Washington DC. July. Temperature nudging ninety degrees in the shade. My father-in-law invited us out for a meal. Lovely, Italian restaurant, with attentive staff, a good wine list and food to die for.
There were some tables outside, but the place was on a busy, noisy, downtown street so we opted for the peace and quiet and starched, white tablecloths of the interior. Which was fine. Except that in the summer skirt, short-sleeved cotton blouse and sandals I had been wearing on my walk around town, I now froze. We all froze. It was like the inside of an ice chest. I had not thought to carry a sweater. Well why would I, in midsummer with an ambient temperature of eighty-nine and high humidity?
The dessert menu included one of my top favourites – coconut sorbet – and I ordered some, since I rarely get the chance to taste that delicious concoction these days. But my teeth were chattering as I ate it and my fingers were numb. It was the strangest sensation, eating that yummy stuff and shivering with cold; a mixture of pain and pleasure.
It was a relief to get out on to the hot street again.
Next day, needing to go to Boston and being the greenies that we are, we took an eight hour journey on Amtrak, instead of flying. Lovely, comfortable carriages, a wide, clean window and interesting landscapes to gaze at along the way. But once again, air-conditioning so cold that we had scarcely left Union Station before we had to haul down our suitcases and find sweaters. My partner, who had been wearing shorts, had to go into the toilet and change into long pants. The people around us were complaining too. Someone put on a woolly hat. One woman was forced to wear her raincoat, as it was the only other garment she had with her.
We complained to the conductor, who shook her head and told us there was no way of controlling the temperature. The air-conditioning, she said, had just two states – 'on' and 'off'.
Well, my preference would certainly have been for 'off', if only there had been windows that opened to let in the breeze, as there used to be in the old days. Not any more. We had no choice but to suffer.
The conductor came back a while later to tell us that the very last coach was warmer than all the rest and there were not many people in it. Would we care to move? We investigated and found that she was right. It was a much older coach and more decrepit and the seats were nowhere near as comfortable, but at least it did not feel like the North Pole, so we dragged ourselves and our luggage all the way to the back of the train. We noticed that when our friend the conductor had finished her rounds she chose to sit in that coach too, and read her magazine until we got to Penn Station in New York, where she went off duty. We thanked her again as she left.
Three days later, we took a bus from Boston up to Bar Harbor, with a stopover in Portland. The same story, all the way. Hot weather, icy buses, and the Greyhound station in Portland so cold that we chose to stand for half an hour out on the forecourt amongst the traffic fumes rather than to freeze our butts off inside.
We both came down with colds soon after that and I am sure it was because of these experiences. Getting chilled is known to lower the immune response. It is lucky we didn't catch pneumonia.
So why do things have to be this way?
Is there some engineer out there who can explain to me why the thermostats on heating systems are so effective that you can choose the exact temperature you wish to live at and yet Amtrak's air-conditioning systems are either on or off?
Why does a restaurant, a bus or a bus station need to be so cold that everyone has to pile on winter clothes in mid-July?
Or is it that some people actually like freezing to death in the height of summer? Do they enjoy doing this mad dance between the extremes of heat and cold? Do they get some kinky thrill from having the sweat beads on their bodies suddenly turn into icicles? The whole thing strikes me as totally crazy. Not to mention environmentally wasteful and utterly unnecessary.
I guess it is just as well I live in England where we wear our sweaters for nine months of the year anyway and nobody needs air-conditioning anywhere. I always thought it would be nice to live in a somewhat warmer climate, as I like hotter summers than we have here, but if that involves freezing to death the minute one goes indoors, then forget it!