Posted by: 4initalia | August 3, 2009

Winging It

Bzzzzzz. I’m sleeping, and right in the middle of a good dream, when all at once I wake up, at something that keeps knocking at my brain. No, it’s buzzing, and it’s another mosquito.

Italian mosquitos are like Italian cars – they’re very small, fast, and loud. But because of their size, getting nailed by una zanzara is like getting hit by a Fiat – for all the screeching, there’s not much damage. Italian mosquito bites itch for a moment, plump into a welt the size of a pimple, and fade quickly. Which makes me wonder why I’m spending all this energy trying to avoid them.

They’re out there, and I have no way to keep them out. Our apartment doesn’t have screens, but hardly anyone here does. All those charming photos of Italian streets, with painted shutters flung wide, and geraniums sunning themselves in the windows? No screens. You can’t water geraniums if you have to pour it through little mesh holes. And you can’t drape yourself alluringly onto the sill if you are sealed inside by fine wire mesh. What if the Capulets had window screens? Romeo would have looked up at Juliet’s bedroom and said: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? I can hear muttering, but I can’t see a thing.” So window screens may put more of a damper on young love than the Republican Convention.

Although I searched for evidence that Italians were interested in screen technology, I found it only twice. Half way up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, an opening in a wall was covered with the same thick mesh that surrounded American sun porches of the 1950s. Aha! I’ll bet Galileo put that on there. Historians assume that Galileo threw balls from the Tower to test whether objects of different masses fell at different rates. But I think he was trying to kill mosquitos in the courtyard when he discovered it was more efficient to screen them out. This could also explain why Galileo got in trouble with the Catholic Church: along with indulgences, the bishops may have been selling fly swatters, and didn’t want the competition.

With Galileo’s screen idea squelched, for the next five hundred years, the window of opportunity remained wide open, and it still is. I finally spotted the kind of screens we have at home, while walking through a neighborhood in Parma. In three identical windows, there were three American screens. In three different lengths. The gap between the screen and each window ranged between between six and twelve inches. Apparently Italian mosquitos aren’t good at measuring.

Instead of screens, Italians use retractable slats that slide down over doors and windows. The slats are lowered by a heavy chord. You drop the slat curtain, and then pull up slightly, to expose tiny holes between the strips. The holes are supposed to be too small to let in mosquitos. But they’re also too small to let in air molecules. And many of the slats in this apartment are made of wood, which have warped over time, so the holes are big enough to let in feral badgers.

In desperation, I asked friends here what they use for mosquito control. “Try those coils they sell at the supermarket,” someone suggested. I remembered those coils from my childhood, they’re thick flat punks the color and texture of mustard. You light the end, then blow it out. Thick, acrid smoke slithers from the smoldering tip; it could be mustard gas. As the room filled with poisonous fog, my kids gagged and disappeared. They don’t make the mosquitos go away, but they work nicely on children.

Another friend suggested Vape, a liquid in a dispenser you plug into a wall socket; it works like air freshener, in reverse. Insecticide, warmed in its plastic pot, becomes airborne, and drops the varmints in their tracks. But in order for the Vape to work, we had to seal up the windows and stay out of the house for twelve hours: I felt that meant the mosquitos had won. Besides, I didn’t want to live in a No Pest Strip.

With no other workable options, we closed the windows against the winged beasties. With no fresh air, we were trapped in the summer heat with our own fetid funk. Modena’s humidity is so thick that water vapor remained aloft and created cumulus clouds around the apartment. Rivers of sweat ran off our faces and stayed airborne at eye level. If someone sneezed, it rained.

I finally asked Melanie, who knows everything, what to do. Her response? Electric fans. Mosquitos are small, and can’t fly in wind. So we bought fans. I can’t tolerate white noise, it masks the soothing gurgle of monsters salivating under my bed. But Annalise’s legs were a Braille version of the Gettysburg Address, and when the mosquitos started high-fiving each other when they entered our apartment, it was time to take action.

So we cranked up the fans. After being pinned to the wall by high winds, I learned it’s hard for me to sleep on my side. And like a dog with his tongue hanging out of a moving car, I found I was eating a lot more bugs than usual.

So far the only real solution to zanzare seems to be winter. In the meantime, I’m going to break open a vein, and fill the little Vape dispensers with my own blood. Why fight it?


  1. Here I am, something like 35 years later, finishing the Partridge Family lyrics in my head as I read this. How much other critical information has to get dumped so my brain can retain this old stuff?

  2. mosquitoes and snotskis–you’ve got interesting topics you choose to convey about your travels and living in Italy. Definitely not the usual: super-duper size lemonade at the pierogy palace in Warsaw; ancient Roman dinner in Pompeii, or the photo of our unhappy family on “via Malcontento” in Florence? Venice? Bologna? Travel and living abroad are amazing. Almost every little thing you do is significant or memorable because you’re doing it in a foreign land. Even mosquitoes become exotic or at least different because they’re Italian mosquitoes and they’re handled in an Italian way. Maybe not as effective as screens; and maybe you’re not going to install Italian slats in your Denver home when you return, but an “experience” nonetheless. Not everyone lives like us. “Other cultures are not failed attempts to live like us.” They are their own unique expression of dealing with mosquitoes,
    and snotskis. Thnx for the insights and the chuckles.

  3. Good post, great looking website, added it to my favorites.

    • Thanks, Chris. Is your blog in German?

    • I’m so glad. Thanks for reading! I’m still trying to figure out how to show pictures….

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