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If you want to understand the many different ways that climate has shaped people's everyday lives, just consider the habit in some of the world's hottest places of taking a midday siesta. That break is a custom that's dying out now, even though new medical research suggests that napping may be good for your health.

For Climate Connections, our yearlong series with National Geographic, NPR's Joseph Shapiro traveled to the Greek island of Crete, where villagers still take a rest in the heat of the day.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: I'm in the village of Avdou. It's siesta time. The temperature's hit 100 degrees today, and on this town square, the restaurant is closed, there's nobody sitting at the outdoor tables. And the only sounds come from the church bells which tell the time…

(Soundbite of church bell)

SHAPIRO: …the songs of birds, and the wind as it rustles the leaves of the mulberry trees.

(Soundbite of church bell)

This village perks up after five o'clock, when siesta is over. It's cooler now. The old women, dressed in black, pull up chairs outside their homes and chat with friends.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: And the old men gather in the taverna for a drink, conversation, and even a song.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: Just 160 people live here year-round. There was a big school, but it has been closed down for years. Now most of the people here are old, like Yiorgos Kalogerakis. His name translates good old life. He's 98. When I asked him if takes a nap, he arches and an eyebrow at me.

Mr. YIORGOS KALOGERAKIS: (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: He says yes, it's obvious. You do work, you have to get your body ready for it. I ask him if he's surprised when stores in the big city stay open now through siesta time. He shrugs and says it depends on the kind of work you do.

Mr. KALOGERAKIS: (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: When he used to harvest his olive trees, he'd wake up at midnight because he'd have to walk miles and miles up the mountain to reach his olive groves, and work while it was still cool.

Everyone I talked to in Avdou thought it was pretty clear that taking a midday nap is good for you. Now there's evidence they may be right. The doctor who did the research is Greek. He teaches at Harvard.

(Soundbite of traffic)

SHAPIRO: It's a steamy afternoon in Harvard Square. Here, people don't want to slow down, especially when they get approached by a reporter with a microphone.

I'm with National Public Radio. Can I ask you a question? No? Okay, thanks.

Across the river, at the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Dimitrios Trichopoulos is busy with his research.

Dr. DIMITRIOS TRICHOPOULOS (Harvard School of Public Health): You know, napping is a response, an adaptation to the hot climate. Siesta is a very pleasant habit. In a way, it doubles your day, because you start all over again at five o'clock and you can go on until 11 or 12 o'clock at night, which is not uncommon at all in our part of the world.

SHAPIRO: His expertise is in cancer prevention. He's 68 now, a courtly man in stylishly tailored pants and sport coat. He teaches both at Harvard and at the University of Athens, so he can't help but notice the difference in the pace of life in Greece and in the United States.

Mr. TRICHOPOULOS: In the way life is organized here, you start with stress in commuting and you finish with stress, which is again the commuting. So to have in the middle of the day a time when you can relax, it can only be good, or at least not bad.

SHAPIRO: Trichopoulos looks specifically at whether taking a nap gives protection against heart attacks. The results were published earlier this year in an American medical journal. Greek men who nap at least 30 minutes a day were significantly less likely to die from heart attacks, compared with those who didn't nap.

His theory is that napping helps reduce stress, which is known to increase one's risk of heart attack. Trichopoulos cautions that more study is needed to confirm his findings, but he's excited about the health implications.

Mr. TRICHOPOULOS: If half of the effect we detected turns out to be true, only half, this would turn out to be one of the most important risk factors for coronary heart disease, almost as important as blood cholesterol or blood pressure.

SHAPIRO: Taking a nap may be about as good for you as exercise, changing your diet or taking pills.

Mr. TRICHOPOULOS: And, of course, it's course more pleasant to have a nap than to try to reduce your blood cholesterol or to reduce your blood pressure.

SHAPIRO: Trichopoulos himself only gets to nap once in a while now. It's a habit he grew up with but lost after he started teaching at Harvard, 20 years ago.

Even in the hottest climates, the midday siesta is a disappearing habit. With globalization, people work longer hours. Air-conditioning shields them from the heat. Many live in suburbs and farther away from where they work, which makes going home for a midday nap impractical. In Crete, many people are trying to hold out against those forces.

It's two o'clock at City Life, a gift store in Heraklion, Crete's biggest city. Owner Alexandros Adamis closes up the shop.

Mr. ALEXANDROS ADAMIS (Owner, City Life): With this heat, I go home and relax a bit and get ready to come here again.

Mr. IOANNIS SILIKOS (Director, Merchants Association): (Through translator) I'm embarrassed to say it, but we're not obeying the law.

SHAPIRO: Ioannis Silikos is head of the Merchants Association, the trade group for Heraklion's small shop owners.

He explains that two years ago, the Greek parliament passed a law requiring stores to keep uniform hours like the newly-arrived European department stores that are air-conditioned and stay open all day. The thinking was that standardized hours were more modern and would create new jobs. But in Heraklion, most stores are owned by individuals or families, and they have other priorities.

Mr. SILIKOS: (Through translator) We would like our lives to be more human-oriented. We want to be able to go to the beach during these hours from 2:00 to 5:00. We don't want to just have one day when we're free, which is Sunday.

(Soundbite of church bell)

SHAPIRO: Back in the tiny village of Avdou it's evening. A breeze cools the narrow, winding streets. Iakovos Tzanakis has come out to work in his vegetable garden. He's 85.

Mr. IAKOVOS TZANAKIS: (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: He's got tomatoes, eggplant, lettuce. He's worked and napped his entire life. But even as the world's climate gets hotter, the old men and women of this village may be the last generation to practice the healthy habit of taking a nap during the midday heat.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

INSKEEP: If you don't mind, I'm going to turn in for 30 seconds or so. If you're still awake, you can read about how climate shapes customs and traditions at npr.org/climateconnections and in this month's National Geographic magazine.

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