ere was the problem, I explained to the technician some forty years ago. My Rome apartment, a delight in every other respect, had the defect of high ceilings. This was the curse of some top floor apartments. As a result, it was humidly cold in winter, blazingly hot in summer, and no heat or air conditioning seemed up to the task of giving the indoors a consistently livable temperature.
He came on a late June day in the 1980s, pledging to help me deal with the wilting summer. Could he please install an air conditioner, if only in the bedroom? I asked.
Yes, he said, this could in theory be done, but I should be aware that air conditioners were hazardous appliances that could kill people at night.
Yes, unsuspecting owners would go from the hot to the cold and be whisked away by the demons that came from that potentially heart-stopping form of climate change.
This was my first exposure to Rome’s longtime air conditioning phobia, since overcome.
But it wasn’t the real source of my problem that day. The dilemma was linguistic.
I thought I had uttered an Italian line that said the following, “Since the roof is just above me, the place is hot.”
The Italian word for roof is tetto. Ceiling in turn is soffitto. I mangled both.
What I told him, taken literally, was that since my flat’s teats, or tits, were high, I was hot.
This might have made bizarre erotic sense in some other circumstance but not the one I faced.
I’d used tette, not tetto, and left soffitto out entirely, too bad since it was the ceiling not the roof that radiated heat downward. Tette means breasts, more specifically nipples, a la Romulus and his wolf, or Sophia Loren if you prefer.
So I’d just told him, and insisted, that scalding tits were keeping me up at night. I’d sweat and toss and turn and emerge sleepless, all of which heat, and teats, can cause, depending on the circumstances.
The engineer was stoic but you could tell also a little flustered.
“Let me understand… Do you mean your soffitto is high, so your tetto, your roof, heats up under the sun?”
Yes, yes, yes, just what I said.
He kindly suggested that wasn’t exactly what I had said and I might want to eliminate nipples, breasts, and similar instruments of mass femaleness from my assessment of Rome summers and the need to install a climatizzatore, or climate maker, the Italian world for AC (since abbreviated to clima).
I had no idea what he was talking about and continued to complain about the scalding tits and my awful nights.
He thankfully shut me up by elaborating a plan by which a big Westinghouse unit (health-hazard AC’s were hard to find in those days) would be fitted on a balcony to cool my large, tall-breasted bedroom.
This endeavor took a month (the unit had to be imported from West Germany) and when my portiere, or superintendent, saw the unit, he all but wailed aloud: “Are you trying to kill yourself?”
No, I replied, still unwashed, I couldn’t stand the tit-heat any longer.
The portiere was less diplomatic than the technician and broke into laughter, all but forgetting the menacing climatizzatore.
Then came advice: “If you ever complain to an Italian girl that you can’t sleep because of heat caused by tall tette, you’ll have a hard time in this town.”
Mortified, I practiced these endings in the mirror and made sure every Italian guest heard me say soffitto or tetto when I explained my flat’s hot and cold flashes.
Those who had decided not to correct me were visibly relieved at my linguistic pilgrim’s progress.
There was one relapse, in a hospital ward three years ago, when a woman nurse asked me if the fan was blowing too hard at my bed. No, no, but could she please adjust the one on the tette.
Last I looked, she replied with a straight face, I have no fan on my breasts.
I’m American, I said.
I understand, she laughed, and adjusted the ceiling fan.
For the record, the Westinghouse clima lasted some 35 years, replaced recently by a new sleek unit that’s all the rage. In fact, the AC, along with the web, has brought Rome into at least the last decade of the 20th-century. Cooling and heating air are now both “hot” pursuits, tits not included, and sellers can’t keep up with the urban demand.
No telling what the 21st century (due in 2025) will usher in, maybe even a city that, given a push by world-warping COVID, will copy the rest of the West and rely mostly on take-out meals instead of the plethora of mom and pop restaurants that once made evenings tick.
If climas can conquer a city that once lived in fear of them, why can’t mass take-out, already booming, do the same? God forbid.