The Absence of Heat

Illustration by Rick Quemado

Illustration by Rick Quemado

There are no jazz standards about September in Paris.

And when—after dragging two giant suitcases through Charles de Gaulle airport—I finally stepped outside to breathe that rarefied French air and wait for a bus to take me to my new home in Northern France, I discovered why.

It was cold.

When I’d packed for the year sojourn, in the late-summer swelter of Arlington, Texas, I’d intellectualized the idea of cold. But I had not understood it. Now, however, it was tangible, seeping in through the air and through that bench, like foreign armies attacking on all fronts.

The wind smelled like diesel fumes, and it carried no sound except for car honks, engine rumbles and brake squeaks. Where was my zany-yet-ultimately-hopeful accordion soundtrack? So far, this was nothing at all like that Meg Ryan film where she travels to Paris and finds her soul mate, a lovable French rogue played by the American actor Kevin Kline.

Part of the problem, as I’d soon discover, was that I had the wrong clothes. Everybody in my adopted city of Amiens (an hour north of Paris, by train) wore this ankle-length, downy thing that had a hood and also acted like a raincoat. Before France, I never knew this garment existed, and wouldn’t have been able to picture it had somebody described it. But life warmed up considerably once I’d bought my own.

Also, scarves. Growing up in the loamy heat of Texas, I’d always assumed that scarves were perpetually out of style, consigned to the same historical Goodwill bin as bustles and petticoats. Yep, I was wrong. In this place, everybody wore their scarves a certain way, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how they tied them. It was like there was a scarf-tying club, and I was “knot” a member. I was in the club of damp losers whose scarves bellowed and swung in the cold rain, letting the air in and getting everything wet. There were no French people in my bad-scarf-wearing club.

The cold in Northern France wasn’t a German fairy tale of snow. This was a soggy, rainy cold, with the weather “warmed” by the Atlantic. Just as there is never rain in Las Vegas, there was never not rain in Amiens. Eventually, I considered drizzling to be as good as dry.

Even the sun was complicit in my shiver. In all the other places I’ve lived—Texas, Arizona, Las Vegas—the sun is an angry, powerful god who slings down skin cancer and liver spots and turns car surfaces molten. But France only had our sun’s shy, cloud-castrated younger cousin. That dying star didn’t dare make the full circle across the sky, just a pathetic little arch on the horizon that arrived late and left early, and never even had the power to burn clouds away.

On some days, I wasn’t certain the sun had come out at all.

The cold, the rain, the darkness, the perplexing scarves and bulky coats—all of this I bore with the youthful good spirits of an intrepid foreign exchange student who insists she’s not a tourist but a traveler.

Until the désespoir hit.

Perhaps it was homesickness or vitamin B deficiency. Or the fact that I had not seen any French season other than winter. Or that April in Paris had come and gone, and still it was cold. But there was a point when I stopped believing in summer. Or that the clouds would ever break.

And then it snowed … in May. I thought of my family back home, who were probably all wearing shorts and having watermelon seed spitting contests. And I felt left behind, trapped in a land of eternal darkness. Just as I now live in the land of eternal sunshine.

One day, when I had given up on the possibility of a French spring, spring and summer came all at once, hot and sticky. There was no air conditioning, only open windows, and every man, woman and child went outside for an impromptu national holiday. Church bells rang and brides did wedding shoots in city parks under green trees and blue skies. There was probably an accordion playing nearby. And the sun, as if making up for lost time, was always around. It would arrive at something like 4 a.m. and shine until long after the town shut down and its citoyens went to sleep, turning the city into a cheery post-apocalypse, abandoned in broad daylight.

That season, my newfound French friends invited me to the beach, where our winter-pale skin burned on contact. It turned out that there was a sandy seashore only an hour away. It had been there all along, waiting for me, just as winter waited on the other end of this brief, bright respite.

Back to the Dog Days.

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