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Coping with Paris under a sweltering sky

August 24, 2003|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

Paris — Paris

It was 1 p.m. on our first full day in Paris, the temperature was approaching 104 degrees, and we had already established a pattern that would hold for our eight-day visit: Cherchez le shade.

While others visiting Paris in more conventional climatic conditions might linger at a sidewalk cafe or stroll a sunny boulevard, we found the air- conditioned food court. We sought out the dark side of the street. We lingered in the sewer.

Earlier this month, the city, like much of northern Europe, was suffering through its worst heat wave in a half-century or more. The high temperature each day of our visit was at least 98 degrees; on six days it hit 100 or more. Twice, the official in-the-shade high was 104.

Air conditioning is far less prevalent here than in cities more accustomed to such weather -- Las Vegas comes to mind -- and only innovation, rather than strict adherence to a carefully prepared itinerary, would save the trip from disaster. My wife, Genie Wetstein, and I had to find ways to work around the heat.

Which led us to the sewer.

Visitors can tour a small stretch of Les Egouts, the underground network that carries Paris' wastewater to treatment plants beyond the city's borders. There is a display of the ancient construction, of the more recent modernizations and of the role the sewers played in the city's growth. And, yes, there is a mannequin of Jean Valjean carrying the ailing Marius to safety beneath the turmoil of Victor Hugo's Paris.

But most of all, we found pleasure in simple things -- the cool, albeit damp, subterranean air drifting through the construction, for example. The section opened for the tour is sufficiently protected from raw sewage to provide only a whiff of true eau de toilette fragrance.

We took advantage of the comfortable conditions to leisurely debate the offerings of the gift shop beneath the entry on the Quai d'Orsay, settling on a key ring bearing the cartoon likeness of an overall-clad sewer worker, the Ed Norton of Paris.

Having accepted at face value our guide's assurance that taps running non-potable water would carry warnings, Genie ignored my queasiness and filled her depleted water bottle with tap water from the visitors' restroom built into the cavern.

Coolness trumps cuisine

From the sewer, we crossed to the Right Bank of the Seine, heading for the Arc de Triomphe. At each intersection we would alter our route to find protection from the sun, whether this meant crossing to a side of the Avenue Georges V with fewer shop windows or walking on a traffic island because it was shaded by the avenue's chestnut trees.

We stopped at a sandwich shop where the climate control, rather than the menu, attracted our attention after we had passed up several other authentic outdoor cafes. The counter man asked whether I wanted my smoked Norwegian salmon-and-tomato sandwich to go. Eat on the street? I found myself searching for a French phrase roughly equivalent to "Are you out of your mind?"

At the foot of the Champs-Elysees, a garden sprinkler on a patch of public greenery drew children to its cooling sprays. A few tourists dipped their hands in the water and dampened their arms. Genie handed me her purse and marched right in, giving herself a good drenching and offering a 56-year-old's entry in a wet T-shirt contest. She was dry by the time we reached the Place de la Concorde, a block or so away.

The heat led us to other behavior we had not anticipated.

We spent an evening at the Louvre, choosing to visit on a Wednesday, when its hours are extended. We enjoyed the artwork. We loved the climate.

When we found an underground shopping mall next to the museum's entrance, we headed to the food court, choosing the tabbouleh and hummus of a Lebanese fast-food stand. Not the typical Parisian dinner, perhaps, but it was tasty. More important, it was cool.

Another day we had lunch at a neighborhood Chinese buffet just off Avenue Rapp near the Eiffel Tower. We chose it because of a magical sign in the window: Salle climatisee (air-conditioned dining room).

At each meal, we reluctantly passed on the wine, heeding common warnings we had heard in the States about the risks of alcohol consumption in extreme heat. "Une carafe d'eau, s'il vous plait," I would say, asking for water instead.

And occasionally I would find myself thinking of the sewers: Perhaps a few more hours in the cooling depths would be in order.

Others might retreat to air-conditioned hotel rooms each night. That presumes they had booked a room with air conditioning. I had not.

I had spent two summers in Paris 30-plus years ago and have worked here countless times since. Only on rare occasions had the city been uncomfortably hot. Summer temperatures are more commonly in the 70s. It just had not occurred to me to look for a hotel with air conditioning.

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