, and death by fever. They believe that airconditioning will cause fever because of severe changes in temperature, and because in general, it is not healthy to have cold air blown on you while outside it is so hot. Therefore they won’t sleep with airconditioning on (the whole point, in my experience, of air conditioning) or have it on much, or often.
They have a point in that going from an airconditioned place to face the feirce heat of a Roman summer can not be a pleasant experience, and herein lies the problem. If everyone, everywhere, had their airconditioning on then you wouldn’t have to face the change in temperatures. But as everyone shares the same belief most public places, including transport, will have air conditioning on AND the windows open. So it doesn’t get too airconditioned, is generally the answer i get when i ask bus drivers or proprietors why this is. Who knows maybe in centuries to come air conditioning will catch on, but Rome as a city has had thousands of years of dealing with the heat without it. It is a city that moves outside to catch cool breezes and shady areas. It is therefore hard to stay in doors and keep all the doors and windows shut.
So Rome misses out on a few characteristics of other post modern cities some of whom are only an hours flight away. Things like effective rubbish collection, dogs not defacating profusely on the street and in parks, public toilets, continuous electricity, being able to run your oven and a hair dryer at the same time without blowing the circuits, credit cards, and effective air conditioning are all a thing of the future for Rome. But you can’t have it both ways. Living in a city which doesn’t aircondition the seasons away means you have to live within them. Adjust your routine, your activities, your diet and your lifestyle to accomodate and move within them. Romans have been doing this for centuries. Its only us foriegners who insist on living the same kind of lifestyle for twelve months of the year and are outraged if our productivity slows down.
Rome is not a city governed by trade and commerce. At 3.00pm in the afternoon even if you had a million dollars you couldn’t spend it. No sane commercial trader would try and outcompete his competitors by staying open during the siesta. Why bother when there will be plenty of trade at 5pm when the siesta is over? Why bother when you can make money AND see your family, make love all afternoon, let your gorgeous lunch digest, prevent a heart attack, have a nap in the middle of the day. It runs on the seasons and on tradition. And I love it for those reasons.
No one except me is in Rome in the middle of August. Really. My whole suburb has shut down. I have to have my coffee at home as none of the dozens of little cafes serving Romans their daily coffees are open. Why would they be? All the Romans have gone. I am on holiday for two weeks before going to my Greek getaway on the island of Santorini, where i go every year. I had a long list of things planned but instead i find that the heat exhausts me after around two hours of activity and all the other things i had planned can’t be done because nothing is open. I have to wait until September to get my hair cut for example. Our phone handset died yesterday due to battery failure but we have to wait until September also to get new ones so we are using our cell phones. My dry cleaning sits in a pile by the door as i didn’t manage to get it to the shop before the start of August. I can’t go to any of the sales as all the clothing shops are shut for two weeks, and thank goodness one of the two supermarkets are open otherwise food would be a bit of a problem too.
But it is peaceful. So peaceful. The quietness of an abandoned city is refreshing and worth staying in it for. I love August in Rome. It is the only time you have the city to yourself. Where you can wander around unhindered by traffic, human and mechanical. Where it takes half the time to get anywhere and where you can stop and look at anything without fear of being run over. It is quiet at night and quiet during the day.
It is a time to stop, to slow down, to contemplate and relax. The wheather prevents you doing anything else and the cities work-a-day functions are not available so it forces you to rest in parks, laze by pools, look at flowers and bathe in the sea. It forces you to take the mental and physical break that nature is taking, a rest before the next seasons activities. It is a time to enjoy the silky air on your skin, to sweat out toxons and negative energy, to wear loose clothing and move languidly, in sync with the city.
Rome is a city built of stone and water. Clean, free, cold water gushes continually out of drinking fountains by the side of the road. It comes from Springs all over the countryside around Rome and is pumped in using the ancient acquaducts built by the Romans. Now that’s something a post industrial city doesn’t have. It is enough to rest under a tree, stand on a cold stone and drink or splash the water over you to cool down and enjoy a Roman summer. Who needs air conditioning after all?