Let me preface this by saying I was born with a faulty thermostat. I may be genetically predisposed to heat stroke; my mother also became red-faced at the onset of warm weather and fell apart in a heat wave. If she were still here this post would be for her.
I believe the greatest invention of the modern era not to be space travel or the internet but air conditioning. It allows the thermostatically challenged to continue to function when the temperature climbs above the dew point (mine). Nay, it enables us to survive the summer.
As living in France means mostly living sans climatisation, I’ve had to learn to adapt.
The French are convinced that air conditioning is hazardous to your health. So even if a place has A/C, it’s rarely set to a point that keeps me cool. Besides which, there will likely be a window wide open just next to it. That is how my fellow countrymen moderate the evil effects of la clim.
Air conditioning is viewed with skepticism at best and at worst as a devious plot to get people to work when they should be bronzing on a beach. If anyone gets a summer cold, they blame it on the air conditioning. Never mind that I am literally melting in the corner, sticky and red-faced. This is the summer – you’re supposed to feel the heat.
When the temperatures soar, most French people close the shutters and live like bats, hiding away during the day and emerging only at night. As soon as the sun starts to go down, they fling open the shutters and let the cooler air in.
Along with the mosquitoes. And flies. While virtually all French houses have shutters, few are equipped with screens, or moustiquaires as they’re called here.
The French have a special word for heat wave: la canicule. Like most things in France, there is a specific framework for this exceptional meteorological event, a Plan Canicule including hotline, emergency measures and survival guidelines. Unfortunately it doesn’t include air conditioning.
For everyone who wants to stay cool without A/C, here’s my essential survival kit for summer à la française:
– A fly swatter. Due to an extreme intolerance for things that fly in my face and go buzz in the night, I keep one in every room. I have become a veritable samurai with the swatter. My family calls me the terminator. My personal ambition is to make my home a no fly zone.
– A fan. If you can’t cool the air you can at least create a breeze. The movement of air gives the illusion of coolness and enables you to catch a few winks of sleep between mosquito bites.
– A water bottle. Staying hydrated is the only way to survive the heat. Beer doesn’t count – it has to be H20. I down liters of mineral water to stay cool. And beer to stay cheerful.
– A hat. Keeping the sun off the head is perhaps the best way to stay if not look cool. Et oui, I know my couvre-chef makes me look ridiculous. I’m just too hot to care.
– A spray bottle. Among the keep-cool strategies preferred by the French, the Evian brumatiseur is the most chic. Following the killer heat-wave of 2003, it was suggested that residents of old-age homes be equipped with these to prevent further deaths. Seriously.
Perhaps the best strategy of all to survive the heat is to take a vacation. When you’re enjoying a sea breeze or perched on a mountaintop, summer is really no sweat.
I’ll be by the pool if anyone needs me.