Dispatches from the present
The rich have left. “Parisians,” a friend texted me at the start of summer, “are out of the city every weekend from June 15 to September 15.” I yearned to leave too, especially when another friend told me, at my birthday dinner in mid-June, that the first heat wave was coming that weekend. It was too late to get out.
As soon as the temperatures start climbing in May, pedestrians see all the top stories’ windows shuttered, the zinc roofs already turning those rooms into furnaces. By the time summer is in full swing, the other floors follow suit. Residents ensconce themselves: drawing the drapes, sealing the windows, turning the tiny apartments into caves. The buildings close their eyes to the streets.
The more fortunate flick on their air-conditioning units. More make do with fans—many hurriedly bought on the days of chaleur, from Darty, from Castorama, from the independently owned stores that say they sell discounted stock. Those even less fortunate, whose apartments warm to above the exterior temperatures, stream out to seek refuge at the libraries and museums, or drink at restaurant and bar terrasses on the sidewalks to try to distract themselves from the heat. Many head to the banks of the Seine, where the breeze makes it somewhat bearable, even with the lack of shade. The only ones who move in any capacity are the American and British tourists, who find the heat an exotic feature of their trip.
The Saturday before the most recent heat wave, I had lunch with some friends—our last hurrah before holing up for the next two days. We downed two bottles of white wine along with some salads and mini pizzas, then went to a Cuban restaurant on the Boulevard Beaumarchais for drinks, where a timed misting apparatus on the patio banished the heat for at least three (or maybe four) margaritas. My friends, who have air-con, said I could come by if it got too bad at my place. The temperature was already ninety degrees Fahrenheit by then.
For the next two days, I cocooned. In my 310-square-foot apartment, I moved from my desk at the window, to my couch, to my dining table, to my bed and back around as I stuck to different surfaces. I binge-watched Modern Family, several seasons of it. The only hot drink I had was coffee in the morning out of dogged loyalty. I drank so much cooled water, courtesy of my recently purchased Brita, I was the most hydrated I’d ever been. I was cool enough to function, but didn’t want to. Outside went above one hundred degrees, far beyond what humans can regulate their bodies. The canicule, like its Latin root meaning “dog,” gnawed at the city.
As a freelance writer, I make my own days, but I didn’t want to. I opened tabs, then gradually read them. Piles of books—in French and English—I’d picked up from the inorganic trash left on the side of the street remained unmoved. I favorited too many items on Vestiaire Collective, spending what savings I’d accrued from a fruitful June on boots I wouldn’t be wearing for a while. I requested some TV screeners, some extra information on exhibitions in September, when the galleries reopen. My body rebelled against me, too: wicked hay fever, persistent hemorrhoids, eyes seriously inflamed. I napped several times a day. Miraculously, my skin didn’t break out.
The French consider Paris to run at a hectic pace. While it has changed quite a lot in the last few years—card payments, especially contactless, are practically universal; cafes, for the most part, now allow laptops; people work past 5 p.m.—the pace is, for someone who adheres to the New York ethic, still sedate.
The Thursday after that heat wave, I drank with friends on the bank of the river next to Pont des Arts for Bastille Day celebrations. “It’s summer,” I said to one when we compared how little we’d done that day. The week after, at a Wizard of Oz-themed birthday party in Bastille, one dude told me he’d sent four emails as the sum total of his work that day. Though I don’t have an office job, I’ve also subscribed to this way of life.
Copying the real Parisians, we’ve proudly confined our lives to our parts of the city; those who live on the edge of the Marais remain on the eastern side, out of the reach of the thronging tourist district (though one friend said it’s still nowhere near pre-pandemic levels). In the heat, we no longer pay attention to what’s going on outside our arrondissements, let alone the city—the tabloid Paris Match’s cover of the wildfires in Gironde, with its headline “A Summer in Hell,” is the only time I hear anyone mention them. The only time I encounter the Eiffel Tower is in the Paris Modern Family episode.
We who are left complain about the paradox we live in: we deride tourists as a whole, but our friends are streaming in for the same reason. An American on an extended Europe trip dropped in this week; a friend, coming off a breakup, is escaping here in a few days; a uni classmate will whisk me to the south for a week of co-working and beaching; an internet friend wants to swing by after attending a wedding in Mallorca. Itineraries must be planned, lunch and dinner reservations made. I have to work to pay for all of it. Soon the rich will return, and with them yet another set of social functions. I could only hide from the heat temporarily—and the heat could only hide me for so long, too.