“Those Griswald Days of August”

It’s a frigid 63 degrees here in Paris today. A beautiful sunny and COOL morning! The heat wave is long gone but the arguments are heating up over the question of heat related deaths in France. I was shocked to initially hear – roughly two weeks ago – of hundreds of possible deaths from the record high temperatures (104 degrees F in Paris, breaking a 1947 record.) But then the estimates quickly climbed to 1,000 – 3,000 – 5,000 – 10,000…. And this morning I am hearing 13,000 possible heat related deaths.

I wonder if the person counting is the same one who counted the number of Frenchmen who died defending France during WWII? Can the figure really be that high?

All kidding aside, the problem is quite serious. The Minister of Health (French equivalent of Surgeon General) resigned last week over the exchange of blame and Jacques Chirac cut short his summer vacation (a Frenchman coming back to work during his August vacation is quite a noble thing) to brush aside accusations that he was not interested in the problem. He was on TV this morning saying exactly what you expect a politician to say – that a full investigation will be launched.

I know you are thinking, “104 degrees? Hell, it’s been hotter than that here before – and it was not such a big deal…these Frenchmen are real weenies!” But you have to keep in mind that there are hardly any air conditioners in France. Rarely will you find them in private apartments (1900 and older construction doesn’t quite easily allow for the addition of air conditioning units) and not all offices nor public buildings will have air conditioning.

The tragic thing is that many of the dead were elderly people living alone. The disputes are between health workers and the government over whether or not all of these deaths are actually heat related. Doctors and health care workers give high estimates and say that the government was not prepared for such a disastrous event. The government naturally denies the accusation of unpreparedness and questions if the causes of death were actually because of the heat. Doctors claim that hospitals, clinics and ambulances were way understaffed and that vacationing workers should have been called back by the government.

The new estimates are coming from the director of one of France’s largest funeral services who is basing his estimates on their own actual numbers multiplied times four (they represent 25% of all funeral services in France). He claims that four out of every five elderly deaths was due to the heat. Unlike America, only 9% of French people over 75 live in retirement homes. Many of these elderly lived alone and those who normally had a neighbor or family member watching over them may have been alone while that person was on his August vacation. There was even a story of relatives of a deceased elderly person who were notified but put off coming back immediately so as not to ruin the big August 15th holiday weekend.

Now this is what puzzles me: WHY the French behave like lemmings when it comes to vacation time? WHY do you want to go to the beach when THE REST OF FRANCE will be there with you? But laying on a crowded beach is not the puzzling part – it’s the sitting in traffic for hours upon end that I don’t get. I mean, have they ever given it any consideration why a drive to the beach takes ten times longer during the month of August? The French word for vacation is vacance; I believe it refers to the amount of space in any French brain cavity while trying to determine an appropriate time to take a yearly vacation.

But maybe Vicky & I are the not-so-smart ones for deciding to hang around Paris during the summer heat? In any event, the French and their obsessiveness with August vacations is another story…

The situation is very bad here. The director of the above mentioned funeral service said that they were severely limited in space for the bodies. They actually had to put 165 bodies in a refrigerated hall at Rungis. Rungis is the huge farmer’s market complex just south of Paris. The city of Paris was short on crews to pick up bodies so many bodies sat in hot apartments for days. Some of the bodies were so badly decomposed and disfigured so that firemen were called in to handle the job. There was a story of a 52 year old man who had died in his apartment but workers were unable to remove his 300 pound corpse; an overworked crew returned several days later to finish the job.

We had house guests for the majority of the duration of the heat wave. They probably got tired of us saying that it normally wasn’t that hot. The heat was pretty bad. Nights were awful. When the rare occasional breeze came along, we were like sailors in a dead calm scrambling to take full advantage of a whimpy little hot breeze. We carefully opened specific windows to get the full effect of cross ventilation. If we were lucky, by 3 or 4 am, the temperatures would drop to 82 – and that was on a cool night! We all took cold water baths several times a day. And I think we consumed gallons and gallons of bottled water per day. We learned a neat trick from our gardienne: to keep the apartment cool (relatively speaking), you close the exterior louvered shutters to keep the sun out – while leaving the interior glass windows open to allow the air (what little of it) to circulate. This kept the interior temperatures down to a comfy 88 – 90 degrees. As they say in French, it was very, very fucking hot!

During this blistering heat, I learned a new French word: Ventilateur. It means fan. I looked it up before running down to BHV (the French, Sears equivalent) to buy a kick-ass, hurricane-blowing, fan with forty speeds. The fan department is in the basement of BHV and it was mobbed with people obviously there for the same reason I was. I looked around and saw no fans so I asked a guy who worked there if he could show me the best fan they sold:

” Pas de ventilateurs, monsieur.”

I couldn’t believe it! No fans? He told me they would be in the next day.

But why were there so many people in a department that had no fans? They all looked like they were seriously shopping – and they were: Some people were actually eyeing the air purifiers because of the small amount of air they blow. Others were actually shopping for air conditioners.

I went back to BHV the next day. And the next. And the next…. until I remembered what George W. Bush said of the French not too long ago:

” There are no entrepreneurs in France.”

And he is right, there are none. You see, France relies solely on the demand side of the economy: You want it? You order it. Then you wait until it’s made. Nobody had the insight to imagine that anyone might ever want such a thing. A perfect example is our car, my Vespa, or any of the furniture we bought while in Paris. Walking out of a store or a dealer with the item in hand is rare, if not, out of the question. You order it and then six, eight, nine weeks (months for a car) later someone calls you to tell you it’s ready to be picked up.

Our visiting guests were from Puerto Rico. We joked that had this happened in Puerto Rico, the guys in the traffic intersections who normally sell newspapers, plantains, doughnuts, produce, candy, chewing gum, ball point pens, toys, etc.. would be selling inexpensive, made-in-Taiwan oscillating fans. You would most likely see a tractor trailer parked on the side of the road with torn up made-in-Taiwan oscillating fan boxes laying around. The truck would be three-quarters empty and traffic would be tied up because some motorists would be asking if there was any way to plug the fans in and check them before buying.

Ah, but Puerto Rico has nice breezes and more important – air conditioning.

There are no entrepreneurs in France. Neither are there any ventilateurs in France. The weather looks like it will stay moderately bearable. The government vs. the doctors will give the newspapers something to write about other than problems in Iraq and the Mideast during the remainder of August when all of the sunburned frogs return from vacation. I am enjoying beaucoups de parking spaces and traffic-free city streets. My fan is on order and hopefully by November when it gets here, I will have thought up an alternate use for it – like blowing leaves off the window sills.

My solution to the problem? Well, the French public should know by now that government can’t be responsible for everything – especially the damn weather. Start figuring things out for yourself. Hire more weathermen like the pretty lady on the French weather channel. Don’t entirely evacuate the city of Paris during August leaving the elderly and the handicapped to fend for themselves. It’s not a law that you have to take your vacation in August! For just a month or so out of the year, why not convert the palace at Versailles into a retirement home? It would be a cool oasis from the heat and the old folks would get a kick out of living in a chateau! Subsidize ice cream vendors during heat waves and make them give it away free. And for God sakes, order some friggin’ FANS in advance!!

au revoir,
Monsieur Leedy

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