It's Ferragosto and all's well...

Feast of the Assumption

Let’s talk about the weather, and funny Italian customs, and some art, and the revival of hope…

Nope. Nopenopenope. Not the news. Everyone already knows all that stuff…

I’m just gonna ramble about a few things, if that’s OK. You can read it in bits. If you get bored or tired, come back and finish the rest later. This isn’t the time of year for straining yourself.

Coronation of the Virgin, by Filippo Lippi, apse of the Duomo of Spoleto, fresco, 1467. From the way everyone in Heaven is dressed, I’d say their August holiday never gets hotter than 25C.

Thou handmaid, faithful to the Ruler of hearts,
Thy flesh cruel decay could never touch,
Thy soul of Spirit partaking without end,
Hath winged to the stars.

Leaning on thy beloved, arise, go heav'nward!
Accept the crown with stars for thee bedecked,
List to the hymn thy children sing on this day,
Calling thee blessed.

Hymn of Matins of the Feast of the Assumption




From ancient times, in this very agricultural nation, the second half of August (in fact, for many the whole month) is a holiday. The country mostly shuts down. Tourists who schedule their once-in-a-lifetime trip to Rome and Florence arrive to find the Vatican and the Uffizi closed. It starts on the Feast of the Assumption (also since ancient times known as the Feast of the Dormition, or “falling asleep”) of Mary. And it’s the most sacred time of the year for Italians; the time when you don’t have to do anything.

The holiday is spent at the beach mostly, or up in the hills to escape the heat. Or there are people like me too poor or too locked-down to go anywhere. But it doesn’t matter. The holiday mindset is there; Ferragosto! Blessed Ferragosto! When all expectations are lifted, no one asks or expects anything from you. When it’s really just fine to spend an entire day doing next to nothing. The only things that still need doing are the watering of the garden and the feeding of the kitties. And the saying of the Prayers.

It’s a national time of rest. Mostly because it’s too bloody hot to do much anything else. It’s the time to remember that whatever else happens, the Real World - the natural world, the world of the family, the normal day to day things that everyone has to live through - are ultimately more important than What’s Happening. What’s really happening? Well, it’s Ferragosto, so not that much.

When Ferragosto arrives and you look at it as a blessed relief instead of an annoying interruption, you know you’ve finally gone native.


Heat Coping Protocols for the Feast of the Assumption

In Italy, the sun is not your friend. In fact, it’s a giant laser death-ray in the sky. You don’t enjoy summer here; you endure it heroically.

So, I'm just enjoying the comparative coolth in the house this morning. It was 27 degrees Celcius (no, Americans, you can just google it, or figure it out for yourselves… 21C is “room temperature” of about 72F if that helps. 100 is the boiling temperature of water. 0 is the freezing temp of water. Europe’s hottest ever recorded summer temperature came in Sicily last week, about 48.8. It’s pretty easy, actually…) this morning at eight o’clock when I was making the coffee. The kitchen was a delightfully breezy 30C because I just left the big double front doors wide open all night and that had brought things down about 5 degrees.

We’ve just come to the hottest part of the year, with peak temps for two weeks ranging around 37-40 C. We might have peaked. The forecast for the next week shows temps sailing down from 39 yesterday to considerably more welcome 27 by Wednesday. It has been hot, in other words, and you just have to lump it. Indeed, being a lump is about the most anyone manages in the afternoons. This time of year most Italians live outdoors, get their work done very early in the mornings, sleep in the afternoons, start their dinners no earlier than 8 or 9 pm, and stay at table talking and drinking wine until after midnight.

This is the time of year when, because of my south-west facing windows, the work room in the afternoons gets so hot that it’s literally impossible to paint. Egg tempera is a medium that dries very quickly, almost the instant you put it on the surface, so in this weather the paint literally dries on the brush before you can apply it to the board. If you don’t keep the fan directly pointed at your body 24/7 you pretty much either melt or explode, but the fan also makes the paint dry faster.

Italy is really not much into air conditioning. It is almost unknown in homes of anyone but the nouveau riche middle class (aristocrats wouldn’t have it because it wreaks havok on the ancestral art collections and the peasant classes are too smart to waste money on the electricity bills) and is only rarely found even in cinemas or hospitals. I can tell you the Gemelli’s oncology ward doesn’t have it, for instance. Culturally, even if you have it in the house, you mostly don’t use it or know how. Italians think cool air makes you sick (ice in your drink too). They’re the world’s biggest nation of hypochondriacs and have a host of imaginary diseases they imagine you can get from fresh air, the “colpa d’aria” (“hit of air”) that you get on your neck or chest can be deadly, you know. As can “mal di fegato” (“sore liver”) or “cervicale” (“sore neck”) which kills you faster than Ebola, or so your Nonna assured you all your life.

Oddly enough, in the medically terrified Italian mind, you can’t die of the heat, despite the fact that hundreds do every year, and the encroachment of air conditioning in this country is a wild foreign plot to weaken the nation. In summer, you’re expected to just deal, like a grownup. Nap in the afternoons, stay out of the sun, take it easy and drink plenty of water, stick your feet in a bucket of cold water, and spend August at the beach. Fretting and trying to be busy all the time (the way Anglos do to justify their existence to each other) are foreign concepts.

But it’s a good thing we’re at the end because 2 weeks of 40 degree weather, with a house I can’t cool down, is bringing me to the end of my tether. It was unfreakingbelievable in the house last night - even after doing all the protocols. At ten o'clock I went out onto the terrace and it had to be five degrees cooler out there than it was inside, and the internet said it was 34 outside. My heat coping protocols only work up to about 38 degrees.

Bertie stretched out on the cat-terrace windowsill in the last light a few days ago. He refused to move, since the cool air was coming through the mosquito curtain.


You can imagine I’m not terribly productive. Even the cats have had enough. Bertie's taken to sleeping all day in his little cave under the bed, spread out as thin as he can go on the cool tiles. Henry comes inside only for meals. Pippin is training about 13 hours a day on top of the book shelves for the marathon-sleeping event at the next Cat Olympics.

This is my 12th Italian summer, and for a girl with Irish genes raised in a place where a “hot summer day” is no more than 25C, I have learned to adjust better than I expected. For some years now, I’ve been developing various strategies, including the usual Italian ones of clamping closed windows and shutters after about ten am. The problem with my shutters here is that they’re made of aluminum, so when the sun beams directly at them, as it does all afternoon, they turn into vertical barbecue grilles and heat up the room more effectively than my useless radiators ever do in winter.

One solution I’ve figured out is to hang thick cotton floor runners on the shutters with clothes pegs. This shades the room pretty well and blocks the heat radiating from the shutters themselves. When the weather really gets going, as it did last week, I saturate them with water and that pretty much stops the heat in its evil tracks. (Physics!)

And when everything fails, as it inevitably does in the hottest days of the end of summer, as it did yesterday, the protocols include keeping a dozen or so 1.5L plastic bottles of frozen water in the congelatore. Before bed, you open all the windows, set the fans up in front of them so they’re forcing the comparatively cooler air into the house, and another one outside the mosquito nets over the bed so it can stay directly on you all night. Then you take one or two (last night was our first two-ice-bottle night of the season… so fairly mild as Italian summers go) and wrap them up in a long sleeved cotton t-shirt and put them under the sheet on the spot where you lie down.

This means you can lie on a spot already icy cold that instantly brings down the temperature of the surface of your skin. The ice lasts the whole night, and not only cools you down directly but cools down the air space trapped under the sheet, like it’s creating a tiny little cooled micro-climate in your bed. Last night I had one on each side and slept like a baby.


Going native

But on the whole, you just have to adjust. You know it’s not going to last forever, and you just put up with it. Generally, you don’t insist on doing things exactly the way you did them when you were in AngloLand. You look around and see how the Italians do things.

Remember that Star Trek episode where Spock and McCoy accidentally fall through a door and find themselves trapped in the planet’s ice age? The time machine was called the Atavachron, and the idea was that you looked through a library of CD Roms depicting different times of the planet’s history and picked the one you wanted to visit and stepped through the portal, and voy-lah, there you were, gone.

Well, they got there, and met the very young Mariette Hartley, and Spock fell in love with her and whatnot (as you do). But in the end they learned that one had to be “prepared” to go through the Atavachron. You couldn’t just go live in another time, because you are physiologically acclimated to your own time. You had to have Science Things done to your body before you stepped through or your physiology would in some not-completely-explained way suffer cellular breakdown (or something). Seems legit.

Anyway, Spock wanted to stay but in the end logic won and they had to go back and Spock sadly had to leave beautiful young Mariette Hartley behind in the deep past. She had been sent through the Atavachron after having her physiology adjusted to be a person for whom it was natural to live in the Ice Age, and this meant that just as they couldn’t stay in her time, she couldn’t return to theirs.

And I think this more or less describes what happens when you leave your own culture and go and live a long time in another one. You get to a crisis point where you have to go back home or if you stay it changes you forever, and you won’t be able to. And that’s what ex-pat life is. You’re not ever going to be a part of the new place, not like your Italian friends. But you can’t ever really be at home where you’re from either. You’re a new species: ex-pat.


You get changed

The reason I wanted all my life to move back to England - specifically to Cheshire - was that I think it is my natural habitat. It’s what my genes were designed for. Living on the very very furthest West Coast of Canada, on Vancouver Island, was tolerable for me because the climate was very similar and it being a late 19th century English colony when I was born in it, the culture was very natural too.

But as time went by more and more of that old culture died out and the New Superculture - that thing we now call “globalism” - crept in more and more. In the end, my home had been transformed under my feet into something I couldn’t recognise.

In 2007 I left Canada (Toronto… yeee!) and went to live in England again, at long last. And it was as if my cells recognised their natural habitat. It looked right. It felt right. It smelled right.


The accents were finally normal.

My Auntie Gill, one of the last people alive on earth who knew me as a child, said many times, “It’s as if you’d never left!” Everyone commented on how instantly I fit back in. I’d known all my life that nowhere else in the world was “natural” to me.

There’s a lot to the idea that there are proper places for people in the world. It might not be politically correct, but so many true and real things aren’t, right?


There’s more to life than what’s natural

But I couldn’t stay.

It was painful - more than I can say - to leave a year later to come to Italy. I didn’t want to. It took my editors and some friends months to convince me. And it was a good “career move,” as it turned out, but there was a lot more going on than that. Material, natural, considerations weren’t motivating me, though I would have had a hard time explaining that.

All my life I’ve felt like I’ve been following a trail of “Divine breadcrumbs,” searching for some ineffable thing that even now I can’t entirely name confidently. I suppose “God” is the short form, but that’s too easy. And that search has driven me forward all my adult life, and taken me 8951 km from where I started.

In any case, there was something I can’t quite describe pushing me forward. And it was strong enough to make me leave the place that nature, culture, upbringing and my personality probably best suits. I’m never going to feel “at home” anywhere else. But I think there’s something else going on that means I’m not supposed to.

“Home” isn’t for this world. You aren’t for this world. If you feel that strange longing that you can’t define and don’t understand, it will pull you along. And it’s actually a good thing that you will never, ever be completely comfortable or at home in this life.

Tolkien understood this:

“In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”


We’ve got places to go. People to meet…

I saw her, when, fair like a dove, she winged her flight above the rivers of waters. The priceless savour of her perfumes hung heavy in her garments.
And about her it was as the flower of roses in the spring of the year, and lilies of the valleys.
Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like a pillar of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense?

Who is this that cometh up like the sun? This, comely as Jerusalem?
The daughters of Zion saw her, and called her blessed: the queens also, and they praised her.

More later…


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Hilary White; Sacred Art

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