Site icon Rick Bailey's Blog

Why Don’t Italians Get Hot?

“It’s warm in here.” 

Anyone entering our apartment in San Marino makes this observation. They don’t mean warm. They mean warm.


When we arrived in February, we hadn’t been in the apartment for more than two years. We expected two years of dust. And there was dust. We expected cold. And it was cold. Not cold cold. Just the usual damp and chilly. San Marino in February. We would need heat. Would the boiler work after sitting there for two years? I remembered the company who replaced it a decade or so ago, the company that came out a few years after that and serviced the boiler when it didn’t work. The company whose service tech had said, “You really should have the device cleaned once a year.”

A few days before leaving, we called BravoClima! from the US and arranged a visit the day we arrived.

Typically I make these calls. Tizi lurks nearby just in case a language gap problem arises.

“When we arrive, we may need service on our bollitore,” I said. 

The dispatcher said something I did not understand. She said it fast. The gap. It had definitely opened. I looked at Tizi. She was shaking her head. Bollitore sounds like boiler, but it’s not. “Bollitore,” she whispered, “means tea kettle.” 

Caldaia, I remembered. Hot in Italian is caldo. A mechanism that makes hot is a caldaia.  

The day we arrived, the caldaia did not work. No heat, no hot water. The technician came to the apartment, and in half an hour there was heat.

And eventually: too much heat.

Yesterday we met friends for lunch at a neat place up on a hilltop. Tizi and I had been driving around the hills for a few hours. Up above Carpegna there was still snow on the mountain. Every hour that sunny morning I had subtracted a layer of clothing. By lunch I was down to a t-shirt and light jacket.

In the restaurant I hung the jacket over the back of my chair. When they joined us, our layered friends both remarked, How could I be warm enough sitting there in short sleeves? I shrugged.

It’s like I store heat in my person. I bring it from home. It dissipates through the day.

Across from me, Luigi wore a jacket, a long sleeve sweater, a long sleeve shirt, and, beneath all that, another shirt. He took off his jacket and hung it over the back of his chair. Next to me, Adele never took off her insulated jacket; she never even unzipped it; underneath it, multiple layers.   

Heat is heat, of course. But over here, a slight complication: heat is measured in Celsius. The thermostat in our apartment is sixty years old. It’s analog, with a little black nub on the side that you drag up or down depending on your comfort level. It is not a precision nub. I would like to set the heat on (70°F − 32) × 5/9 = 21.111°C. If I position my ear right next to the thermostat and slide the nub downward, which is hotward, toward 20 or so, I hear a very faint “click.” The heat is on. Out in the service room, off the kitchen, I hear the caldaia begin to hum.

“Is the heat on?” Tizi says.

“It’s on. I heard the click.”

“I’m cold.”

“The caldaia is humming.” She gives me a look that says, Can’t we do something? “Trust me,” I say. “it’s on. We just have to wait.” Wait for radiators to be filled with warm water, wait for the iron radiators to gradually warm. It takes a while.

I confess that I kind of guard the thermostat. I walk by and check it, making sure it’s still set somewhere around 21.11111.  A thermostat, we all know, is not an accelerator. If the temperature in the apartment is 15, whether you set the thermostat on 21.111 or 30, the apartment will warm at the same rate. Setting it on 30 does not speed up the heating process. Tizi knows this. 

“I’m cold,” she says.

“It’s heating.  Feel a radiator.”

“Barely warm.  Not hot. Aren’t you cold?”


Tizi’s mother would say to me, “Non senti il freddo?” Aren’t you cold?

Her dad would say, “Tu, Rick, hai calore.” You have heat.

Yes, I have heat.

Italians are a heat-sensitive people, a scarfy people. For them the scarf is 1) a plug that keeps body heat from rising inside your clothing and escaping through your collar(s), and 2) protection from “corrente,” which is any movement of circumambient air in the direction of your neck or throat. A scarf keeps the heat in and the cold out. 

When we arrive at the airport in Bologna, I’m always already hot. I start unbundling. Standing at luggage retrieval this year, I notice women wearing “blanket” scarves, neck wraps so heavy and abundant, I’m surprised their faces aren’t flushed red from the heat. Blanket scarves and sweaters and coats. And somehow they are still cold.  

From a very young age, as soon as they are born, Italian babies are conditioned to tolerate high heat. On sidewalks, when the baby buggies roll past us, I notice infants in down-filled sleeping bags zipped up to their noses. The sun is out, it’s a mild Spring day. To the Italian mothers, it is cold. Some buggies, I imagine, might even come equipped with heating devices. While their winterized mothers perambulate, their offspring incubate.

Some people suffer cold, some suffer hot. We do not do so equally. There must be geographic determinants, as well as cultural conditioning. I don’t like being cold. I hate being hot. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Italian say, Geez it’s hot! In summer months, Italians want it to be hot. Very hot. July and August, they still guard against corrente. On warm summer nights, with temperatures in the 80’s, even in the 90’s, young women bring jackets and wear scarves.

I remember those surprising warm spring days when I was a kid. You could finally take your jacket off. We’d be outside in short sleeves. It was the great unwrapping. “You’ll catch a cold,” our mothers would say. “Put some clothes on.” It was useless. No kid I grew up with stopped and thought, “Geez, isn’t it still a bit chilly?”

Today was one of the first warm days we’ve had in Italy. Outside it was 21.1111 Celsius. When we stepped outside, I worried about being over-dressed, about being too hot. I planned on removing layers, enjoying the air, the sun, the warmth. When we went into Rimini mid-morning for a walk and coffee, I was struck by men my age, the way they were dressed, as if it was still a bit chilly.

Guys, I thought, didn’t you ever run around outside in your shirt sleeves on a warm spring day? Don’t you want to do that now?


Back home, I have to mind the thermostat. I slide the nub back up because it’s so damn hot in the apartment. The heat clicks off, I think. To make sure I heard the click, I slide it down and up again. Click, click. It takes a long time to warm the apartment, and a long time to cool it down. When it gets cool and Tizi complains, I’ll slide the nub back down. The apartment will reheat. It takes us two weeks or so, we finally settle a on position (I ignore the numbers). It now looks 20ish. I leave it there. Tizi is happy. I am not. 

I am hot.

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