Coming to terms with the heat in Paris

We weren’t expecting Paris to be sizzling in early June. We’d emerged from a cold, wet Toronto spring, armed with suitcases full of cardigans and long-sleeved shirts, only to plunge into high summer. Isn’t Paris supposed to be intolerably hot only in August? We once endured a steamy August in Paris and had sworn never to repeat the experience.

Air-conditioning is gradually becoming more common in shops, restaurants, and hotels in Paris (look for the signs saying climatisé), but it is still quite rare in private apartments. We had rented a flat from an acquaintance and we asked her if the place contained an electric fan. She sounded baffled and explained that it was simply a matter of airing the place out in the morning, then closing the windows and curtains during the day, and reopening them at night.

We complied, but the first night was still too sweaty, so the next day we bought a fan at a local droguerie. For the next three weeks, it cooled (or at least moved) the air in the bedroom at night, and we slept more comfortably. (Norman loves the word droguerie, which to him means where you go to buy things for home drudgery. On various visits we have bought a boy-scout-style can opener, shoelaces, lightbulbs, a fly swatter, cleaning products, and a collapsible clothes-drying stand.)

We soon realized that coping with the heat was going to require a strategy, and a fairly old-fashioned one. Walk slowly, on the shady side of the street. Wear 100% cotton or linen (we bought linen shirts at Alain Figaret and the Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville). Drink lots of cool liquids (Badoit, Orangina, Sancerre).

Seek out green spaces and benches. Take frequent cool baths (the bathtub in the flat is huge, deep, and surrounded by dark varnished parquet for reasons that escape us, but we appreciated it enormously).

We feasted on cold food – salads made with frilly lettuce from the nearby street market, gazpacho sold in small containers at Carrefour, goat’s cheese on baguette, and lots of fruit (notably cherries and apricots).

We discovered the ice creams and sorbets at the nearby Picard frozen food emporium: réglisse became Norman’s favourite and raspberry with litchi was Philippa’s. In fact, Norman has decided that gazpacho and licorice ice cream are possibly his two favourite foods in the world.

Despite our efforts, we still had to endure some stifling bus rides and humid Metro journeys, but on the whole, we managed. Paris is a city of windows that open and thick walls that help regulate interior temperatures. We lingered in museums with gardens: the Musée de la Vie Romantique and the Musée de Montmartre both offer green retreats with cool refreshments.

We also became more aware of other people’s efforts to keep cool. We loved the Star Wars effect of this outdoor fan at a sidewalk café; the obverse of the heaters café owners use in cold weather that sometimes make dining outside actually too hot in winter.

We gained a new appreciation of shutters and awnings (about which we have already written). And we have decided that we need to rethink how we deal with heat in our home in Toronto. Ask us in six months what has changed.

Given our new obsession with ventilation, we suddenly became aware of a feature of many Paris buildings that is so common that nobody notices it: the grilles underneath the windows at street level.

In an earlier blog, we mentioned these panels, most of which provide ventilation to the sous-sols (basements), although a few once provided air for cupboards built into the space below the windows that kept foodstuffs fresh in the years before refrigeration.

As always happens, once you become aware of something that was previously an unremarked bit of the scenery, you begin to spot the many variations on a theme (this also happened when we first became aware of chasse-roues/boute-roues).

We began to photograph these ventilation panels. Warning: do not try this yourself unless you do not mind getting stared at. Passersby look at you, then look at what your camera is pointing at, and then look back at you with an odd expression on their faces. Why are you interested in that? Here are a few examples from what became a large collection.

Some are ornate or fanciful. Some are mundane and functional. Some date from the 19th century; others are more recent. The older ones may have been around at the time of the Paris flood of 1910 and contributed to the flooding of basements and subterranean spaces.

In a few cases, we were able to peer in. Mostly the immediate interior was full of rubbish. Sometimes the spaces behind seemed to drop down to infinite depths.

What lurks down there? Whatever it is, it is cool and wet and does not fear the heat. And, having survived a Paris heatwave, neither do we.

Text and photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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23 Responses to Coming to terms with the heat in Paris

  1. Awesome post! The licorice ice cream sounds tempting. Love the photographs of the gills – a different perspective of a city.

    • Are they really called gills? Is there a special French name for them? We were sure there would be!

      • I don’t know. But it seems to me like gills 🙂

      • Well, if it isn’t the “official” word, it should be. Very appropriate!

      • Sean JS Chen says:

        I think they are known as “soupirail”, which to allow the basement to “exhale”.

        We have these in Toronto too, but they’re non-poetically call “basement windows” 🙂

      • What a lovely French word. But basement windows can “inhale” as well. A skunk fell into the window well (the space in front of the basement window) of the house we lived in when I was 10. The Humane Society sent a man with a gun to dispatch the skunk, but he was nervous and shot out the window before killing the skunk. The basement filled with the smell of skunk and it took a long time to dissipate.

      • Sean JS Chen says:

        Wow…that must have been quite the adventure for a 10yo.

        Granted, the basement windows (Parisian or Torontonian) were commonly used to “inhale” coal back when everyone burned it for heating.

  2. Kiki says:

    Shutters AND windows shut – YES, most important. Then, buying an electric fan with a rotating head (enquire about its noise-level, ours is pretty much noiseless) – BEST…. Good luck, it’s FAR too hot, and we live outside of Paris – in the night and mornings all windows are open, doors held in place so that they won’t slam and when the sun shines in/on, it all gets looked and sealed until the evening. NOW we’re going to open up again, incl. entry door… It DOES work!
    And we cd exchange our dozens of photos of those ventilation panels 🙂

    • Yes, we learned to brace the doors to allow a cross breeze without the doors slamming shut. Fortunately, the apartment is on a corner and we have windows facing in two directions. You too photograph ventilation panels? Today, after posting the blog, we saw a magnificent one near the Arc de Triomphe!

  3. jsgabin says:

    I feel much better prepared for my trip at the end of this month!

  4. London, summer 2017 is not dissmilar. Air con is for upmarket cars and some shops, although to be fair, more and more are adopting this strange North American fashion for cooling air in 30+ interior temperatures. Our flat in Greenwich acually has a huge wall mounted air con/ heater (dependinug on season of course) which brings the temp down from over 30 deg to about 24. Still, I find that overly warm but my husband doesn’t feel the heat ( a wonder we remain together after more than 45 yars) so he wraps up at night and I wear thin nightwear and lie very still.

    I would be good if Europe could get with the programme here and accept that hot is hot and needs dealing with if normal life is to continue. But Brexit will fracture any air con arrangement we might have had so it’s each nation for themselves in the summer.

    I will not complain about cold temps and driving rain in future. Better than relentless heat.

  5. roostamama says:

    the french never admit the need for ac or for screens……also opening windows leads to sickness from the courants d’air…haha

  6. Ginney says:

    We lived in Paris years ago when my military husband was stationed at the American Embassy. Our children went to school there. Oldest boy had his graduation party in the Eiffel Tower . After 3 years there we returned many times. Have so many wonderful memories. We love your emails. Keep them coming please. One of our favorite places is the Shakespeare American Book Store.

  7. francetaste says:

    It gets very hot in the south of France, but thanks to the absence of A/C, we get used to it. It helps that the heat is dry–it’s easier to live with than sticky humidity. We absolutely do the “shutter dance,” closing on the sunny side and opening on the shady side, and keeping the windows shut as soon as the morning temps rise. The inside is a good 10 degrees F cooler than outside, all for free and without polluting.

    • We have lost so much knowledge of managing in hot climates because of air-conditioning. It is quite possible to manage, as you say. Loved your latest post, by the way.

      Philippa and Norman

      • francetaste says:

        Thank you! It’s hard to work in an office without a/c in the summer, but it’s also insane to have to wear sweaters indoors in summer because the a/c is so cold.

  8. Marc Piel says:

    Yes Paris can get very hot, especially if no wind becaue it is surounded by hills and becomes a basin of hot air. Toronto can get pretty hot also not to mention the oposite season with it’s freezing rain storms. I didn’t work that day, but spent it taking photos. Once lost my car under snow and ice for 3 months. The forecast for Paris 2017 is for a heatwave this summer (canicule).

    • Toronto seems set for a cool and rainy summer. We had a short thunderstorm today lasting all of 20 minutes, but very intense. Floods in a few areas. And Lake Ontario is very high. Normally, summer is hot and humid here, but it seems the heat has departed for Paris and all we have left is the humidity.

      Bon courage !

      Philippa and Norman

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