Sunday, February 1, 2009
The Heat is On
The Heat is On
(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, August 2007)
“Oddio! Questo caldo non lo sopporto! E’ come un forno crematorio!”
It’s August in Italy, and well, come to think of it, it’s probably August everywhere else in the world too. Italy is well known for its unbearable midsummer weather, with its high humidity and suffocating heat, that make some folks exclaim the above, “Oh my god! I can’t take this heat! It’s like a crematory oven!” The first time I heard this analogy, I wanted to laugh at the graphic and morbid nature of it…but I couldn’t laugh. It was simply too hot, and laughing would have used up valuable energy otherwise to be used for the sole purpose of simply staying conscious. This is now my sixth August spent in Italy, and in this land of extremes, where it seems as if there are even extra colors in a rainbow, the heat simply plays a part of the intense existence here. Autumn glows in coppers and golds and desperately breathes into you the last warmth of the year, like the soul-twisting kiss of a departing lover. Winter is a cold, damp and grey time, perfect for sinking into depression or escaping into painting. Springtime is an explosion of pastels enclosed and contained by powerful frames of green.
But this is the height of summer. And it is here to challenge you.
The first summer I was here, I had no idea what I was in for. I had arrived in the spring, the heady jasmine laden air permanently marking a place in my memory banks. For me, the smell of jasmine IS Italy. The months grew balmier, but the temperature never seemed to rise above an uncomfortable level. I had rented a small attic-room apartment on the valley floor below Monte San Egidio. It was a quirky little space, very inexpensive, and I adored it as it represented the first steps in stabilizing my new life in Italy. People had told me, however, that the summer was to get quite a bit warmer, and living in an attic may not be the wisest place to be, but I was ready. I had a fan.
When August arrived, the first few days weren’t awful. But then, as if a hurricane of heat had blown in overnight, I woke up one morning to what felt like someone standing over me with a blow dryer on the high setting. My trusty fan was in the window, massaging me with fresh air as I slept, but now the air outside had shot up to a temperature of well over 100 degrees. It was too warm to try and sleep through it, so I opted for a shower in an attempt to cool off. This didn’t work however, as cool water was not available. I felt as if I was bathing in tepid tea, but I found at least a bit of comfort in the fact that it was in any case wet. After the tea-bath I found myself none cooler, and feeling as if I might be going mad from the inescapability of this heat. I laid down on the cool terra cotta floor still naked and covered in bath water that was not in the least bit evaporating, and for the first time that day, found a tiny bit of relief. As I lay there, breathing air that was quite a few degrees above my own body temperature, I suddenly started thinking about turkeys. This surely must be what it feels like to be a turkey on Thanksgiving.
That particular heat wave only lasted a short while, especially in comparison to what happened the summer of 2003. That summer was record-breaking the world over, but I witnessed first-hand what the European heatwave looked like in central Italy. The normally lush, green hills quickly burned to a painful, dull brown, and many of them turned black as olive groves caught fire and burned away. Farmers stood helpless as they watched the ancient trees go up in flames, as there wasn’t enough water to go around. I had found work in a town about an hour and a half away from where I lived, and my only mode of transportation was a 1982 Piaggio Sì, a rickety but reliable, fragile looking “motorino” or moped. But I have to tell you that despite the Sahara-like temperatures of that year, some of my fondest memories are of riding across the Italian countryside at the incredible, lightning speed of 40 miles an hour on that little piece of mechanical joy, singing at the top of my lungs, and getting very tan.
August 15th is a national holiday in Italy known as Ferragosto. It is a Catholic holiday marking the day that the Virgin Mary was “assunta in cielo”, or had gone directly to heaven. But the holiday, and its name, actually has pagan roots going back to the Emperor Augustus, who had proclaimed a series of festivals called the “Feriae Augusti”. Nowdays, the week of the 15th is when virtually everyone in Italy goes on vacation. Domestic help however (as was my job in those days), doesn’t get such time off, so August 15th of 2003, once again I was there singing and riding along the Italian highways, but that day I found myself completely alone, as everyone else had apparently gone to the seaside. It was glorious, as Italy seemed completely mine that day.
The lovely little Englishwoman that I worked for decided that we would make it a short workday that that afternoon, as the temperature was now 43 degrees Celsius, more or less 110 degrees Fahrenheit. I gratefully agreed with her, and slathering myself in UV suncream, I hopped on my little “motorino” and started home in the baking sun.
I didn’t make it home however. About 20 minutes into my ride, my beloved “motorino” started making a strange noise that sounded like someone trying to gargle a bucketful of screws. Just as I had completed the thought, “Gosh…I wonder what THAT is?”, my treasured metal friend let out an exasperated “PHWAAH”-sound, a puff of smoke, and that was that. The engine couldn’t take the intense heat and had basically exploded. I was stranded along the empty highway, on the hottest day yet that year, but thankfully, after a series of panicked telephone calls to what few people I could find at home, a good Samaritan was eventually found and I managed to make it home by evening.
August of 2006 was odd, in that the heat never came. We were blessed with delightful daytime temperatures and cool, refreshing evenings. This year, no one knows what to expect, though predictions are for another sweltering heatwave. But I am fully prepared. I’ve changed jobs and now work a mere two minutes walk from my home, so there is no risk of mechanical mishaps. I am well supplied with all kinds of super sunblock, as well as potassium and magnesium tablets to help me deal physically with the potential meteorological onslaught. I’ve a new apartment that seems to have an endless supply of fresh, cool water from deep inside the hill I live on. But best of all, this year I have a bigger fan.