Voyeurism, Nudity and Absinthe Daiquiris: Surviving a Heat Wave Euro-Style


I feel a bit guilty writing about oppressive heat in the fog-swaddled San Francisco Bay Area while my friends back east and in Europe are wilting under record-high temperatures. But as someone who spent a recent Parisian summer sweltering in an attic level apartment, I feel I’ve earned my heat wave street cred. For unlike my east coast cronies who groan about triple digit days before retreating to refrigerated offices, I have had to face the heat European-style. For those of you who don’t know what this means, I’m talking about sans air-conditioning.

I should point out that I have a strong aversion to hot weather. As the mercury rises, I become dizzy, tomato-red and weak. It is not pretty. Actually, it is a little scary. And while I am well aware of the environmental damage an air-conditioning unit can pump out, sometimes comfort trumps conscience and I flip that switch.

In France, forget it. Air conditioning is not only rare, but is openly frowned upon. So when Paris was suffering through a particularly brutal heat wave one July, I took to French coping mechanisms to ride out the canicule. I survived. In one piece. And lived to appreciate the lesson, if not the heat itself.

For starters, there is nothing an oven-like apartment to get you out and about. As a writer, long days spent working at home are often par for the course. Add deadlines or engrossing research to the mix, and lunch out or a leisurely afternoon walk can easily fall by the wayside. Facing 95-degree temperatures in a seventh-floor walkup has a way of rearranging priorities. I enjoyed picnics in the city’s parks, afternoons relaxing in cafes and a late-night walk with a friend that spanned several miles and introduced me to new neighborhoods. And you know what? This new relaxed pace reduced my stress level, helping me to be more productive in the long run.

I also saw more of my neighbors and by that, I mean much more than I needed to. Parisians are generally reserved, but all modesty quite literally flies out the window during stifling evenings when fellow apartment dwellers lounge around bright rooms in various states of undress. What initially seemed like a large-scale homage to voyeurism, soon gave way to collective empathy as many people shed attitude along with articles of clothing. We were all in this together, and a friendly wave from a window across the courtyard was a welcome reminder that I was not the only one roasting in a veritable sauna.

In my bid to escape the torment I began to revel in small pleasures. Cold towels dabbed with essential oil became cherished mini spa experiences, further relaxing me.  Besides heat relief, there is something oddly sensual about lying naked across a futon at 2:00 am draped in wet, lavender-scented cotton. Pastis and absinthe daiquiris also had a surprisingly cooling, soothing effect, putting to rest a long-held wariness of licorice-flavored concoctions. Or perhaps polishing off two drinks after lunch makes you less inclined to care how hot it is.

What sticks with me the most, however, is the refrain from friends and colleagues that such heat spells, though previously rare, are becoming increasingly common. Climate experts say that a combination of global warming and urbanization will result in hotter summers in the coming decade.

My French heat wave was a reminder of this urgency. Unlike sizzling summers past when I basked in frigid blasts and quickly forgot a record heat spell, soaring temperatures are hard to ignore when your apartment has morphed into a steam room and a unit across from yours appears to have been taken over by nudists. And if my next July in Paris is anything like my last, I very well may join the party. With my lavender-scented towel, of course.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Erin Zaleski.

Image: Al lanni