Thursday, July 24, 2008

Paris When it Sizzles: Summer in a City in Heat

A wise editor once remarked that she didn’t understand people who couldn’t see the beauty in a rainy day.

A wise Parisian once observed that the second the first summer sunbeam heats up the pavement, the city blows a fuse. A destination reputed for its drizzle, Paris, when it sizzles, is an entirely different place.

Unless you’re lucky, (your flat boasts a sizeable terasse and enough windows to either lock out the heat or generate a merciful courant d’air) or rich (your apartment features a large patio overlooking the Eiffel Tower and an abundance of windows that keep out the heat or the move the air circulating within), enjoying the hot weather, or at least resisting it, is a daily struggle during France’s hottest months. Paris’s multitude of studio apartments, nestled high up under the city’s photogenic metal rooftops, become as stuffy as a street-level boulangerie, and even the most spacious digs weren’t designed with air conditioning in mind. In the commercial facilities that are equipped with climatisation, the air still remains slightly toasty: the French are wary of conditioned air, largely because it’s bad for the health and equally detrimental to the pocketbook.

Outside, the population adopts behavior similar to a dog acting out of character on the night of a full moon. Perfume, grease and exhaust fumes hang, listless, in the heavy air, creating a stewy mélange that is intoxicating to the city’s inhabitants. Music is louder and people are bolder, shedding the studious discretion they maintained for so long under trench coats and scarves and umbrellas. “Don’t push me too far,” their eyes seem to be saying, hinting at the trouble that could ensue if boundaries are crossed.

Part of this is because while summer in Paris has more people out and about, it’s difficult to get away from them even if one is staying in. At night, when shutters are opened to welcome in the slightly cooler air, it’s impossible to avoid witnessing (at least, in an auditory sense) the lives of one’s neighbors in the throes of dining, arguing, entertaining and, on frequent occasions, making love. This is the City of Romance, after all.

Since 2003, the French talk about heat waves the way that Northerners discuss blizzards, and the most recent canicule was in July of that year, when thousands of Parisians (mainly elderly) perished due to temperatures that reached upwards of 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit). “The worst thing about it was that you kept expecting it to get cooler at night, but instead, the temperature actually rose,” remembers a media executive living in Paris at the time. ‘There was no relief.”

While a heat wave of deadly proportions has not been predicted for this year, Parisians will find relief the traditional way: on Europe’s southern shores and abroad. For those of us who can see the beauty in a rainy day, we’ll be looking forward to that odd summer shower, until it’s time to head out and enjoy the season the right way: on a beach.