My friend Lou says that the death of the piazza in Italy will come from air conditioning.
One of everyone’s favorite things about Italy is its piazza life. A few weeks ago I highlighted Piazza Navona in Rome, but almost all Italian towns, no matter how small, have an equivalent that I would liken to a communal living room.
Italian homes in the past tended to be small and, with electricity incredibly expensive, non air-conditioned. So socializing is basically still the same as it’s been for centuries: outside of the house. On a daily basis, there’s the famous passeggiata, which is that time right before dinner when everyone of every age strolls in the main area of every town. It does not count as a passeggiata if you’re on an empty side street, nor if you’re walking quickly. Stroll is the key word. People might stop for an aperitivo or a gelato, but the main purpose is to see and be seen by all the other townspeople and exchange any news of the day.
In lovely weather or when it’s very warm, there might also be another passeggiata after dinner to enjoy the evening air, though you seldom see the elderly out at this time.
And then on weekends starting in Spring, there are festivals in the main piazze in towns everywhere around you. As a courtesy to each other, they try not to overlap, but within 25 miles of wherever you are there might be a festival for a particular saint or religious miracle or significant historic event. These tend to be in Spring and Fall. The Summer festivals are usually for some kind of regional food. They’re called a sagra, and can be in honor of cinghiale (wild boar), or foccaccia….an in-season fruit or vegetable, or perhaps a local type of pasta.
The main point is that this all takes place OUTSIDE the home. It’s social. It’s fun. It’s the piazza life we Americans tourists staying in air-conditioned hotels love to see and wish we had back home. We tell everyone how great Italy is because they use their towns as part of their day-to-day life to get together with friends and neighbors.
But let’s talk about the last 2 weeks. The description I would have given you a month ago of Summer in Central Italy would have been that it’s a time of warm temperatures and bright sunshine. This is how I would describe it now: Summer in Central Italy is a time of hellish, stifling temperatures and unrelenting sun pounding down on you mercilessly, sapping all your energy.
Yes – Italians do, in general, interact more with their neighbors, but how much of that is the result of actually wanting to see those people and how much is the result of wanting to get the hell out of the house for a breath of fresh air?
To get back to my beginning sentence — what would happen, for instance, if people had AIR CONDITIONING? Would Lou be right? Would piazza life as we know it disappear behind closed doors and windows, with the familiar sound of a condenser humming outside? It takes a lot to change cultural habits that have been practiced for centuries. However, right now they’re calling 95+ temperatures for at least the next 10 days, with blindingly bright sun and zero chance of rain or relief. Let’s see…..piazza life or air conditioning……hmmmmm………