paralyzed by a heatwave

First off, you should know that Europe is insufficiently air-conditioned. Here in France there are no air-conditioned buses, subways or homes. (Only 4% of French homes have air-conditioning compared to 90% in the States.) Some places are gloriously cool thanks to A/C, other places (like my local supermarket) are not. I thank my lucky stars that the office tower in which I spend 40 hours a week is deliciously air-conditioned.

At home I have two fans (one obtained by nearly getting into a fist-fight with a woman during a previous heatwave because it was the last one on the shelf.) Throughout the country there was, literally, a rupture de stock of electric fans. In southern Portugal, where I was two months ago, temperatures are currently running at 45°C (113°F). Here in Paris it’s a stifling 36°C (96.8°F). We all know the drill: before leaving your apartment in the morning, close the windows and lower the shutters in each room. Drink lots and lots of water, even if you’re not thirsty. Avoid alcohol, meat, fried foods and greasy stuff. Eat lots of cold salads, protein and fruit. Splash water on your face and body several times a day. Avoid exercising and physical effort. Wear light, ample cotton clothing. Think of elderly neighbors who might be living alone and check up on them.

These are instructions we receive daily from the government who issue regular TV and radio “heatwave alerts.” My personal practice during the summer is to put clean, crisp, white Percale sheets and pillowcases on my bed. I keep the shutters lowered all day long, and I fill a large glass jug with water, cut-up lemons, limes and fresh ginger root, and keep it in the fridge. I also make my own lemonade.

Other than that, and because I’ve had no internet connection for the last three days, I’ve been sitting in a heat-stupor in front of the two fans watching old DVDs of Homeland.

There’s a reason why the French government today issues heatwave bulletins: because of August 2003, the worst and deadliest heatwave on record, and I lived through it.

The European heat wave of 2003 resulted in 70,000 deaths (more than 15,000 in France alone). Nightly temperatures were higher than the average summer midday highs. The heat was particularly severe in France where the temperature remained around 99°F (37 °C) for more than a week in August in some areas. The intensity of the heat, as well as its duration, wrought havoc on the unprepared European population. The elderly were particularly susceptible to the heat, as were those who were chronically ill or isolated from sources of aid. The disaster was one of the deadliest in Europe in a century.

All the candles in my apartment melted. At night I would lie, naked, on the floor covered with a wet towel. I was working two jobs at the time: a day job in a non-air conditioned law firm (due to the heat, the elevator broke down and we had to climb six flights of stairs), and an evening job in another law firm (thankfully with A/C.) From the day job I had to run to the Champs-Elysées – gasping in the heat – to catch the number 73 bus that took me to my evening job. It wasn’t easy.

Because it was August, the entire government was on vacation. President Chirac, holidaying in Quebec, refused to give up his vacation and return home. It was a disaster all round, a national disgrace really, and those who lived through it won’t forget. Unfortunately 15,000 people, mostly abandoned senior citizens, died.

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