French word of the month: canicule

Anyone living in France at the moment will have heard the word ‘canicule‘ numerous times. Everyone is talking about the canicule – the heatwave that hit Europe last week. French TV stations are playing community service announcements about how to survive, and shutters on houses are closed to try to keep the heat out.

To Australians, the high thirties is typical summer weather. We’re used to heatwaves and I remember being bemused when a news item came on the TV in Melbourne during the nineties about the London Zoo sprinkling the animals with water because the weather had reached a balmy 30°C.

Heatwave temperatures in France 2015What I didn’t realise back then is just how different 30°C in Europe is to 30°C in Melbourne. Here in the Alps, like most of France, houses have been built to keep heat in. Once they warm up, they stay warm. On top of that, fewer homes and shops have air conditioning. During a quick visit to a clothes shop on the weekend, I overheard people saying it was too hot to try anything on. The shop had no air conditioning and lots of spotlights, creating even more heat. The staff were sweating and so were the few brave customers.

Australians can escape the heat in pools or by the seaside. Our largest cities are coastal for a reason! Some even have sea breezes late in the day. Local pools are numerous and massive in size compared with the what’s available in France. Although Lake Annecy is just down the road from here, many French citizens have to travel some distance to find a pool, a beach or a lake to cool down in. Sea breezes are limited to those lucky enough to live near a coast. Here in the mountains, there’s been no escape from the heat: overnight temperatures have finally dropped below 20° after some very warm nights last week (and remember, the houses here are built to stay warm during freezing temperatures – even warmer during hot days and nights).

With fewer places for people to cool down, all this fuss about the heatwave really isn’t that surprising. What is surprising is seeing people walking around in jeans and boots! Maybe they’re acclimatising their bodies to the heightened indoor temperatures awaiting them at home.

Heatwave brochure in France 2015

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I'm a technical author, journalist and writer from Australia who has been living in Europe since 2000 and exploring the world from there. My passions are writing, snow sports and travel.

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4 comments on “French word of the month: canicule
  1. Lesley says:

    Yes it feels, and is hot!
    When we were first in France on holidays and driving through towns/villages we wondered if the places had any life in them as the shutters were seamingly always closed. Closed to keep the sun out. Closed to keep the cold/rain or wind out. Everywhere looked deserted. After 10yrs here we do the same and wonder why the UK has so few shutters on the outside.

  2. Wendy says:

    My guess, Lesley is something to do with the humidity in the UK, which seems to make houses hot even when there’s not much sun. You’re right though – on those sunny, hot days and the freezing cold days, house temperatures would surely benefit from blinds. Not to mention home security!

  3. Emily says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you describe the lack of mitigations hear to deal with the heat. A really useful article (I am sweating as I write) – thank you.

  4. Wendy says:

    Thanks Emily. It’s an incredibly long spell, and there’s now water restrictions in place here in the mountains, which seems ludicrous under normal circumstances. I can’t imagine what the heat must feel like in a city the size of Lyon. Quelle horreur!

About me

Wendy Hollands writer in Annecy, France

I'm an experienced technical writer based in the French Alps. I enjoy learning French language nuances, winter sports and travel. Drop by, my other site.

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