Summer slice of Italia: Taking heat in stride

SANTA MARIA DI CASTELLABATE, Italy — I’ve been reading a lot that it’s hot out, but there aren’t many places as smoldering as southern Italy in summer. It’s the so-called Mezzogiorno region that I just happened to pick as a vacation destination during what’s being billed as the deadliest heat wave since Vesuvius exploded and covered the area just a little north with molten lava.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been hanging in and around Naples and met with family in the hills far south of that tourist trap known as the Amalfi Coast. For the unacquainted, these destinations are pretty south — and really hot. Upper 80s, into the 90s and sometimes close to triple digits during the summer even before so-called global warming set the world on fire.

Yet as we sat down at a restaurant outside the small mountain town of Laurito, I noticed something. It’s not just the sweat that’s pouring down my neck; it’s the air conditioning — or total absence of it. And no fans buzzing either.

That’s the way they do things here. Always have. During the summer, the folks in this hamlet and throughout much of the south have their midday meal (their version of dinner) without the AC blasting, or fans circulating.

When they mangia inside a restaurant or their own homes (I did both with relatives), their AC is an open window and an occasional cool breeze. They call it naturale. I call it crazy but I come from a generation of Italian Americans that shunned much of this amazing culture. I never learned the language — nor many of the traditions except pasta on Sunday and a few curse words.

Coffee cup in Italy
In Italy, they use air conditioning and fans sparingly during the summer.
Christopher Furlong

English isn’t widely spoken in these parts. So consulting my Google Translate, I ask in Italian what’s up with the AC situation — and the friggin’ heat. AC they tell me is bad for you. You will catch the dreaded colpo d’aria, which roughly translates to a “blast of air” that will cripple the healthiest among us if the AC is turned on, no matter how hot it gets in the summer.

The AC ailment has something to do with getting a draft. That makes sense, kinda. Making more sense is what they said about the weather: Heat is nothing new and nothing to get too bent out of shape about. It happens every year around this time, and it gets even hotter into August and early September. It’s just the way things are, so stop crying and get used to it. They’ve survived for generations and so will I.

Sweating it out

Message delivered and I went back to eating a pizza and sweating.

OK, maybe the southern Italians are just that much sturdier than the average American or the dude working The New York Times climate-catastrophe beat. I’d like to think so, given my ancestry. All those invasions over the years, the Greeks, Romans, Normans, North Africans (excuse me for my cultural insensitivity if I left your people out of the fun) made people like me genetically superhuman when it comes to the dreaded climate change.

But as my cooler head prevailed — the fan blowing cold air on my face inside my hotel room at this resort town no doubt helped — I also realized that the less pampered among us have bigger things to worry about than a heat wave. The impoverished people of southern Italy needed to work, put food on the table and procreate. They didn’t have the luxury to obsess about the weather while pursuing survival.

It’s the same reason so many southern Italians went to the US with almost nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They wanted a fair shake at that type of life that was for centuries denied by their wealthy masters north of Rome or the local Mafia boss. It’s why my old man, second-generation American as he was, worked construction and never complained unless he couldn’t work.

Italian pizza
Charles Gasparino discusses his Italian summer of heat and pizza.
Mr. and mrs. Black

These days, southern Italians are less of an oppressed people, as they are the recipients of the largesse from the Italian welfare state. Count that as one of the big reasons many in the north want to separate — they see their taxes eaten up by a system of patronage that siphons a chunk of just about every transfer payment sent down here. Plus crime is high, so is drug use, and, of course, there’s poverty despite the money that flows from Rome.

And yet, most of the Mezzogiorno people still work hard. My relatives are bus drivers, carpenters and cops. They put their kids through college as computer programmers and lawyers. The people are still amazing and resilient.

We in the US could use some of that.

I’m no climate-change denier. Yet I really need more evidence that it’s end-of-times stuff before I demand that ExxonMobil stop pumping oil with ever-expanding ESG policies that will cause inflation and deny the American Dream to the working class — in the US and going to the US like my ancestors. 

Yes, I witnessed the southern Italians surviving what the mainstream media dubbed one of most deadly heat waves of all time, and without AC. It’s not because they’re superhuman, it’s because they figured out that it’s not end-of-times stuff.

For the chattering class, it’s today’s worry — and sure, something to address. But once we figure it out — and we will, with technology and not ESG — we will also move on to the next neurotic obsession. 

In the meantime, it’s 1 p.m. and time for some macaroni.

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