Illustration by Leo Cardini
'Single friends! Don’t have a/c at home? Want to try a marriage without commitment? For loan, Italian husband sensitive to gusts of cold wind, available for warm summer nights…so I can crank up the air and actually sleep.'
Posted on Facebook, this is my friend B.E.’s brilliant solution to the issue of air conditioning that annually divides couples, families and co-workers. While some Italians have begun embracing this marvelous technology, it seems it’s never cold enough for us Anglos, causing marital discord as well as office arguments.
So is it true that Italians don’t like air conditioning and that nobody has it at home? As of 2009, in the United States 87 percent of homes have air conditioning. According to ISTAT 2014 statistics, nationally, 30 percent of Italians have it in the home (a figure bolstered by the 50 percent in the south who have it). Despite that low number, when combined with office and industrial use, the increased pressure on the electric grid has already caused numerous blackouts in major Italian cities this summer.
When I was rather new to the country, I read a sketch in what was then an infant newspaper—The Florentine (TF 4, 2005!)—in which Linda Falcone helped explain why I had yet to encounter cooled air here. She writes that a ‘colpo d’aria is a risk, especially if you’re imprudent enough to get hit by it.’
All expats can concur with stories of Italian friends, colleagues or spouses who are unwilling to use even a fan in fear of the dreaded wind. While B.E. offers a husband for rent, other couples, like E. and G., have opted for separate rooms during the heat wave. E.D. writes about a public-facing job in which the a/c vent was right over her head: ‘Bliss! Every single Italian who ever walked in commented about that, wondering if I get torcicollo.’ C.P. says, ‘My boyfriend’s mother isn’t just worried about the family, she swears the dogs get sick too if they’re close to the air-conditioning.’ If you’ve been here long enough, you too may have experienced colpo d’aria, that stiffness of the neck—or worse—that results from unwise exposure, although pseudo-medical theory indicates that we expats are immune to this particular illness.
Some people really do suffer from artificially cooled air, and in fact if filters are unclean, it can cause toxins in the room, allergies and worse. My mother-in-law, for one, gets severe headaches from any air conditioning, meaning you cannot go to an indoor restaurant or take trips in the car with her in the summer (or you can, but you have to love traveling at 135km/h in a 45°C aluminum box).
Lucky for her, she doesn’t have air conditioning in the workplace. If you do, it may be a challenge to convince your Italian colleagues that it should be turned on. C.M. tells us that her office mates were against it due to environmental principles (they'd be right, it does paradoxically contribute to global warming); they then claimed they were cold, and to prove their point, they came to work in long sleeves. They were later busted practically lying on top of the unit when things heated up. Here at The Florentine, we foreign females have ganged up on the only Italian man who dares share our room, and we now have our Pinguino on at full force.
A recent article in the New York Times says that in the United States, the tables are turned—male managers keep the temperatures low because they wear suits and ties, and female staff in summer skirts freeze. The article demonstrates that keeping temperatures low—in offices and luxury retail outlets—is a sign of power and prestige. If that’s so, Italy must be in a permanent economic slump, for only the frozen food aisle at Esselunga seems to offer any power and prestige at all.
What is the ‘right’ temperature in the workplace? In Italy, the Istituto Nazionale Assicurazione contro gli Infortuni sul Lavoro recommends that office temperature be 18–22°C, while in the summer, the difference between inside and outside should not exceed 7 degrees (which today means 33°C degrees max). Starting July 16, 2015, a new energy-saving law limits air conditioning minimum temperatures both at home and at work to 26—on penalty of a 500–3,000 euro fine.
In Belgium, the recommended office temperature is 18°C year round, and a maximum of 30°C if the job is sedentary. The United States recommends between 20° and 24°C. The Health and Safety Executive in the United Kingdom accepts from 13–30°C in the workplace, depending on the work being done, and advises, ‘If the percentage of workers complaining about thermal discomfort exceeds the recommended figure, your employer should carry out a risk assessment, and act on the results of that assessment.’
There’s no question of thermal discomfort here, so I think we should all just go home, close the shutters and turn on the air.