just returned to Rome where it’s hotter than July, probably because it’s August. Heat should have boulevards to its name but doesn’t because it hasn’t won any wars (unlike the cold, which defeated Napoleon and Hitler). At its summer peak, Rome delivers malarial heat that would drive most air conditioned Americans mad, and sometimes does. Many hotels offer no respite. Late night tourist sobbing isn’t unknown.
I, too, feel the heat, especially after months cocooned in or near minty American shopping mall air whose patented crispness lays a keel for tempers and conspicuous consumption. Man controls nature, not the other way round. So when I get to my Rome home and its tropics I’m invariably startled. My top-floor apartment is a full-scale furnace missing only pizza ovens and a roving chef. By American standards it’s entirely unlivable, a Saharan tent with walls. But my shock soon passes.
Why? Because it’s my heat and my Sahara. It’s the heat I know. It’s the familiar if not vaguely comforting oppression I’ve come to associate with the summer roast this city imposes on its residents.
Fever temperatures that would make me go mad in America, wailing or running to adjust thermostat, are just the ones my body knows to expect if not literally incorporate. Absent realistic alternatives you make peace with the substance of what’s around you, reacquainting yourself with the animal within. You stop clamoring for American standards because you’re not in America. This in turn reminds you that the world, globalization aside, still comes in many shapes. Electric sockets still aren’t uniform (EU be damned). Water pressure slows to a trickle. In more ruined states, even survival is a luxury, which can make nihilistic carnage into carnival entertainment for those who enjoy only the act of seeming to laugh both first and last.
Expectation changes to adjust to actual reality. Railing against this reality gets you only the likes of Donald Trump, himself overheated, cooling left out of his sizzling circuitry — part of the reason he’s attractive to some.
My sweltering corridors blend into a sweltering kitchen to become an organic whole governed only by equatorial prerogatives. I cannot sleep, or should not, given the temperature — and would not in America — yet I do sleep, the temperatures soon settling into my unconscious. Like a computer clock, my inner dial is reset to a different time and wattage.
I wish at times this idea of separate tolerances could also be applied to culture, so that climate-controlled North America would be less righteously judgmental of places where the air is less manageable. But that’s naïve. Once you have air conditioning there’s no turning back. That things work your way, or can be made to, is presumed, assumed, and demanded. If temperatures rise beyond some civic breaking point you get alerts. Here you wait for breezes.
The truth is that most of the world doesn’t own America’s cool, let alone its comforts. Apply that to matters far graver and more complex than a steamy bedroom and you come to the underside of phrases like “world’s apart” or “when in Rome.”
When in Rome I’m hot but not angry (while todays Americans can ironically be cool but enraged). I don’t imagine calling SWAT teams or the military to dispel my tropics. I’m instead transformed into a small and freckled lizard (far less imposing than a cat on a hot tin roof). A poor man’s colonialist, I make do mostly with fans. I move more slowly and deliberately, resigning myself to a pace of life some Americans would disparage as woeful and wasteful if not in need of repair (make air great again!) Call it unforced relaxation at the sun’s behest. Call it indolence. Or just call it August.