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More than one way to cool a baked couch potato

A 38-degree day. Not what you need when you've got a three-month-old boy who has yet to tell night from day, let alone spring from summer. Who has already spent the previous night in the Children's Hospital emergency ward, floppy and dehydrated.

His mum had been there all night, too, so she was exhausted. After work, it was my job to keep the baby cool. But the weather god was with me — by 6.00pm the vicious temperature had dropped to a humane 23 degrees. A perfect night to pop him in the pusher and enjoy a cool breeze.

Focused on his needs as we walked, it took me a while to notice that very few others in the suburb thought a cooling stroll was the answer after a day sweating at even the thought of physical activity. Except for my many Greek neighbours. They were out in numbers. I waved as they strolled the footpaths together under the loquat trees, brushing flies away with tree branches, or sat in groups, talking (loudly) on their verandas.

But the only sounds as I passed many other houses were air conditioners, chattering on side walls or rooftops. Below them sat cool and often ornately furnished verandas, silent and unoccupied. If it had been just a couple of houses, I'd have thought, 'Okay, so they don't know the cool change has come.' But I walked my son past rows and rows of houses, and so many of them had air conditioners talking as loud as my Greek neighbours.

We're a nation that can't tell a cool change from climate change, I thought. And felt immediately hypocritical. How often had I driven around in an air-conditioned car, hot not because of the outside temperature, but because it had sat for hours under a mild sun? What's more, I own a portable air conditioner and bring it out of the shed to cool a room when the mercury gets as hot as Mercury. And I'd bring it in more often — if it wasn't for my wife.

She's part Italian, not Greek, but reminds me to let the cool change do its work, rather than the air conditioner. As soon as it cools down outside, she opens the windows and doors and wafts the day's heat on its way. And, even if it's only marginally cooler outside than in, she packs me and the rest of the family outside to the porch or footpath.

Where my Greek neighbours are. I haven't polled them, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that none of them have air conditioning. I wonder, also, if they have the gadgets — wide screen TVs, video game consoles, the net — that seem to keep the rest of us inside, pushing black balloons out of our air conditioners, despite the temperature change welcoming us baked couch potatoes out for a cooling stroll or porch conversation.

We need air conditioners when the temperature turns Saharan. Not least of all for babies like mine and for the sick, elderly and frail. But this summer, I'm going to bring climate change, cool change and community together. Take my cues from my Greek neighbours. Get outside, have a walk and a chat when the sun loses its sting. And pop the black balloons that emanate from at least one air conditioner.

Paul MithcellPaul Mitchell is a Melbourne-based writer. His latest books are Dodging the Bull (short fiction) and Awake Despite the Hour (poetry). www.paul-mitchell.com.au


Topic tags: climate change, cool change, air conditioners, greenhouse gas emmissions, black balloons, greek neighbour



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Existing comments

Dear Paul,

I agree with you totally! Piet 81 & I, 77 have no air conditioning and so far we have survived quite well in our double brick house. We have just had the roof insulation redone and hope to get our money back from the govt. for our photovoltaic cells so I was thinking that if we needed it I wouldn't feel so guilty about buying an air-conditioner, but so far we are OK.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 21 January 2010  

Paul, I enjoyed your article and was surprised to so completely recognise your experience.

Even on merely warm evenings, the hum of air conditioners can be heard as our neighbourhood passeggiata is under way. And I’ve been naturally cooling down our massive old house for years (except during heatwaves).

Peter Swalling | 21 January 2010  

yes...and the way we used keep our tiny ones cool, back in the old days, was to put a wet/damp cotton mosquito net over the crib or cot and close the bedroom door to keep out the breeze. No matter how hot the rest of the house was, the tiny one would be sleeping peacefully, and cool to the touch, under the net. On really hot days, one had to wet the net again and again. Ditto the wet sheet hung in the hallway to catch the breeze, or with a fan blowing on it, to bring some cool to bigger kids and mum and dad, too. No doubt it would work for granny as well...

Margaret | 24 January 2010  

Yes Paul, you are right, it is too easy to hide in the cocoon – but the joy of flinging open windows and doors to a cool change is not to be underestimated, it is not only the house that changes, but something in us as well. Bring it on!

Julie Perrin | 13 January 2018