I arrived in my temporary home, a Bolognese apartment on Viale Quirico Filopanti, in the final days of August 2019. The place was nicer than I was used to, with well-loved furniture and a huge kitchen. I cracked the window immediately, a drop of sweat already trickling its way down my back.
After a few minutes of unpacking, I sat down on the floor, thoroughly damp from the force of my efforts. It was then that my eyes traveled to the wall, and I discovered my saving grace: the control switch for a state-of-the-art air conditioning unit, recently installed right above the door to the bedroom I would share with a roommate. Hallelujah. I turned it on and stood directly beneath it, allowing the icy air to waft over me and send my cursed sweat back to the follicles whence it had come.
I passed a week in solitude in that apartment. Sure, I didn’t have pots or pans to cook with, and I got locked out twice; but I could always eat out at restaurants, and the portiere grumpily helped me get back in both times. For the most part, things were good. My life was an easy, breezy 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
On my first Monday in Bologna, the Weather app told me it would be 80 degrees outside, so I dressed accordingly and set to work gathering my things. As I was about to leave, a tiny woman startled me by bursting into the room: my new roommate. Maria Teresa was a tiny Italian from down South, a post-grad student with incredible curly hair, several inches shorter and several years older than me. She introduced herself and began to unpack.
In hindsight, I should have noticed the clash between my sundress and her long jeans, or noted that her luggage didn’t contain a single item of summer clothing. But instead of paying attention, I rushed out of the apartment, late for class.
When I arrived back at the apartment that night, Maria Teresa was studying in the boiling-hot kitchen. It was clear that the windows had been shut all day, and that the sun had stubbornly beaten its way through the glass, turning our lovely kitchen into a veritable sauna. Why hadn’t she turned on the AC?
Now that we had more time to get to know each other, Maria Teresa showed me around, explaining where she kept all her cooking supplies. As she chattered, I silently melted, nodding every once in a while to indicate that I wasn’t totally lost, but otherwise keeping as still as possible. By the time we were done going over the cleaning schedule, I needed to take a full shower.
That night Maria Teresa told me she would be up late. Grateful, I closed the door to the bedroom and turned on the AC, exhausted by a day spent pretending to listen to a language I really didn’t understand. I waited until it was cold enough for me to bear the idea of putting my body under the covers and fell asleep almost instantly.
Seemingly immediately, I awoke with a start, soaking wet. It was 2 A.M., my new roommate was snoring, and the air conditioning was off. I realized with a sinking feeling that this was an intentional choice. Nervous to offend the woman who had so nicely invited me to use her crockery, I opened the window and spent the rest of the night drifting in and out of feverous slumber.
From that night on, Maria Teresa and I feuded incessantly over the air conditioning. I would come back to the bedroom earlier than her to do my work, and turn it on. She would return soon afterwards, and turn it off. Eventually, she would go to the bathroom, and I would turn it back on. When she returned, I would insist in my most broken Italian that I didn’t know how the thing could possibly have turned itself back on—maybe the switch wasn’t working correctly?
Giulia and Veronica, who shared a bedroom off the other side of the kitchen, arrived the next week. At first, I hoped that they might be able to help me overpower Maria Teresa and insist that we cool down our furnace of a home. But all those hopes were dashed when I grabbed my purse to leave the apartment, dressed entirely appropriately for the high-seventies weather, and Veronica asked, “Non avrai freddo?”—“Won’t you be cold?”
After a few weeks, October hit, and despite the fact that the temperature hadn’t dropped one bit, every one of my roommates broke out their leather coats. Funnily enough, every Italian I saw on the street was dressed in leather, too. They made use of coat check at the clubs and seemed to have no problem drinking boiling caffè under the boiling sun while covered from neck to toe. Was this a fashion statement, or were all these Italians actually…cold? Logically, it made sense that they all believed that it was freezing out, but my body just couldn’t reconcile their behavior with its own lived experience.
Who would have thought the biggest cultural difference I would run up against during my time in Italy was that the inner temperature of my body didn’t match that of my peers? Was there something innately wrong with me? Or had America simply conditioned me to be this way?
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I was so desperate for cold air that I pretended I didn’t know the Italian verb spegnere, “to turn off,” for weeks. Maria Teresa would say, “Ti va se spengo l’aria condizionata?” and I would just look at her blankly, hoping that my apparent incomprehension would distract her from her goal of boiling me alive in my own juices. No such luck. She’d turn it off; and minutes later I’d sneakily turn it back on.
Eventually, Maria Teresa got fed up with my tricks. It was my own fault: I made the fatal mistake of leaving the air conditioning on while I went to go take a shower. When I got back, she was stabbing at the controls with a chopstick.
“Che stai facendo?” I asked, almost dropping my towel, panic forcing my voice up an octave. “What are you doing?”
She shrugged, barely able to keep the grin off her face, and explained that since the air conditioner liked to mysteriously turn itself on, she had taken the matter into her own hands and decided to break the switch. She turned back to admire her dastardly handiwork, the murderous chopstick dangling from her hands. Speechless, I turned away . I had been beat, fair and square. I would never be cold enough again.
One morning in November, my housemates decided to hold an intervention for me. The day promised to be 65 degrees, and we were all sitting at the kitchen table, dressed very differently. Giulia, brow knit, asked, “Non hai una giacca?” I shook my head; no, I didn’t have (or need!) a jacket. This was the wrong answer.
They all exchanged a look, and Veronica gestured to Giulia. She immediately set off on a minutes-long rant: actually, she said, I did need a winter coat. She had an old one that she had lent to a friend last winter, but she could probably ask for it back; surely the friend would take pity on her cold, coatless American roommate.
“No, no,” I tried to explain, “It’s not that I don’t have a jacket. It’s just that I’m really hot, all the time.”
Giulia was speechless. After a beat, Maria Teresa found the words to express what they all felt. “Ogni volta che ti guardo, mi vengono i brividi.” “Every time I look at you, I get the chills.”
That moment brought something home for me: putting aside the ritualistic chopstick slaughter, my roommates were sweet women who cared about me, and wanted to save me from my own idolatry. They didn’t mean any harm when they turned off the AC.
Yet their efforts towards conversion were for naught. Of course, I am technically aware that my body can withstand great heat, and that AC pollutes our beloved planet. However, after the time I spent in Italy, I now accept air conditioning. I believe that it is a noble invention. Humans have found a way to avoid sweating — and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to take advantage of it.
Maria Teresa may never be able to understand why, in my heart of hearts, I love cold air. It doesn’t matter, though, because I have successfully escaped Italy, that infernal land of broken AC and leather layers. Now, a year later, I sit comfortably in my American kitchen, kept perpetually at an ideal 68 degrees. I watch from the window as the 90-degree heat blisters the passersby, and I am filled with a love that is absolutely divine.
BIO: Hannah Berman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer studying English, Italian and Education at Wesleyan University. She has written for Frommer’s travel guides and loves nothing more than gastrotourism. Read more of her work at hannah-berman.com.
Featured photo by: Ava Sol on Unsplash
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