Our cat Ali tries his best to beat the heat.
With some exceptions, including most office buildings, museums, and movie theaters, a majority of French interiors are sans air-conditioning.
When it comes to modern conveniences, the French often seem to be behind the times. But a lot of it just has to do with a belief in not being excessive, or overly hard on the environment. For example, most French people don’t own a dryer, even in cooler places like northern France, where you can’t really hang your clothes out to dry in the sun. You just hang them up in your house somewhere and wait for them to dry that way, or, if you really need something machine-dried, you go to a Laundromat. A lot of French grocery stores charge a small fee for shopping bags, in an effort to reduce waste and promote customers’ bringing their own reusable bags from home. It’s rare to find a French house or apartment with more than one bathroom/toilet. This last may be due more to habit and laziness than ecology, though; most buildings here were constructed before indoor plumbing (or at least, before it was widespread), so it can be hard to add even one bathroom to a place, let alone two. And anyway, a lot of French people don't seem to get why would you want more than one. Though you may have very good reasons why, don’t bother arguing; I know from personal experience that if you claim having more than one bathroom in a family home could be useful, people will look at you as if you’ve just said “Let them eat cake.” It’s taken me over three years to convince the boyfriend that we should have a small bathroom in our bedroom when we remodel our apartment – and then our builder told us it wouldn’t be possible to have a second toilet, because of where the waste evacuation pipe is in our building. Merde.
The French attitude towards air-conditioning is also based on these ideas of habit and ecological awareness. Most people here have never lived in a home that has it, so they don’t consider it a basic necessity the way an American like myself does (not, of course, to say that all Americans feel that air-conditioning is a necessity – but let’s put it this way: when you book a hotel room in the States, no matter how cheap the place is, there is going to be air-conditioning – it’s sort of this basic, guaranteed thing, as expected as an in-room bathroom or a TV. When booking a French hotel, you have to check and make sure about the first two). Most French people think of air-conditioning as a necessary evil, something you might need to help you get work done when it’s over 90 degrees outside, but that’s all.
This summer’s quintessential AC moment: I enter the office of one of my favorite students and am surprised to see her flushed and wilted, with her shoes off. The room is hot; I sit down and say hello, and we start the English lesson, sweating and fanning ourselves the whole time. The building has air-conditioning, so I figure that her personal unit is, unfortunately, not working. Then, about five minutes before we’re finished, she leans towards a keypad on the wall. “I’m sorry," she tells me, "but I think I’m going to have to put on the air-conditioning.”
There was a time when I would have been shocked in addition to frustrated, but by now I know this is typical. Because there's something else involved in their general avoidance of air-condtioning here: fear. Most French people think air-conditioning will make them sick. It has nothing to do with filters or anything like that – they simply don’t trust cold air blowing on them (that’s why they always wear scarves). They will hold out on air-conditioning until they’re desperate – and then, as my student ended up doing, they’ll only turn it on until the room cools down, and shut it off again.
My boyfriend used to be like this, not even wanting us to have an electric fan near our bed, but I guess he became…Americanized. A few years ago, during a particularly hot stretch of summer days, he told me we should get an air-conditioner for our apartment. I stared at him in happy disbelief.
But as with the toilet/bathroom situation, French apartments aren’t well-adapted for air-conditioners. For one thing, while American windows generally open upwards, French windows open inwards, like a book. So you can’t have window units like I did in New York. Instead, air-conditioners here are about three feet high, deep as a washing machine, and wide as the average person. In a typical apartment, that’s a lot of space to give up – and what do you do with the air conditioner when you don’t need it? Even if you find a solution to that problem, you have to figure out how you’re going to put the evacuation pipe out your widow. Some people get professionals to cut a hole into the glass. Others crack the window and put the tube outside…letting in hot air and sort of defeating the purpose.
In the end, instead of an air conditioner, we installed a ceiling fan – another cooling appliance that is surprisingly rare here.
Many people would probably commend the French way of life – and in a way, I do, too. Here, we’re very in tune with the seasons, and it’s true that ecologically speaking, it does feel good to do your part. In a city like Paris, we also rarely have extremely hot days. In fact, you’re often likely to need a light jacket in the summer. When the temperatures do get high, it’s usually only for a few days at a time, and then, you tough it out in the sweaty Metro, or in your hot apartment. You live with the shutters closed, in darkness, to keep the temperature down, and eat cool foods like salads and tomatoes and such - and also, ice cream – in this kind of weather, it’s a guilt-free necessity!
But while almost-mandatory ice cream consumption is pretty great, un-air-conditioned life also has a dark side. This weekend, temperatures attained record-breaking highs. As we sat in our dark living room with three fans trained on us, the boyfriend would occasionally ask me to check online to see how hot it was outside, and also how many people had died.
In 2003, France experienced a twelve-day heatwave that the country was totally unprepared for. Nearly 15,000 people died from heat-related health issues. Think about that for a minute: fifteen thousand people -- because there was no air-conditioning. Most of the victims were senior citizens. Incredibly, even nursing homes weren’t climate-controlled. After that, a law was passed that all nursing homes must now have air-conditioning…in at least one common room. Luckily, people were prepared for this current three-day heatwave. So far, according to official news reports, no one has died, and there hasn’t been a huge influx of people in the hospitals, either. Even the homeless are being cared for by the Red Cross, who’s been providing cold water and fruit for them.
A few weeks ago, I felt vindicated to read Daniel Engber’s two-part article on Slate.com about air-conditioning not being an evil, ecological affront. But no matter how much I crowed with happiness at his words, nothing can change how hot it is here now. The heatwave is breaking, and by tomorrow the temperatures should be a little lower. But without air- conditioning, the hot air gets into places and settles. It will likely take a few more days for our apartment to be comfortable again. Tomorrow, I go back to work after my summer vacation – what I’m dreading most of all is how stifling it’s going to be on the Metro.
There are some positive experiences I've had in this life without air-conditioning, though. For one thing, I’m proud that someone like me, who happily grew up in a house where it was kept so artificially cold that my toes would regularly turn blue, can tolerate the heat – if only barely. I’m also proud of little techniques I’ve picked up, like splashing myself with cold water and then sitting near a fan. And there are the touching, unexpected moments – be it French people anxiously thinking of and looking after each other, or the boyfriend sweetly breaching our unspoken self-imposed heat-related divide and holding my hand. Those kinds of things almost make the sweat and discomfort worth it.