In the Barrio (July)

If we’re lucky — and in July we’re often lucky — no matter how hot it gets during the day, the temperature plummets at night. Georgia summer is Georgia summer no matter what, soppy as a wrung-out washcloth. But Madrid in July, early, early in the morning, when the sky is as thick with swifts as a few hours earlier it might’ve been with stars, contains an extra season. One full of not the absence of heat but with the presence of coolness. If I was in charge of naming, what would I call that new season? No clue. Maybe perfect.

Or maybe this is just what it’s like to live in what resembles desert, in what feels like spitting distance of North Africa.

This is a long-winded way of saying we slept without the air conditioning last night. In July! On crisp percale sheets I rejected back in the winter because they felt like sleeping on a shower curtain.

Here in Spain, I think about air conditioning much more than I ever did in Atlanta. In Atlanta, I tried to keep from turning on the ac until May 1st, and some years I actually succeeded. It ran until October. I grew up in a house without air conditioning, but that was a long time ago. By the time we moved to Atlanta, it was unthinkable to sleep with the windows open. Someone might climb through them.

But Europeans have a completely different relationship with cooling their houses. For one thing, central air is an anomaly here. If you have ac at all, what you probably have are “splits” attached to the walls, judiciously placed in just a few rooms. The living room and the master bedroom, maybe. I have no idea what it might cost to run all our splits simultaneously. I’m afraid to find out.

Europeans still view air conditioning a bit suspiciously. The air it creates may be cold, but it’s not fresh. It causes sore throats and summer colds. When a friend moved her family out of their apartment, she discovered that the air conditioner her European husband had claimed was broken was really just unplugged.

I can tell how unlikely our neighbors are to turn on their air conditioning just by eying the fans attached to the exterior walls of the buildings.

Which I admit gives me pause before I turn on our own.

All air conditioning off, all windows open.

Could be that it’s good to have to think about such things. Maybe the problem with life in the United States is the way we’ve raised not having to think about things to such a high art. Our yardstick is freedom, never impact.

Maybe the interdependence, the symbiosis, this rubbing of shoulders I feel here in Madrid isn’t a characteristic of living outside the United States at all, but is more something that comes with living in a city, any city. As I write this, I’m aware of the squeak, squeak of clothesline being run through pulley that means the woman who lives in the adjoining building is hanging clothes on the line that runs from her bathroom to bedroom windows. I know she has two little boys who jump on their bed in their pajamas. I know there’s a poster of a skateboarding Bart Simpson on their bedroom wall. I know the towels she’s hanging on the line have little blue whales embroidered on them.

We live cheek-by-jowl.

The last way I want her —or the guy across the street, who I think has a new boyfriend — to think about me is as the Wasteful American who runs her air conditioner day and night. And so I wait as long as I possibly can before I switch it on. I do my errands in the mornings and move more slowly in the afternoons. I’m at the mercy of the world, rather than having it be at my beck and call — and maybe, as little as I sometimes like it, American that I am — that’s a good thing.


  1. Same here in the land of swamp coolers. Not on all the time. We are trying to figure out a way to keep it and avoid those splits but it’s been a hot summer and climate change promises more of the same. We are in the neighborhood called (realtors) “Near North,” meaning near the North Valley, meaning near farms and some fancy houses and plenty of not at all fancy. Albuquerque in that way only—exclusively, solely—resembles Galveston. The fancy mansions next to the humble shacks. Enjoy your percale sheets! xoxox

    1. As I wrote this, New Mexico was the only US place I could think of that might cool off this same way at night that Madrid does. Here’s to continued nighttime coolness for both of us! It’s going to be a long hot summer, I’m afraid.

      1. From what I hear, Texas is intolerable. Stretches of days in the 3-digits and lots of humidity. And zero humility.

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