I shuffle out of Fooby on a Saturday afternoon at 2pm. The streets are full; there are pedestrians of all ages, races, and nationalities spread far and wide across the steamy sidewalk under the beating early summer sun. I have only a few small items inside my bags; some of which are sushi, however, so it's now my job to walk home in a short enough amount of time that C and I won't both get belly aches. And it's going to be a long walk.
As I eye the power lines that spider above me while waiting at a stoplight, the birds are hopping to and fro, attempting to properly line up with their next victims. Two men in heavy leather jackets pass closely by on my right side as I'm watching the birds. Both mens’ hairstyles are longish and frazzled by time or wind or sun, and the animal skin on their backs has developed an organic, varied patina. The older of the two looks sideways at his associate, his metal chains jangling with each step. I watch an amused look form on his face in profile as the man beside him takes a big slurp off a melting, single-scoop ice cream cone, skimming some off the top and preventing it from dripping on his hands. To me, this juxtaposition of gruff biker and soft serve is a funny one, like a crocodile smelling a flower. But it's summer in Switzerland, and that means ice cream, and eating outside in the sunshine.
A few days ago I tried explaining what growing up in Texan summers felt like to a throng of sunbathing Europeans. We sat on the shores of Lutry in an open patch of grass on a wide green lawn, surrounded by caramelized couples dutifully massaging oil on themselves and each other; C and I had ridden the bus to Lutry to celebrate our friend Valerio’s birthday. Just beyond the lawn there were children screeching, laughing, and arranging rocks on the pebbly shoreline, before charging headlong into the rain-soaked, icy lake.
A hodgepodge of characters from all over the globe were sharing in the festivities along with us; including one man, an accountant named Hugo, hailing from Sweden, working at the same company as C, and able to speak at 5 different languages: Swedish, English, Finnish, German, and Italian. He was still working on his French. Cheeks flushed, he looked rather worse for wear as he shook my hand, divulging almost immediately that he had yet to recover from the libations he partook of the previous night. He described many rapidly-depleted bottles of wine at a friend's house, followed by someone's (possibly his) bright idea to comb the streets of Lausanne to look for an open nightclub. Hugo went along with the group, ending up at a smoke-filled, red neon-saturated destination called Jagger's.
"Well then, did you have the moves...you know, like Jagger?" I asked him, venturing out onto a pretty uncool limb for someone I had only just met.
"Ohho," he replies, "At that point, I not only did have the moves, but I definitely showed them off."
Even with his formidable hangover, Hugo then raised his arms to the waist and gave the slightest demonstration of a cha-cha. From there, we became fast friends.
Hours passed; C and I eventually were seated on our towels in the grass, both of which corralled into a lopsided circle and incorporated into the rest of the dwindling group. Everyone but me drank beer: some nursed craft brews while others threw back several of the Swiss equivalent to Bud Light; I had tried to be fancy and bring a decent bottle of wine to the party, only to realize that I would be the only one enjoying it. But enjoy it I did. After a few glasses in the afternoon sun, and C lightly squeezing my hand each time I forgot to watch my volume when speaking, the topic of American life came up, and some brave soul asked the slightly tipsy Texan wearing a Red Sox cap what summers were like for her growing up in Cowboy Land.
"Well for one," I said (C lightly squeezes my hand; I recalibrate, adjusting my volume), "For one, we have these huge parking lots--they're everywhere--and there aren’t many places good for walking, because honestly, you just can't. Everything’s too spaced out in my hometown.
"At the height of summer, if you have to go out in the middle of the day, your best bet is to get from the inside of the shopping mall to the inside of your car as quickly as possible. And if you buy a black interior for your car, in Texas…" I said in closing, "then you've got a death wish."
They watched me, entertained. In some places, like Globus or other choice buildings peppered through city centers in Switzerland, air conditioning is installed, yet still used in moderation. But also here, most apartments don't have air conditioning; mine definitely doesn't. We have these heavy-duty widows that latch in three different positions: fully opened; fully closed; and half-open, hanging backward at a 45-degree angle from a hinge at the bottom. In our building, we also have these sturdy retractable metal storm shutters, which serve as external blackout curtains, yet are engineered with thin slats that still let the fresh air through.
I told them about the dry heat of Texas, the sizzle of water hitting hot pavement, and the normality of switching from a cool autumn breeze inside one's car, to an unrelenting Martian atmosphere outside, and then back to a spring mountain morning once back inside the dark interior of a southern home with the shades drawn and the AC on full blast. This was when I really lost them; it finally clicked with the rest of the group that in Texas, opening windows was an absolute no-no. I was hounded for it time and again when I was younger: Close that door, Allie! You're letting all the cold air out! Close those shades! You're making it 100 degrees in here!
I only really got it once I started paying my own electric bill many years later, seeing the toll that a constantly cool room takes on your bottom line.
The conversation petered out; the Europeans no longer had much of a frame of reference. Hugo got up from napping on his towel behind us; his skin was tinged pink. He headed off for a revitalizing, polar-bear plunge into the freezing water, hoping to knock himself free of whatever persisted in plaguing him.
Later that night, C and I arrived home, changed to our pajamas, and then sat on the couch. One hour after settling down, I was hit with an intense migraine, totally out of the blue. I took an Advil and went to bed early; C later came to check on me, bringing me a refreshed thermos of cold water, surmising that I might possibly have become overheated. I then thought back over my afternoon: sipping my wine, sitting in the sun for hours, and then returning home to a moderately warm apartment. It made sense, I was still getting used to life without temperature control.
Though I still need to fan myself while eating out on a warm terrace, and I can't rely on the cooling magic of an ice cream cone every day of the week, I believe I'm slowly but surely starting to reach an equilibrium. I have many years of air conditioning still in my bones; I still toss and turn at night, even with a fan blowing straight at me, whirring like a dragonfly at the foot of our bed. I still have those same voices ringing in my head each time I turn the three-pronged latch-- Shut that window, Allie!
Once again, I am needing to adapt to my environment. This time, I will use some lessons from my past, and the new customs of my present. Just like when I was a kid, still curious of the sounds and the smells from the outside, I am now encouraged to open my windows, feeling that forbidden flow of fresh air enrobing me. But as the Swiss summer sun rises, more and more the storm shutters are lowered down, the breeze streaming in through the little slats.
Because who wants it to be 100 degrees in here?