I remember a couple of extremely hot summers spent in South Korea and China, through which the supply of air-conditioning was decidedly sparse. This was, predominantly, due to the rather frugal nature of my employers who did not want to eat into their profit margins by having the air-con kick up their electricity bills. Moving to Turkey, I expected to encounter no such problems. After all,I was working for a major company in one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Sadly, I would be in for a shock and for plenty of sweating. Many westerners who visit Istanbul – or live there – comment that, for a city that can get so hot, the lack of ventilation and cooling is surprising and often a little unpleasant.
The Turkish reasons behind the paucity of cool air blowing over my freshly shaved head was not financial. Instead, it was motivated by health reasons. As an open-minded and well-educated individual, I can understand some of these concerns. Spending too much time in a climate controlled environment without fresh air cannot be 100% healthy. Similarly, poorly maintained air-con systems can cause bacterial problems. However, I worked in a modern office complex in the centre of Istanbul, which was well-maintained and opened out onto a very pleasant street. As a consequence, neither of the above concerns played too heavily on my mind.
Unfortunately, those concerns were not what worried my Turkish colleagues and most of Istanbul as a whole. Instead, they were concerned that air-conditioning itself was, by definition, harmful. They argued that the cold air it produces would have harmful effects on the body. I found this opinion a touch bewildering. Yet, my receptionist was able to reel of a list of ailments that were directly caused by cold air. These included: respiratory problems, muscle ache in the back, spinal pain, hot-flushes and blurred vision. This seemed a bizarre enough list. However, for good measure, she added, frozen ovaries. Whilst I – and much of medical science – did not agree with her initial list, the last one left me open-mouthed.
The consequences of Turkey's mindset on air-conditioning was that almost everyday I would arrive at the office to find it like a sauna. My first action when I arrived, before I even set down my laptop, would be to turn on the a/c. However, over the course of the day we would usually play a game of cat and mouse with the system being turned off by the Turkish staff at regular intervals and then turned back on by the English and Americans in the office who were going slightly red and sweating profusely.
The same situation is perpetuated across Istanbul. On days when the temperature is less than baking, many of the smaller cafés and restaurants in town will keep the air-con off until you specifically ask for them to turn it on. In some of the city's kebab restaurants, this can become hellish thanks to the heat generated by the ovens and the food on show. Even Cevahir – at one time the largest shopping mall in Europe – can be on the warm side on cloudy days when the management does not see the need to turn the system on.