The Great Paris Heat Wave
the scorchingly unromantic reality of Paris in the summertime
On Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where I grew up, the summer heat makes you feel lazy and languorous and all googly-eyed for the one that brung you, sleepy and content and soft around the edges. The Gulf Coast in the summer smells like azaleas and coconut suntan lotion, beachy and sweet, and you can always find an ice cold beer, at night a starry sky and the high, rhythmic singing of the crickets. Also, say what you will about the Bible Belt (trust me, I have said it), but those Southerners know their way around central air. And then there’s Paris.
There is nothing romantic about Paris in the summertime, especially during the great European heat wave. In Paris in the summer, 107 degrees Fahrenheit and rising, you sweat and sweat and it’s not a sexy kind of sweat. It’s a crawling-out-of-your-skin kind of sweat. You want to stay under the cold shower just so you can breathe, but who are you kidding, the water sputters out of the tap lukewarm. Your skin never really cools off. Your brain bakes. The buildings bake.
Some of the swankier shops have AC but mostly it’s just heat on more heat, no relief anywhere. At a couple of the smaller museums the air is cool and crisp, but it’s 12 to 24 euros per entry and there’s a guard at the door, and even if you get an annual pass, there isn’t enough to see to go there day after day. Eventually you find yourself back out on the street, facing the long, hot metro ride back to your flat. Holy toledo, the smells! You have to hold onto the metal bar during the stops and starts, but the bar is slick with other people’s sweat. Keeping strangers’ armpits out of your face is a constant and useless game of bodily Jenga. If you find an empty seat, you don’t want to sit on it, because it’s damp with who-knows-what.
It’s even hotter at night. The sun burns down on the buildings all day long, and by evening the bricks are hot to the touch. The sidewalks push the heat up through the soles of your shoes, through your feet. Even the bedsheets are hot. There’s no central air, and those little window units you buy for your apartment (if you can get them, and if you’re allowed to install them) make a terrible racket and only cool one room at a time by a couple of degrees, bringing the temperature down from 107 to 105, which is to say they are useless. The fans just circulate hot air.
Michelle Richmond is the author of five novels, all of which have been translated into French, and two short story collections. A longtime resident of Northern California, she currently lives in Paris and mentors writers through the Fiction Master Class.
Her latest novel, The Marriage Pact, has been published in 30 languages.