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Column: Keep your cool

There’s more than one way to fight the fire.
Being hosed down with cold water may start out as a shock but quickly turns into welcome relief in the sizzling heat.

Is the sun’s energy increasing, or is our planet losing some its defenses against the threats hurled at us from up high? This is a problem keeping scientists scratching their heads. Our problem is more practical – how do we cope with what’s already a fait accompli, the intense heat in the summer?

I lived in Florence, Italy for over thirty years. The extreme heat used to arrive by July, though sometimes the temperature hit 30 C already at the end of May. Often I was able to escape the heat by spending the summer in Germany with relatives. But there were years when I was stuck in Florence, where I had a flat on the top floor of an old “palazzo.” It faced west, with a breathtaking view over all the historic monuments of Florence, but it also happened to be fully exposed to the sun from noon until sunset. The walls, floor and ceiling stayed warm all day and all night. A few of the libraries and archives in which I did research remained open during August, and some even had air conditioning. But their hours were reduced in the summer, and we’d be turned out at 5 p.m., when the sun still packed a punch.

Over the years I got a knack for figuring out how to survive in my flat, which was not well enough insulated to benefit from an air conditioning unit. Nights can be a nightmare when the indoor temperature never ever goes below 28 C and most of the time is much higher. I bought a very large fan, placed it at the foot of my bed, and set it to low. At the same time I turned up my powers of imagination to high and pretended I was lying on the deck of an ocean liner, enjoying the gentle, fresh breezes coming off the cool water. My bedtime reading was strictly limited to stories that dealt with wintery, icy topics – Jack London’s “White Fang” and “Call of the Wild” did the job. And I would keep my copies of these books in the refrigerator until I was ready to read them. Holding a cold book in your hot hands is the most delightful sensation when all you want is to quench the fiery temperatures inside and outside.

But it wasn’t only books I’d keep in the refrigerator – I also stored pillowcases in there. Every few hours I’d wake up and feel that my head was burning. A refrigerated pillowcase usually remained cool long enough to allow me to fall asleep again. Sometimes I’d go through several pillowcases a night.

Preparing meals was a challenge. Though fresh vegetables were available in abundance at the daily food markets, many of them needed to be cooked. By the time the temperature in my flat hit the 30’s, around noon, it was unbearable to turn on the stove. So I’d get up at 5 in the morning, when the windows could still be kept open, to begin work in the kitchen.

I had a few old cotton summer dresses that I kept to wear inside the flat. I’d soak them in water and put them on still wet, though no longer dripping. A wet towel draped over the shoulders and around the neck also afforded some relief.

Except for the purchase of the fan, none of my tricks for beating the heat cost any money. They are within reach of anyone who has a refrigerator and access to water. AC just shoves the heat from indoors to outdoors – it only damages our climate!

Sabine Eiche is a local writer and art historian with a PhD from Princeton University. She is passionately involved in preserving the environment and protecting nature. Her columns deal with a broad range of topics and often include the history (etymology) of words in order to shed extra light on the subject.