A Cold Day in Hell

Posted inID Mag

Refrigeration preserves the best things in life: staples and luxuries, milk and roses. Cool them, and their shelf life lengthens. Leave them out in the heat and they turn bad or shrivel up.

But what happens when humans treat themselves like dairy products chilled behind glass?

Civilization declines.

The proof is in Barcelona. Spend five glorious weeks in its barely mitigated heat, as I did last summer, then return home and refrigerate yourself in the relentless mono-temperature now anesthetizing the continent. Conclusion?

A/C is the killing frost sure to wilt the last fragile shoots of American culture.

Civilization isn’t business, it’s pleasure. It starts happening when you look up from your toil and use your senses to entertain yourself and your friends. Whether you’re making art or eating at a sidewalk cafe, it’s culture that burgeons, the contagious inspiration fueled by desire, not survival, to commune with your fellow man. Civilization is the force that makes things smell better, look nicer, sound more interesting than they have to be. But it can’t thrive unless people exit their homes and show up in public to gawk, politick, or traffic in gossip and ideas. When citizens can no longer withstand the unconditioned air between buildings, urbanity ceases.

As it simulates winter, air conditioning drives the sensory appetite into hibernation. It blocks the attributes of a summer’s day and eventually renders them insupportable: unpredictable breezes, moody humidity, buzzing wildlife, pelting rain, languishing flora. As citizens become de-acclimated to raw air, A/C must be supplemented with Rx’s such as Claritin.

Not long ago, air conditioning was to human habitat as ice cream is to sustenance: a mildly naughty, delicious escape from the ordinary texture of daily life. (Naughty since both are caloric: A/C burns energy, dessert adds it.) But now that A/C is almost a civil right, inalienable as potable water, how long can it be before the easy, fragile spoilability of Americans causes our downfall, and warmer nations, manned by more durable citizens, rise up and replace us in the hierarchy of power and dignity?

These days we use A/C to colonize lands—Nevada, for example—once deemed inhospitable. The more A/C we use, the more fuel power plants burn. The more they burn, the more soldiers we must dispatch to befriend oil-rich nations.

The tenser things get, the more gear soldiers must wear, the hotter they get. And the hotter they get, the less patience they have for friendship. Unless we can air-condition the soldiers themselves—youngsters raised on mono-temperatures—it is not only cruel to send them to uncooled countries, but nonstrategic.

Morally, there is a difference between manufacturing heat and cold—between warming Buffalo and cooling Las Vegas. It’s a matter of 10 or 20 degrees. When populations grow addicted to A/C, they flag when outdoor air rises into the 80s, a range that once defined a pleasant summer. Consider the cubic yardage of one continent’s indigenous air being cooled from 80 degrees to a corporate-style 68. That’s an enormous volume of air, leading inevitably to a huge volume of testy, overheated soldiers.

Barcelona is a hot, humid seaside town where people have been deferring to heat for thousands of years. Advanced as the city is, central air conditioning is sparse. New systems and retrofits—mostly costly Japanese split-duct systems—cool the air to temperatures deemed warm by American bodies. Electric fans are surprisingly uncommon.

Rather than rely on machines—and wreck their old architecture with window units and ducts—they design their habits, hardware, clothes, and attitude to cool themselves off. Now their deference seems sustainably avant-garde.

The secret to Catalan comfort is not a gadget, but a self-induced, mind-body state of discomfort suspension: heat tolerance. When it’s summer, everyone expects to be hot. Accordingly, they plan their seasonal vacations, daily routines, food, drinks, and wardrobes for maximum cooling. In other words, it’s the culture that cools, not the contraptions.

Dwellings adapt. Double-door-size windows have three layers: usually metal shutters, glass sashes, and drapes. (No bugs, no screens. In the early morning, residents throw open windows; in mid-afternoon, they close the shutters to block the heat.)

Catalans design cooling schedules, too. First of all, they tear August off their calendars. Since it’s too hot to do anything but vacation, they vacation. During other hot months, they divide 16 or 17 waking hours into segments, hot and cool, with two bouts of work and two stints of sleep per day: work, sleep, work, go out on the town, sleep.

From early morning to early afternoon, while the city is cool after a night’s worth of shade, you get in a good chunk of work. After a late lunch, when you start to sag, and the city’s masonry starts to radiate, you take a siesta. After a real nap (short or long depending on what you do and where you live), the sun has dipped, sea breezes arrive, and you are restored. You finish another chunk of work, shop for dinner, and dine exceedingly late. On weekends, you dine late, then go out on the town. This grand civic agreement—that everyone shall shop, dine, and party during the same windows of coolness—allows even the smallest neighborhood to enjoy a few hours of urban intensity. The smaller the window of time, the larger the crowds. Here is the antithesis of American life, which offers up every day as a shapeless continuum of snacking, working, and shopping at 24-hour stores with season-free air.

In Barcelona, the siesta-syncopated day is not sleepy at all. In fact each day seems longer, more productive, and punctuated with more urgency. There are, for example, four rush hours instead of two, but each commute is short. You live near your work, so you can keep in rhythm with everyone else. (A one-hour commute, acceptable to Americans, is absurd to a Catalan.)

In Barcelona, the heat binds everyone together with the same exigencies; it melts them into a state of shared languorousness. The more debilitating the heat, the more fluidly and purposelessly you walk. That slower walk not only makes you into a more mesmerizing item of moving scenery, it lets you absorb atmospheres you would have missed at a faster pace. Simple pleasures, voluptuously fulfilling, replace complex goals. A beer. A gelato.

Barcelona is one of the few cities that make you think about denuding your skin instead of draping it in fashionable ways. You learn which fabrics breathe, which asphyxiate. You search for clothing that bares body parts most anxious for air—neck, scalp, feet. But you are careful to cover flesh—thighs, buttocks, back—that might adhere to hot city surfaces. Women flick open the most sexual of all accessories, the folding fan—the symbol of Spanish sensuality, a tool of flirtation, and an elegant invention. (Modern Catalan women once rejected hand fans as props of Andalusian and tourist cliches, but they are coming back restyled and sans lace.)

The streets become intriguing when twosomes and foursomes of slow-walking, unwrapped people start filling the sidewalks. Restaurants and bars put out tables and chairs to cash in on the scenery. With diners installed as audiences, the stakes rise. Incentives grow. The pleasures of looking good—svelte, muscular, graceful, elegant, groomed—are rewarded by attention. As attentiveness turns to curiosity, the air seems electrified; public life starts to simmer and bubble with the suspense of a rolling boil. Curiosity generates its own heat.

In America, you dress for machines, the chemical-churning systems that dump cold, heavy air from above. In Barcelona, it’s the sympathetic nervous system that cools gently and glandularly. Moment by moment, you feel the air—its slightest shifts
in direction and velocity—because breeze brings evaporation, the gentlest form of massage. The epidermis is sending so many signals—distress, pleasure, relief—that you feel a full sense of corporeality. You breathe multidimensionally, with lungs and skin. It’s an unusual sort of city experience.

In America, epidermal awareness happens in private places: outdoor showers or hot baths. In Barcelona, you bask in the cool heat of the public nights. En route back to JFK, the airline lost my luggage for seven days. Still traveling, to Princeton this time, I planned to replace some clothing at Lord & Taylor’s big summer’s-end sale. I tried to relish the cultural trade-off: Okay, so the mall was no Ramblas, but after five weeks of heat, how could a store full of A/C be less than a thrill? So much! So cold! Like a ride up a ski lift, a jump in a Maine lake, a romp in the snow.

After piling on extra layers of borrowed clothing, I borrowed an air-conditioned Lexus (with int/ext temperature display) and circled the store parking lot to find the closest space and the shortest walk.

I opened the glass door and inhaled. Nothing! No minty rush in the lungs, no chill on the face, no thrum in the ceiling. No customers! Just defeated salespeople, fanning themselves with cardboard, saying A/C repairmen were on the way. Racks and racks of drastically reduced clothing stood alone and unriffled.

While others wilted, my sympathetic nervous system kicked in like emergency lighting. The heat felt normal. And normal felt good. With the bargains all to myself, I could shop with exquisite slowness.

Researchers say it takes two to four weeks to gain full acclimation to a hot climate. By making me sweat, Barcelona allowed me to become acclimated to the natural heat of my native summers, to become a more authentic citizen of my own habitat.

And for that I am a better person.

With better clothes.

Barbara Flanagan, a writer and designer based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, contributes to Metropolis and The New York Times. She is the author of The Houseboat Book (Universe Books).