eat in late summer Rome has the oppressive feel of a parental order to retreat to your room. Though the city doesn’t empty out as visibly as it once did, it still has the tropical sway necessary to ensure a prevalence of languor. I notice this on arrival. The air conditioning in the customs area is broken. Police agents mop their brow and yammer distractedly. I approach one and lift my passport, but he waves me through without even looking. I admittedly lack terrorist gravitas but this dull entry is disappointing. Humans need a plight from which to milk drama. Migrants are a case in point.
Such drama comes harder to an American citizen, welcome guests no matter what their intentions. My flight has come from Washington. My passport is dark blue. This is not London or New York where vetting is a necessary act of paternal sternness, an admonishment that regards belonging to a whole. Anglo-Saxon countries cannot just wave you through. To do so violates their state physiology. Anglo-Saxons thrive on detail. They adore checking and examination, however brief. Latinate peoples feel no such urge, at least not in summer. The aloofness brought on by heat perfectly suits a sentimental society with a loose sense of the collective. California can’t compete.
The ebb and flow of temperature has always been etched into cultural norms. The beaten colonial British, the thorough Germans and the fastidious French all inhabit territories whose heat never adheres as passionately as it does to Italy, a brazenly narrow sliver of Saharan Africa that pokes into Europe’s lower ribs and welcomes torpor by rote (Romans eagerly note the North African proximity both to mock and rationalize their own languor).
The hotter it gets in middle Italy, the more Rome denizens lose interest in taking anything but their own temperature. The lack of cool air is a seasonal invitation to capitulate. Italian bodies overheat, the mind following suit. Attention to detail, marginal at best, is seared away.
It’s true that Rome has been seduced by air-conditioning in recent decades, a trend that’s become a fad. Middle class homes stick window units on balconies or pin them to façades. They sit there precariously like limbs that don’t belong. Until two decades ago, air conditioning equaled malady if not death. Cold air in a hot room was tantamount to inviting a fainting spell if not a stroke. But American pop culture — Hollywood films swear by AC units — slowly brought Romans around, and now the cooling industry runs rampant, often ruining otherwise uncluttered building fronts. Even some taxis have cooled air, though old timers still prefer windows-down doses of requisite Saharan air. Supermarkets are open but not busy. The workplace functions at 70 percent. Schools don’t start until later in the month, making slow September into mid-August’s cousin.
These months once had a lethal tick, and tics. Malarial mosquitoes surged along the Tiber. Hundreds died. Summer downpours spewed river water into low-lying streets where mosquitoes feasted on its greenly brackish stink. Retaining walls brought the river to heel, but mid-century Rome guidebooks still contained severe bacterial admonishments (“Never drink the water!”)
Too bad the warnings lingered since Rome’s calcium-rich tap water is among the best around. It impregnates coffee and pasta with Rome’s thick and tasty character. Foreign cosmopolitans eager to copy Italian food forget the value of the one ingredient they cannot import — the water in which coffee and pasta boil.
And boiling continues despite the heat. True, salads and fish proliferate, but not even extreme heat ostracizes pasta. Same with espressos. Rome is part sauna, part thermal bath, part swamp, a two-millennia-old troika.
For decades, even the pope sought refuge in the cooling Alban Hills, at Castel Gandolfo, usually returning to Rome only in late September. But holy vacations have dwindled in length. Soon, the Argentine pope leaves for America, where (after clearing customs) he’ll find large crowds, a few protests, and shake hands with a culture that summer slows down more modestly. By the time he returns, on September 28, the city will have woken up to the extent it ever does, forever one step behind a more regulated world it has every wish to copy but is gladly unable to replicate.