This week’s French Friday begins in the U.S. Washington State, then through Idaho and Wyoming on the way to Colorado, and back up through Utah and Idaho (again) to end in Olympia, WA. This was the summer of 2003 — July to be exact. That summer, the Western United States experienced a heat wave like the one that the East Coast has currently been suffering under. The temperatures were hitting record highs for that early in the summer: 99F in Spokane, WA; well over 100F in Wyoming; 14 days of record setting temps in Pueblo, CO, topping out at 109; even the normally mild Olympia was hovering at 100 degrees.
Mr. Gren and I moved out of our duplex at the end of June and spent three weeks traveling to see family before we made our trans-Atlantic move. The first problem was that our ’87 Camry had no air conditioning. The drive from Olympia to Spokane (about five hours) was unpleasant, but still tolerable. We roasted in Spokane for a week before continuing the journey to CO. I have never known misery like that two-day drive. Even being pregnant through the summer three times cannot compare to the utter wretchedness we felt. We had two options to cool ourselves: The first was our pseudo-AC. We had bought two small, battery-powered fans that we set up on the dash board of the car. Mostly they just blew hot air in our faces, but we each had a squirt bottle of water that, if sprayed into the fan, gave momentary relief lasting about 2.5 seconds. The second option was to roll down the windows. On the freeway. Going 75 mph. This obviously increased the flow of hot air (but at least it was moving air!), and greatly increased the road noise to the point where Mr. Gren and I couldn’t even hear ourselves, much less each other, resulting in two nearly wordless, sweltering, tormented days. Made even worse by the chocolate milkshake that spilled in the front seat because an incompetent McDonald’s employee couldn’t find a lid to fit. It was a ghastly stench.
We reached Pueblo with no end in sight to the punishing heat. Fortunately, my mom’s steam vac got out the worst of the milkshake accident. When we left there, my parents sent us off with a cooler stuffed with two sopping wet t-shirts. The relief they provided was amazing! Until the suffocating heat in the car forced us to roll down the windows once again. “Surely,” we thought, “we’ll be able to cool off a little once we get back to Washington.” Instead, our friends greeted us with exclamations of, “It has been so hot here, it’s crazy!” Hardly what we wanted to hear. But we only had one full day in Olympia before flying to Paris and once again we told ourselves, “Paris has mild weather; we’ll cool off there.”
You see where this is going, don’t you? Paris registered 93F the day we arrived in the middle of July. In a city built largely of concrete and asphalt — not to mention devoid of air conditioning — the buildings were literal ovens, retaining and even increasing the heat within. You probably remember hearing of the tragic number of deaths caused by the high temperatures in France that summer. It was a horrific summer.
The first couple of weeks after Mr. Gren and I arrived, we were not yet registered to drive the car given to us to use, nor did we have a way to purchase bus tickets at that time as all of the tabacs were closing down for les vacances. But, we needed to stock our cupboards. On our first bleary day, I had seen a blue arrow sign not far from the apartment with the name of a grocery store on it — LeClerc. I told Mr. Gren about it and we set out walking. We found the sign and followed the direction it pointed. We were a little surprised after walking another ten minutes to find another sign pointing us on. And a few minutes later, another. Where was this store?! We ended up walking about an hour, dragging ourselves up hills with the blistering sun beating down on us and the heat radiating back up from the pavement. Finally, we saw the store. It looked big; it looked promising; it looked like the kind of place that might have air conditioning.
Hallelujah, it did! We stumbled through the doors and saw a sign pointing to a cafe upstairs. Mr. Gren declared, “I don’t care how expensive it is, we’re going up there to sit for awhile.” He got no complaints from me. Disheveled and dripping in sweat, we slumped into a couple of chairs and ordered the best Cokes we had ever had in our lives. Eventually, we regained enough strength to go do our shopping. We couldn’t get too carried away, however, because we still had to lug those groceries home on another hour-long walk.
Living in a house without air conditioning in 90 degree weather is bad enough. Living in a 4th floor apartment without air conditioning brings an entirely new meaning to “les misérables.” The nights never cooled off below 75 outside and the air was dead and still, so the buildings never got cool enough to be comfortable. We flung open the three sets of French windows in our living room and dragged a mattress right up to the iron grate, hoping to catch even just a wisp of a breeze. For 29 more days, Paris suffered, and we along with it. During that time, the temperature went down to 77F for a couple of days, but then spiked up to 98, 100, 104, for eleven days. Mr. Gren and I had come with just one week’s worth of clothes each (the rest of our belongings we had shipped in June, but they still hadn’t arrived) and we were always soaked in sweat.
I will always remember the night that the temperature finally dropped, that we weren’t being swallowed in an overwhelming heat: In the summer, Paris shows classic movies at a variety of outdoor locations. It’s free to attend and people often pack a picnic to enjoy before the show starts. On 15 August, “An American in Paris” was scheduled to show at Trocadero, the plaza that provides such a great view of the Eiffel Tower. A group from our church was planning to go and Mr. Gren and I jumped at the chance to go, too. We enjoyed the company of our new friends, ate a simple but tasty meal, and settled in to watch Gene Kelly dance and sing as night fell around us.
About halfway through the film, the crowd murmured with excitement. A breeze was blowing through! We hadn’t felt the slightest courant d’air in weeks, so this was a truly momentous occasion. As the night went on, we could feel the heat dissipate, that welcome wind carrying it away. The relief, oh, the relief was immense. Late that night, well after we were in bed, it even rained.
It was our first best day in France.