Published in the August 19, 2016 edition

The author writes an article about Italy each year leading up to the town’s Festival Italia, which is tomorrow from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. in downtown Wakefield.


So now that my daughter and I live in Wakefield, we just visit Italy when she’s out of school. This year we spent the month of July in Bologna. She went to the pool, the Riviera Romagnola, the beaches of Gaeta, Ventotene Island and B and B’s in Tuscany. And she did it all in air-conditioned (or screened-in) comfort.

I, on the other hand, spent 27 days in front of a fan, scuttling like a beetle from one darkened corner to another, drinking liters and liters of water and swatting at tiger mosquitos, while my eyelids sweat. My eyelids!!!

Bologna gets hot in the summer. On one particularly sultry Sunday, after I’d spent the whole day inside, in the dark, I couldn’t take it any more and went out for a walk. It was 7:30 in the evening, and it was 108 degrees. When I got back from my walk, an hour later, the temperature had fallen to a chilly 105. I’m telling you: it was hot.

The upside of course, was the gelato I was forced to consume in order to keep cool. That and the fact that I was prepared. I knew what I was getting into. Bologna is a sweltering, muggy mess in the summer. Air conditioning is not widely used and even the wealthy don’t tend to install screens in their homes. You have to just sort of go with it. Drink plenty of water, learn to love citronella and eat gelato. (Eating gelato is key to summer survival.) But back in the summer of 2001, I didn’t know any of this. I was a dilettante, a babe in the woods, an innocent New Englander who didn’t even know what spring felt like, much less an entire season in a sauna.

When the first of the summer heat arrived that year, it was a bit of a shock. I’d spent more than a few weekends up to that point on the Adriatic and I was still amazed that you could actually immerse yourself in a body of salt water. Who knew? All my prior beach-going experience had been from Nahant north and by the time you waded in up to your knees, you couldn’t feel your toes, even in August! This business about not going numb and actually being able to swim was incredible!

I hadn’t thought about what that might mean for the coming summer months, so I was completely taken aback when I found myself walking around in what felt like a hot sponge by the end of May. To make matters worse, I was moving in with a roommate for the first time since my freshman year of college. (It hadn’t gone well.) And at the age of 30, I was not looking forward to sharing my personal space with anyone, let alone a girl I barely knew, even if it was only going to be for a few days.

I’d met Catherin, the aforementioned temporary roommate, under inauspicious circumstances at Il Centro di Cultura Italiana where she and I were trying desperately to learn the language as fast as possible. I’d gotten to school on the second day of classes, only to find that I’d been bumped down a level, from “Beginner” to “Newbie” and Catherin was tapped to share her book with me because there weren’t enough to go around. I have to admit, I’d been secretly relieved to know I wouldn’t be spending the rest of my Italian classes nodding and smiling and completely lost while the other students laughed and joked with the teacher. But who likes being told they can’t make the grade – with hand motions no less – first thing in the morning! Then, when the teacher pointed to the empty chair next to the Heidi Klum look-alike, my ego jumped right into the toilet. I hadn’t had nearly enough of those tiny little espressos to deal with something of this magnitude so early in the day, and the next coffee break was over two hours away!

But Catherin was actually a pretty good egg. She was from Berlin and, like myself, she was trying to make a life for herself in Italy, as opposed to most of the other students at the school, who were simply vacationing. When she had an interview in Milan for an internship, I took the train up with her. And when I found a job and an apartment all on the same day, but couldn’t move into the new place till a week after the lease on the first place was up, she offered to host me for the few days that I would have otherwise remained homeless.

As I recall, she also said something about it being a bad idea to rent an apartment from my boss, especially a boss who would be living across the hall. And in retrospect, I definitely should have given things a bit more thought. I mean when your boss asks you to jump, you generally wonder, “How high?” Right? But when the task in question is to care for two spoiled felines and some ant-infested potted plants while she’s away – and unreachable – for six weeks. … But I digress. The point is that by then I’d pretty much decided that Catherin wasn’t going to kill me in my sleep. So I schlepped my stuff across town in the sizzling heat and tried to be enthusiastic about close quarters and a shared bathroom.

I needn’t have worried. Catherin turned out to be one of the best friends I’ve ever had. But aside from this unknowable fact, it was so hot that even if she had been an ax murderer, I wouldn’t have cared. She’d told me that a German friend of hers said that “it gets so hot in Bologna in the summer that all you can do is lie down and sweat like a fish,” but I hadn’t believe her. Who would? I mean, do fish even HAVE sweat glands? Besides, she was translating from German to Italian to English. Something obviously got lost in the translation. Surely, that had to be it.

Nope. She was right. I remember one day doing nothing but lying on our beds, wearing only enough for modesty’s sake, unable to do anything but perspire and wonder when it would end. Much like this July.

This year however, while the days were stuffy and steamy, I made plans for the cooler hours. In the evenings, I met friends “in centro” and we walked and talked and ate gelato. (I’ve mentioned the gelato, right? Because it’s really important.) We whined about the heat and stopped on park benches, sweating in companionable silence. And when the tropical air proved too much for me and I started ranting again about the heat, my friends rolled their eyes and kindly offered me their sympathy, patiently explaining to me that it was OK that I didn’t take to the heat in Bologna, being from “Nuova Inghilterra” (New England) where we don’t know about such things. On more than one occasion, I even had a chat via Skype with Catherin, who’s since moved back to Berlin and, sure enough, my old friend and I couldn’t help but giggle about our first Bologna heat wave. So the real upside was that unlike that hazy, hot and humid summer so many years ago, THIS year, I shared it with good friends, old friends … and gallons of gelato. (Don’t forget the gelato!)