Tuesday, December 09, 2003

La Canicule

This is my third year in France. The first year, I was too beset with visa problems to notice anything properly. 2002, I could enjoy much more, though I missed spring. I arrived end June and enjoyed a marvellous Indian summer. Then came autumn and rains and marvellous colours and finally blustery winds which left the trees bare. Winter followed with snows in January to my delight!! My first. (Actually I did see some snow fall in Stockholm and then Chamonix in 2001 –but I was on holiday and it didn’t count). The 5000 stranded in their cars on the national auto route weren’t so thrilled!

And then, this year, one fine day, I woke up to find that it was Spring! The trees all had bright green leaves. When did they sprout? Colours everywhere and distinctly different from summer or autumn colours. Blue, blue sky, fluffy white clouds. Paradise. We Calcuttans / Kolkatiya are so used to just two types of seasons– summer, endless summer (rainy summer) and a mild winter (though R reported that winter in Kolkata, last year was cold). I really enjoyed each weather though I hoped spring would last longer. It gave way
to progressively warmer lazy days. The scene from my large windows were unbelievably idyllic. The tall spire of the 11th century cathedral, red tiled roofs, green lawns of neighbours where they had long lazy lunches under gay umbrella, birds chirping, the enormous fat cat next door
sunning itself! Wow! This is the 'belle vie'. Too beautiful to take in all at once. I felt the urge to write about it, photograph it, paint it rather than simply stand at the window and take it in.

Though global warming, green house effect has been an issue of concern for some time now, this year, it has been proven beyond a shadow of doubt. This has been the world’s hottest year ever. I should know, I experienced ‘La Canicule’ (Heat wave) first hand! Looking back, I now realise that the signs were there from march onwards. A sweater and a wind cheater had
been sufficient for me, on my way to the early morning French classes. Quite unlike in 2001 when wrapped from head to toe and weighed down by their sheer weight, I walked unhappily on the banks of the Seine in paris and wondered why everybody made such a hoo haa about ‘April in Paris’. It was cold, grey, damp and miserable. And back then, three of days of
glorious sunshine was enough to merit a big downpour on the 4th day, sending the temperatures down and out with the sweaters and coats. No wonder, wherever, whenever there would be a sliver of sunlight (no matter how cold it was), off with their clothes, the shivering Parisians trying to capture some of the sunlight onto their pale skins. This
reminds me of the exact opposite situation in Calcutta where in November with the temperature still quite warm, one can see hoards of elderly men and women taking their daily walks wrapped up in shawls, socks, sweaters and the all time favourite Bengali winter accessory – The Monkey Tupi!!

Summer had been hot in 2002 with temperatures reaching 36°. Our west facing flat got a daily blast of sunshine from après midi and onto sundown at 11pm. We spent the late evenings strolling on the banks of La Marne or lolling on the benches of Place Henri IV. Quite pleasant and
might have been romantic but for the millions of tiny black insects crawling all over, nearly invisible to the naked eye, except for ‘hypersensitive’ people like me.

This year too, the trend continued. Out came cotton, summery clothes. I was most excited for my friend who was to visit us in June. What luck! Such lovely weather. But by the time we finished the usual tour of Paris, we were très fatiguées. We were more interested in finding a shady spot inside the boat, while taking a cruise down the Siene on the Bateaux Parisienne, rather than taking in the view.

The heat took out most of the fun and thrill of attending the ‘Paris Air Show’ the most prestigious of air shows. My friend had kindly got us tickets for it. And this coming from a seasonal Kolkatan. Was I getting unused to Calcutta weather and used to European weather?! Sacré blue!

Mais le pire n’est encore pas arriver! The worst was yet to come. Come August, the mercury soared to 40°. And continued for 10 days. We did our best to cope with it. Bought ‘ventilateur’ – a stand fan, which we carried room to room, downed shutters and windows (after several
mis-trials of how to keep the rooms cool or rather around 30° and not 40°). It was a vrai cauchemar (real nightmare). Initially, the French weren’t quick to understand what was happening. I would be met with amused grins and stares if I ventured out with my bright yellow (tour de france) umbrella. Sun to them meant a chance for some free ‘bronzage’!

When our apartment became too hot (in the afternoons and all evening), we took to lengthy swimming sessions in our local community pool – Piscine Parc Frot. But so did many and it got more and more crowded and extremely dirty and not much fun. I even thought of strolling up and down the ‘rayons surgeles’ or frozen food sections of our supermarchés and found that many had the same idea!!

A, who detests heat (unlike me, who till last year was quite happy in
summer, hotter the better etc), had a very tough time. But then nothing, not even heat can keep his mind off food and we decided to try some Turkish food on what was probably the hottest day of the season. Heavy Turkish food – jarret d’agneau (a cut of lamb with brinjal/aubergines, tomato, potato and cheese) and moussaka for me. I nearly fainted on the
way back. We drank gallons of slighty salty water, lemonade etc to keep from being dehydrated.

There was ‘sécheresse’ (drought) in department after deparment (France is divided geographically into regions which are sub-divided into departments) leading to tightening of water usage. An ancient hull of a ship long submerged, suddenly came up after 40 years. The water levels had run so dry. Boats and ships were stranded in ports were the water levels had

Then the bad news came in. The deaths. First in 10’s and then in 100’s and then 1000’s. Summer and august is Les Vacance and most places are either shut or run on skeletal staff. The dead bodies piled up in the morgues and the dying in the colouir(corridor) of hospitals which themselves were unequipped to deal with first the numbers and then the heat. They had to
make alternative arrangements for medicines which would spoil in these temperatures without air conditioning! But these were the lucky ones.

The unlucky were discovered weeks later, dead in their apartments by neighbours or family returning from vacation.

Most ministers and even PM Chirac was on leave. La Canicule did enormous damage to their reputations since the French voters do not have so short a memory unlike their more forgiving Indian counterparts.

A freak cold wave in temperature in autumn had the government running red alerts to prevent deaths of SDFs or ‘Sans domicile fixé (homeless).

And now after autumn, the winter is here. Its quite cold in the morning. My hands were hurting when I went sans gants (without gloves) to the marché. But quite pleasant in all, with the Noel (Christmas) decorations up. Not so for those in south of France. Les inondations(Floods) have taken their toll. Village after village, town after town, completely flooded, houses
ruined, water logged. The german and Italian pompiers have come to help pump out water. The same, who had come couple of months earlier to help extinguish the wild forest fire.

As some one commented on television, although we are doing our best to tackle with the situation at hand, has anyone thought about next year? Its going to be a repeat performance once again....the hole in the ozone layer continues to grown bigger and bigger as we wait and watch, preferring immediate economic gains to some warming problem in the distant future...only this year onwards, the choice is between immediate economic gains Vs Immediate hellish weather, deaths, cancer, droughts....

Glossary Bengali Words
Monkey Tupi - A cap, which covers the head and ears and neck leaving only the face visible, much preferred by the bengali!

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