How to Survive a French Heat Wave

affiche_caniculegp__2015_765x570 We love Alsace because of its mild climate. (The older generation tells us that it wasn’t always that way.) But we usually get at least one week of serious heat each summer, and we’re living that right now. "Aren’t we all," you say, rolling your eyes. "It is July after all."

Indeed. But for those of you who have not yet visited Europe when temps are hovering around 100F, I thought I would share some of the culture shock that still happens as we sweat through this week without air conditioning at home or in the car.

Here’s the government’s official suggestions found on our village website:

  • "Spray your body with water and use fans.
  • Keep your shutters closed during the day. (Yes, they are functional here!)
  • Stay in touch with loved ones, (esp. the elderly.)
  • Don’t forget to eat.
  • Don’t drink alcohol. (In France? Ha!)
  • Avoid physical exertion. (Gladly.)
  • Drink water regularly. (Tepid is healthier!)
  • If you feel bad, call an ambulance."

As an American, I’d like to add some the glaring omissions to this list:

  • "Don’t run your dryer!"

Admittedly, only a tiny minority of French people have a dryer, but we do, mainly to deal with cat hair. We are enjoying the novelty of lugging our laundry to the attic for flash drying!

  • "Ride your bike to get around!" Much cooler than walking or sitting in a hot metal box!
  • "Get out of your dark, shuttered house because you live like that all winter and you must take advantage of 16 hrs of sunlight while you can!"  Honestly, the shutter trick only works for the first 4 days in an old stone house anyway, esp. if it doesn’t cool down at night.

The big question is where to go for maximum coolness in a country where central air is available but very costly. The malls don’t cool the corridors, just individual stores, which quickly dissipates with wide open entrances. What about a coffee shop? Sorry, only in major cities with a student population. Grocery stores are the coolest, but only 1 has an eating area. The local pharmacy is a good option because they cater to the elderly with abundant a/c and chairs for waiting. With other businesses it’s hit and miss. My podiatrist and chiropractor were operating yesterday with shutters closed and a small fan and offered me a glass of tepid water before I left.

At the beginning of the heat wave, we were at a big bank for over an hour to open a new account and get our home repair loan. We had to complain in order for the banker to turn on the air in her office, at the lowest setting. And just as I was getting comfortable, she turned it off again. I excused myself to find the water cooler and it was empty. Hot flashes compounded my utter desperation as I begged an employee to change the bottle, only to produce… another cup of tepid water. Which leads us to…

  • "Make ice cubes and use them!" 

When central air is not an option, I can make do with ice. But that is also asking a lot in Europe. In the train stations, the only drink options are in chilled cans and bottles. What is refreshing about buying a drink that will be warm before I finish it? McDonald’s has been especially cruel because on more than one occasion I have raced in to relieve my light-headedness only to find that the ice machine is broken. Do they apologize? No! Because you’re getting more soda for your money (no free refills) and no one misses the standard 3 ice cube allotment anyway!

So if you are coming to France in the summer and are craving a Big Gulp, here is the best travel tip you will ever receive: Find a Subway. There are 67 in Paris and 450 more throughout France. Nothing sounds worse than a cold sandwich in the winter, but in the summer, our local Subway is heaven on earth: This is one of the only chains where ice and drink machines are accessible to their customers with one generous cup size. The furniture and décor feels like a coffee shop. They sell salt and vinegar chips. Their bathrooms are big and clean. And they are the only restaurant I have seen with ceiling fans to spread the a/c love around to everyone. I need to send them a love note…

  • "Bring your hand fan to church and hope for a meditative worship set."

Last Sunday was tolerable; this Sunday should be unbearable. The Catholics may still be comfortable in their windowless stone cathedrals, but the Protestants are not so lucky. (But we have better heating in the winter!) We don’t even have an electric fan to stir up the hot air created by our 8 huge windows! The women’s group organized a picnic for the 4th of July, which falls on the final blazing weekend of the heat wave. They didn’t schedule it on a major American holiday on purpose, but it would be nice to be with a group of friends that day. I may suggest carpooling to Subway instead!

Warmly, Angela

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