Friday, July 24, 2015

The Spiffero: Making sense of why Italians mostly despise air conditioning...

Italians despise air conditioning. Or at the least most of them don't even consider it an option. I'm bitter because I'm suffering sweltering days and nights in an apartment in Italy with no AC. Maybe silly, but I long for the days in the US when I'd run my central air conditioning unit for three months straight during the summer months. No doubt this was a particular brand of American gluttony and lack of ecological sensitivity. Not to mention the cost. But have you ever lived in an apartment with full sun exposure, directly under the tarred roof of a building in an East Coast city? Even in springtime at 70° Fahrenheit outside ( 21° Celsius), the temp in our place would reach as high as 95° F/35° C. When the external temp reached 95°F, then we were officially in an oven. So judge 'ye not...

Contrast that to how I live here in Italy where you simply have to block out heat mechanically. The shutters are strategically closed to keep the sun out, with the windows open to let the air in and if I remain still most of the day with the fan on high blowing directly at me, I won't sweat. My renovated apartment, originally built likely sometime in the 16th century doesn't have a hole in the wall for the AC. Imagine that.

I'm trapped inside this place with shutters closed during the day...

For an American, this situation is unthinkable - close to comical if I weren't living through it. On the one side of the pond, find Italians during the sweltering summer by locating those who remain stubbornly committed to wearing their foulard.

Italian with giant scarf on in summer...

No, it isn't carefree insouciance - it is surely a bit of Italian style but most of all fear of the spiffero, that deadly draft that may ill-affect different parts of one's body, but in particular the throat or neck. The spiffero could cause problems digesting, various cramps and muscle aches, sinus, ear and lung infections with exposure on those respective body parts, but the fear and prevention of sore throat is really where Italian talents lie. Ferrari or Pucci may beg to differ...

While New Yorkers and Americans in general revel in the frigid contrast of arctic air on skin, damp with sweat, as they walk off the NYC street to enter seemingly single digit temperatures, listen for those lamenting the icy airstream, looking for a way to protect themselves as though their clothes had been forcibly ripped from them. Those would be the I-talians.

Think about the BTUs* in terms of American military force.  Operation ICY Storm. Of course, Americans are extreme in many areas of life: the amount of space we require to store our stuff, the size of our refrigerators, the number of lanes we have on highways, our food portions, yes, American military force, the temperature of our coffee, the number of flags we fly...and the size of them. Our AC just fits into the larger culture so sweetly. One barely needs to explain it.

America's biggest flag, flying in Hoboken, New Jersey
But how to explain the extreme response of Italians to AC. The most recent data available show that only around 10% of Italian households have AC compared to 87% of Americans. This is an incredible contrast. My guess would be that even fewer than 10% use AC regularly at home while offices are most likely using them more frequently but never with the defiant love of it that Americans have.

Certainly, Italians don't like extreme weather of any sort. Rain is often an excuse to stay home, and they are invariably well-equipped with any kind of technical clothing for whimsical turns of the barometer. This weather preparedness, based in fear of the spiffero, becomes a fantastic vehicle for their inimitable sense of style in part fueling a high-earning fashion industry. It is not dissimilar to how fear of gluten is inspiring the growth of a whole new product division of gluten-free foods.

At the same time, Italians also don't like too much processing of any sort - they are more likely than Americans to want to take a natural approach to certain things - of course to their cuisine, being full of pure, primary flavors from fabulous ingredients and whose Mediterranean diet enjoys World Heritage status at the UN. As an aside, this is related to Italian rejection of GMO foods, an unthinkable interference in their food traditions. But they also seem more likely to want a softer, less extreme approach to many things: to medications and medical treatments, to exercise, to their general pace of life. Not to exaggerate the Eat, Pray, Love stereotype, but there is a shred of truth to it.

So maybe the voltage capacity here might play a role? I know few people even in quite elegant and well-equipped homes that could run more than two major appliances without blowing a fuse (I've done the permutation: [dishwasher + washing machine + espresso machine] ~ dryer; [washer + dryer + espresso machine] ~ dishwasher). But I don't think that's what's going on.

Instead, what might be at the base of it all can be summarized as the unwillingness of Italians to alter their immediate surroundings (through AC) when they can change their geography quite easily - that is, they'll eventually go on vacation. The work/leisure balance in Italy plays an important role in the annual life rhythm: Italian families have the feeling that beyond their work and home life, they are entitled to leisure time and that consists of mare e montagna - seaside and mountains- and they often take time during summer to enjoy the health benefits of both. In about mid-March you can begin to hear the din of what will happen come June, until this reaches a deafening pitch and people talk about nothing else at a certain point. With ten national paid holidays, plus four EU mandated weeks of vacation, they have the sixth highest amount of vacation time globally, so Italians just move to seaside or mountains in search of the relief they need.

Ultimately, it isn't as simple as just changing the temperature - whose variation alone would leave them vulnerable to all manner of spiffero-centric maladies. Italians forego AC as sort of an agreement that they can be relieved of the heat by being part of different landscapes on which they can lay claim as their natural heritage - there are coasts and mountains in every direction. In fact, the mare e montagna idea takes the Italian concept of wellbeing (or benessere) even further - mothers are often heard talking about how their child requires the seaside for their very health, making it part of your parental duty to offer your child the necessary curative properties of an Italian seaside or mountain holiday.

In contrast, Americans, with little vacation time, vast distances to travel to see something new and a lot of industrialization over the past 150 years have been cut off from nature in a way that Italians have not. Italians live life in and accept more readily the rhythm of the seasons while Americans make their home into a leisure landscape, take a staycation and deal with that difficult reality of life by removing some of the summer pain with a snazzy HVAC.

Certainly, the food movement is bringing more awareness of seasonality back into the American mindset. And the Chinese also have very advanced theories about the role of drafts or wind in illness which in turn confounds Americans. In the end, the issue of AC often doesn't even enter the Italians' mind or, when it does, it just seems excessive and slightly dangerous.

In the meantime, I'd like to go on vacation for my own seaside escape, or to the Dolomiti, more or less in my backyard. But when I'm home, I'll admit I'd rather be blasted by the cold front of a spiffero-machine!

*BTU or British Thermal Unit is the amount of energy is takes to heat or cool one pound of water. We measure the strength of our air conditioners in terms of BTUs, where a good sized room of about 450 square feet requires an AC of about 10,000 BTUs.


  1. This also makes me think of Americans love of cold drinks with lots and lots of ice. Europeans shudder at this. Spiffero from the inside out!

  2. This is amusing! As an American, I love/loathe air conditioning: loathe the icebox feeling of the super-shopping malls, love the relief from high humidity (and just take off about 5 degrees of heat please) at night. Americans may think that we will all have strokes and die when the temperature gets about 85 degrees.

  3. Very insightful. At the beginning one gets the sense of author's irritation with the Italians, but soon enough her ackoledgement, if not not thinly veiled fascination with their nature centric approach to life can be noticed.