Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Air conditioning in France

Even the cinemas in France aren’t air-conditioned! That’s what an American with us the other day watching “The Interpreter” would surely have said. In fact, they usually are air-conditioned; it just happened the air conditioning wasn’t working in that cinema that evening. Interestingly, this didn’t bother most people, who went in anyway.

Southeastern France has just been through ten days or so of this-is-as-hot-as-it-gets. Temperatures have been in the mid-90’s (33-36°C). Yesterday the mercury allegedly hit 38°C (100°F). People seem very stoic about it, especially when you consider that the last time it happened in June (2003), August was even worse. For the most part, though, people also know it won’t last, in contrast to many regions of the US, where it’s this hot from May until September. Nevertheless ....

Air conditioning is a complicated business in France. Office buildings constructed within the last 10 years are often, but not always, air conditioned; older ones rarely are. Schools, many government buildings, museums, some stores, and – as we all know since the summer of 2003 – many hospitals, are not. Apartment buildings, even newly constructed ones like ours, almost never are. An air-conditioned apartment building in France is the lap of luxury.

In the US, even if your building has no central air, putting in your own (window) air conditioner is easy. You open the window, position the air conditioner, being careful not to drop it onto the sidewalk below, pull down the window, tighten a couple of screws, and you’re in business. In France, however, ….

To begin with, there are no sash windows in France (they’re called fenêtres à guillotine here!), only – you guessed it – French windows, those lovely, floor-to-ceiling affairs that let you gaze out onto the countryside or cityscape and take in the fresh morning air. So you’d have to use a free-standing unit with a tube sticking out the (open) window. Then as much hot air comes in as is evacuated by the air conditioner. When the wind blows, the very air you’ve just sent out comes blowing back in.

If this is unsatisfactory and you want to install a central air-conditioning system in your city apartment in France, you first have to deal with your neighbors. Air conditioners are noisy, especially someone else’s, and noise is one of the chief complaints of the residents of French apartment buildings. Not that French people are noisier than, say, Americans. On the contrary, they’re quieter. While Americans are taught as they grow up to speak loudly and clearly, that it is impolite to mumble, French children are taught to speak softly, especially in public. So the slightest noise bothers them: children playing in the courtyard of an apartment building, someone speaking into a cell phone on the train, etc. Even if you are installing central air conditioning in an unattached house, you should make sure the compressor unit in the backyard isn’t too close to the neighbors’ property or you will get complaints about the noise. (Funny, in our apartment building, people seem to object to the hum of an air conditioner, but not to people partying on their balconies until midnight or so, with the accompanying bursts of laughter, but I’m digressing again.)

To complicate matters further, in France you are generally not allowed to install anything in your apartment that changes the outside appearance of the building, and air conditioners do. Things that change the outside appearance, such as shutters, must be approved by a majority of the apartment owners in such a way as to give the building a uniform appearance. In other words, everyone must select the same shutters. Now in a building like ours, where most apartments have balconies that face the courtyard, not the street, it is unclear to what extent this rule applies. There is general agreement that the prohibition against hanging laundry out to dry on your balcony (most people don’t have dryers) is a firm one. Satellite dishes are a gray area, because people cannot be deprived of their droit à l’image, some kind of fundamental right to receive TV broadcasts (I wonder if that was in the European constitution...). Anyway, it clearly doesn’t apply strictly, or you wouldn’t be able to plant geraniums (or only if all owners voted to plant geraniums, but then you wouldn’t be able to plant petunias). Then there’s a whole category of items people find simply unsightly or unesthetic. In other words, they won’t want to see your stuff on your balcony, whether it’s your gardening tools, your bicycles, your fishing rods, your extra refrigerator, etc., if it happens to face their balcony. In short, there’s no way round it: you will have to get the owners of all units to approve your air conditioner by a majority vote.

What is air conditioned in France is franco-cooled, not ameri-cooled. Mind you, this has advantages. For example, you don’t need a down jacket to go into the frozen-food aisle of the supermarket. In fact, when you first walk into an air-conditioned building in France, the difference compared with the outside is relatively subtle, and only after a while do you realize that it’s actually quite comfortable. So if you want your apartment ameri-cooled (soon I’ll get rid of the hyphen), you will have to order double the recommended power ratings.

Yesterday my singing group gave a concert in a rehabilitation center. The center has existed for 30 years or so, but a spanking new wing – you know what’s coming – has just been built in the last two years. We sang in the conference center in the new wing. When we first walked into the building, it seemed air conditioned, but I wasn’t sure. Then I noticed all the windows in the conference room were open. A half-hour later I noticed sweat trickling down my back as I sang. But no one seemed to find this unusual. No one (including me!) said “For crying out loud, even this brand new building has no air conditioning!” No, everyone accepted it as normal on a hot day. I was too embarrassed to ask if the building had air conditioning.

In addition to the cost of energy, this preference for francocooling (told you) is in part because French people simply don’t like air conditioning. They think it’s unhealthy and spreads germs and diseases, such as legionellosis (it does, but only in rare cases). They think that it creates too much of a difference between indoor and outdoor temperatures, so that when you go from one to the other, the body undergoes a sort of shock. We even have one friend who insists that the difference in temperature between an air-conditioned room and the outdoors should not exceed 6°C (11°F). Thus, if it is 35°C (95°F) outside, it should be no less than 29°C (84°F) indoors. Ever work in a 29°C (84°F) office? Does this 6° rule apply in the winter, too?

Since the summer of 2003, a plan canicule or “heat wave plan” has been devised. The plan bears a lot of resemblance to the color-coded terrorist alert levels in the US. A lot of money was spent creating it; no one knows what it actually means.

Hospitals are no more air conditioned than they were two years ago. I heard a TV news report two days ago about elderly people in a small rest home or extended care facility somewhere in the south. They had 11 fans for 22 rooms.

In August 2003, when there was a power failure in New York, it was treated virtually as a healthcare emergency. People with heart conditions and other vulnerabilities were without air conditioning and this was considered very dangerous. Yet it wasn’t even terribly hot, maybe 30°C (86°F). Back in that small French rest home, the social workers said the heat was insidious. The elderly didn’t notice the heat and had to be told to drink, they said.

I remember the last time I went to a baseball game with my father. The temperature was in the mid-eighties (28-30°C) at game time and it was humid. By the seventh inning, my father’s congestive heart failure was making it hard for him to breathe. He noticed it and so did I. He said needed to get into air conditioning, which he did as soon as we got to the car.

What happens to these people in France, even in “normal” summers? Do they all pop off without anyone taking notice? I’ve been here 16 years, but this is still a topic that confuses me. Another French paradox?

When you look at these differences between France and the US – and presumably between other European countries and the US – you begin to realize the enormous amounts of energy that must be consumed air conditioning all those buildings in America and to understand why the statistics show that the United States alone emits 25% of the planet’s greenhouse gases. France could do with more air conditioning, particularly in hospitals, but couldn’t America do with a few less 65°F frozen-food aisles and air-conditioned sports stadiums?


Thursday, June 23, 2005

June madness

With each passing day I don’t write on my blog, I have the impression that when I do post an entry, it will have to be more momentous than if I had posted it a day earlier. By the end of a week, it seems nothing less than the next definitive (Franco-)American novel will do, or at the very least, something to outshine A Year in Provence and its sequels. This is a slippery slope, as it means that each day, I will be less likely to actually do something about the blank blog page. Music is like this, too, I find. If you don’t practice for a few days, you know that it’s going to be harder when you do, so you unconsciously put it off for another day. Before you know it, weeks have gone by and you haven’t played, sung, etc.

So I have decided to meet the problem head on and get back to that unstable equilibrium that is the artist’s lot (if I may use that term to describe myself). Just, please – don’t expect anything momentous.

Last weekend was an action-packed weekend in an action-packed month, and I need to explain why to my non-French readers. In France, the year ends in June, especially if you have children or take part in any extra-professional activities. All the end-of-year school performances, parties, ceremonies, etc. take place in June. If you belong to a community group or activity (la vie associative, as it’s called here), the chances are the season ends in June. I suppose the phenomenon exists in the US (and other countries) too, but it seems more acute here. People virtually get together to say goodbye, before scattering like a treefull of starlings after a loud bang! If you were to spend a summer in France without ever going to the seashore, you’d think France hibernates, which would be a semantic contradiction, but I digress. (If you do go to the shore during this hypothetical summer, you will see more bare breasts than most American men see in a lifetime, but again, I digress.)

Friday was the fête de l’école, the end-of-year festival at B.’s and D.’s school. The theme was dance though the centuries, and I got to see B do a lovely waltz with one of the girls in his class. B’s parents were far more charmed by this than B was.

The highlight of the weekend was a concert on Saturday evening given by our rabbi and two female opera singers who are members of the congregation. They sang songs in Yiddish, Ladino and Hebrew, accompanied either by a piano or a guitar, and it was glorious. Now you would think that an event like this would draw hundreds (dare I say thousands?) of people. It didn’t; there were around 130 people in the audience. Once you know the type of congregation and the state of Judaism in general in France, it is no longer surprising. The congregation is libérale, a flavor halfway between American conservative and reform Judaism. There are a few libérale synagogues in France, about one in every major city, plus two or three in Paris. The other 95% of French synagogues are squarely in what would be called the “orthodox” category in America. The 95% don’t officially recognize the 5%, and so they refused to do any advertising for the concert. Even the Jewish radio station in Lyon refused to air an announcement about it. We also added a little self-flagellation: the concert started before the end of Shabbat on Saturday evening, not a good way to make friends with a religious, observant community. Future concerts, I am told – stay tuned! more to come! – will not conflict with the Sabbath.

On Sunday, B., D. and I did a 2-hour horse ride at La Ferme de la Dame Blanche, a riding club near the foothills of the Monts du Lyonnais, outside Lyon. This was their last Sunday ride of the season, and it conflicted with the fête du poney club at the club where D. has been taking lessons. But the Sunday ride at La Dame Blanche was his first opportunity to ride outside an arena without someone holding his pony. Both he and his Dad were very proud. The four 8-11 year-old girls on the ride, however (why does every riding club has a bevy of 8-11 year-old girls?), were disappointed we didn’t gallop. The scenery was stunning, the temperature was in the nineties (°F), and I would have worn my cowboy hat to protect me from the sun, but they (the ride leader and B. and D.) insisted I wear a helmet.

Yesterday was the fête de la musique. Throughout France on June 21, the longest day of the year, amateur and professional musicians give free concerts in the street and in concert halls. So did my singing group, but that’s a topic for another post ….

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Friday, June 03, 2005

Going back

I couldn’t sleep the other night and it wasn’t because of the results of the referendum. I had numbers floating in my brain. “Eighty” first of all. But also “seventy-nine” and “eighty-one”. And “ninety”, “fifty-five” and “eighty-eight”. And “oh-three”, “oh-four” and “oh-five”. The numbers were floating on a sea of orange costumes. Some costumes included sport jackets, some could be mistaken for firefighters’ jackets, some had Chinese calligraphy, some could be worn by race car drivers. But they had one thing in common. They were all sported by graduates of an American university on the occasion of one of its most tradition-steeped events: Princeton Reunions.

Princeton Reunions, four days of partying, reconnecting, recollecting and learning, take place on the Princeton University campus between the end of final exams and graduation. Alumni from every class attend, with the greatest representation coming in the round-number years: the 5th reunion, the 10th, the 15th, and so on. Out of the one thousand or so members of my 25th reunion class, around 500 attended. Of the 680 or so living members of the class of ’55, the 50th reunion, about 350 attended. Each reunion is assigned a courtyard on the campus which becomes its headquarters for four days. There is music and dancing, and the beer flows freely. Elsewhere on campus, there are lectures, conferences, discussion groups, shows put on by undergraduates, and “arch sings” – short concerts given by a capella singing groups under the many acoustically-blessed Gothic archways on campus.

It’s been twenty-five years since I graduated from Princeton University, but when the conductor on the New Jersey Transit shuttle train that brought me into town last Thursday announced that Princeton would be the next and only stop, for a moment I felt like a freshman again, arriving on campus for the first time, apprehensive about what my life would be like for the next four years and more than a little overwhelmed by it all. An hour later I met S., another member of my graduating class, who has been to nearly all of our 25 reunions. For several years, she said, she had “test anxiety” whenever she set foot on the campus.

Five years ago I attended our 20th reunion, having had little contact with the Princeton community over the previous 12 years. That time I was filled with anxiety. Who would I see? Would they remember me? Would my life and career measure up to theirs? Would I want them to remember me as I had been 20 years earlier? Would they want to know me as I am now? But it was a revelation. All the insecurities, the competitiveness, the need to be clever, all melted away and I related to my former classmates on a completely new level. Moreover, I learned that they had been suffering the same anxieties. In fact, some friendships started at that 20th reunion.

This time was an opportunity to extend the “success” of five years ago. Leveraging that experience, before I left, I wrote to some people I hadn’t seen in these 25 years, including T., one of my freshman year roommates. I was hesitant about it, because we hadn’t got on that well with each other that year, and hardly saw each other after that, even while we were undergraduates. I had this lingering sense of guilt that I had never been very polite with him. Maybe he would hold it against me if I wrote to him. So I screwed up my courage and hit “send”.

In fact, seeing T. again was particularly satisfying. We saw each other on the first evening after the Class of ’80 talent show. He is now a jazz musician and has been teaching music at Princeton for the last 16 years. I told him about my anxieties and about how I used to do and say the most outlandish things. He said he was touched by my e-mail. I think he understood my desire to let it all out because he told me exactly the same story I had in mind to tell him.

One winter evening during the 1976-77 school year, I was studying in the common room in our dormitory suite. I was having trouble understanding what I was studying and as often happened then, I started getting hot under the collar about it – literally. So I opened the window wide. The only problem was that it was about eight degrees Fahrenheit outside. T. was also studying in the same room, and he had a cold to boot. Somehow I had trouble understanding that someone else might be cold when I was hot. T. said that L., another of our roommates, also present at our 25th Reunion, virtually had to hold him back. But 25 years later - no, 29 years later - we were both able to laugh about it, and I felt very relieved.

I saw Professor M. for the first time in at least 25 years and we agreed not to let another 25 years go by without any contact. I saw about half of the members of my "Outdoor Action" group, with whom I spent a week canoeing, hiking and spelunking before starting classes freshman year. I saw my cousin from the class of 2003 and learned a few things about Princeton today, ... or in the recent past, anyway.

It was fun to make contact with the other "internationalists". S. was there from Madrid. L., the intervening freshman-year roommate, was there from Norway. P. was there from Geneva. T. was there from Beijing. And P., whom I had never met before, was there from Japan. Many of the contacts I made were facilitated by H., who hosted me and several other classmates. Indeed, I met several classmates I had not seen since graduation or simply never met before and had a great time talking to them. Now if I can only remember what they said to me. Come on, Steve, think. You went to Princeton, you can do this ….