Whenever I hear that word ‘caniculaire’ – I suppose the English equivalent would be ‘heatwave-ish’ – it fills me with fear and loathing.
I met a man last weekend, a big strapping jovial man from Norn Iron who now lives in the Creuse (or, as Raymond pronounced it, the Cruise) and he told me that he loved the hot weather: ‘the hotter, the better’. In Turkey, the previous summer, apparently it had been up over 40 degrees most days. I looked upon his hairless red pate and shuddered.
Had I been able to get a word in edgeways – because Raymond was a real ‘boyo’ and I was happy to let him ramble on, as his broad Norn Irish brogue made me all nostalgic for the old country – I would have told him that once I felt like he did. I suppose anyone coming from the temperate British Isles, starved as we usually are of anything resembling a summer, would relish the prospect of hot weather.
I know that when we arrived in France back in 1995, I was gung-ho for the heat. ‘Le plus chaud, le mieux,’ I would tell the natives (in what I hoped was correct French). Well, all that was before the summer of 2003.
The dread ‘Canicule’ of 2003 happened to coincide with our move from the Corrèze to the Lot. We swapped the nice thick cool stone walls of our old 17th century farmhouse for the thin plastic prefabricated walls of a caravan. It was like living in a sauna. From the plastic windows, all we could do was to look out on our scorched land and dream of the house we couldn’t build too soon.
Those of you who were here during the Canicule will remember what it was like. Those of you who weren’t will probably remember the news broadcasts, about hundreds of thousands of old people dying in the nation’s capital, abandoned by their thoughtless families, off soaking up the sun on the coast. And oh yes, in true French fashion, didn’t the government levy some new tax designed to insure against such occurrences in the future? Maybe the money was used to train a phalanx of vélo-vendeurs, who would pedal from apartment to apartment, delivering refreshing ice cream cones to the elderly. More likely, I think, it soon found its way into the Treasury’s gaping coffers.
All through July and August, we suffered in our sauna. We suffered like the wildlife, sheltering in the woods, and suffered like the vegetation itself, gasping for water as its foliage turned yellow and then brown. There was no shelter anywhere from the relentless sun. The best you could do was to go into the woods and try to find a patch of mossy undergrowth where you could hide for half an hour or so. We tried sleeping in tents, but because of the steep pitch of the land, I for one found the business of waking every half hour or so to haul myself up into something resembling a horizontal position even more draining than sleeping in a sweat-box.
There were days when it felt like my brain was boiling inside my cranium. Scanning the skies for anything resembling a rain cloud made you appreciate what it must be like to live somewhere like the Horn of Africa. Having the water supply shut off for several hours each day by the water company was irksome enough. What in heaven’s name must it be like to live without water?
On Monday this week, the temperature in these parts reputedly reached 41 degrees. Mercifully some rain fell late the following day. But in 2003, the hot weather went on and on, with only the occasional shower to bring any kind of relief. I remember the scenes of elation one August night at some friends’ party when we saw lightning flashing over the horizon and heard the distant rumble of thunder. I remember the joy of driving back to the caravan in the rain, wondering whether this marked the end of the meteorological madness. It must be like that every year in countries like India, where people dance with joy and relief in the first Monsoon rainfall.
Somehow my sainted wife worked on through that summer, massaging sweaty bodies on her couch to put bread on the wood-composite table in the caravan. This Monday reminded me just how difficult is any activity, physical or mental, in such conditions. You lose the will to live. No wonder all those abandoned elderly French died in their millions. No wonder the male of the species sends his women out to work in the fields so he can sup alcoholic refreshments and smoke cheroots in some cool white-walled taverna.
The hotter, the better? Not at all. The hotter, the worse. Keep the Canicule far hence, that’s foe to man…