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Braving the heat in Europe

Sweltering heat is a new reality on the Continent that people are finding hard to cope with

Europe was being scorched by a heat wave last week. On Wednesday, July 24, Berlin was nearing 40 Celsius. I had to pinch myself as a reminder  that I’m not in Delhi. On Sunday, July 28, I witnessed in Helsinki the highest temperature ever recorded in the city: 33 Celsius.

The sizzle swept through Europe and the media was abuzz issuing alarms, warnings and ways to cope with sweltering heat. Cnet wrote, ‘Brutal summer temperatures have turned England into an oven…is the continuation of a climate-change trend that is rapidly turning into a locomotive with no brakes.’ CNN reported serious climatic changes, ‘European heat wave threatens to accelerate Greenland ice melt’ while Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Italy and France recorded the hottest days. Paris has set a new record at 42.6 Celsius on July 25.

In Helsinki, on the hottest day ever recorded (July 28), I went cycling to a nearby lake on the outskirts of the city — covering a distance of some 20 km on hilly terrain — with my friend Paavo Yliluoma. While pedalling, I was acutely aware that it’s not the best thing to do on a hot day. The Delhi I had left behind was much cooler than Helsinki and most of continental Europe.

Usually, warmth of the sunlight heralds celebration for the Finnish people as it’s such a rare and welcome commodity. After the long grey winter, with no sunshine for weeks together, when the much-awaited summer arrives, people get out of their houses, shun their clothing and  soak up the sun on their bare bodies like seals.

Sunny Saturday in Helsinki—they get three or four a year—is celebrated like a carnival. People stay outdoors till very late, go bar- hopping and get drunk. There are beer fests where one gets to sample various brews from the region. The sun is out till well past midnight, and just goes down the horizon for a few hours. Twilight persists before sun is out again: It’s never really dark. And people are beaming with joy, celebrating the summer.

This year Finland learned a hard lesson: that  excess of anything is bad. This includes even sunlight, as they were confronted by a menacing tropical sun this year. The lake we cycled to was crowded. The strong sun was new to them, so they were confused whether to stay outdoors or indoors. Their fair skin was turning reddish like the epidermis of a stale tomato. Some were not so adventurous, preferring to sit under the shade of a tree.

One could overhear them talk on the lines, “Global warming is real. This heat is not native to Finland.” The water of the lake was cold, feeling like a panacea in the sweltering heat.

Paavo and his  family were struggling with heat inside their house, their bodies moist with sweat. They weren’t sure whether to open the window and let the hot air in or shut the window to avoid risking the house getting warmer beyond comfort due to lack of ventilation. Paavo went to the store room and returned profusely sweating. “I couldn’t find the only (table) fan I own,” he said dejectedly.

Local papers n Helsinki, and those elsewhere in Europe, were filled with news of medical emergencies caused by heat stroke. In Berlin, on July 25, helicopters were hovering in the sky to rescue people from lakeside and riverside after they complained of dizziness because of the heat.  Misters were set up in many cities like Vienna, Berlin and Paris — misters are devices with a nozzle for spraying water, especially on houseplants. People stood under the misters, allowing water to dampen their clothing in a desperate bid to ward off the heat.

There are hardly any fans or air-conditioners, indoors get muggy in hot stale air. Paavo is convinced they should buy a fan. It’s a must in Berlin as well. Now fan is a requirement that cannot be wished away. “Well it’s slightly warm just for a few days. We can always open the window. Wind cools down the room,” kind of argument that Clare — a student with left leaning ideology based in Berlin —would give in the past is not true anymore. “You need a fan in Berlin!” she says affirmatively. Fan is the new umbrella in Europe, they are also open to use air-conditioners.

People are employing interesting ways to cool down. Misters are just one of them. A friend in Berlin, who doesn’t want to be named, keeps the bedsheet and pillow in a plastic bag and refrigerates it for an hour before going to bed. She feels her bed emits heat.

The medical emergencies were reported from the beaches and places people celebrate sun by baring their bodies. Even fatalities were reported, especially amongst the older people who just couldn’t deal with the heat.

In England, some 700 additional deaths were compared to the average during the peak heatwave in June and July last year, this year figures could be even more. Milan recorded 43 Celsius; two elderly and homeless people were found dead, one of them close to the main railway station and the other reportedly collapsed while walking.

Italy and neighbouring France has issued an alert—hazardous  weather warning. The 13 cities in Italy, including Rome and Florence, have been at the highest heat warning. People at large are advised to stay indoors during afternoon and away from areas with high vehicular traffic or risk ozone exposure. England has already declared an amber heat-health warning.

For the first time in many years, it actually felt cooler in Delhi than Europe when I dismounted the plane early morning on July 29. Heat wave is the new reality for Europe, but for India it is an annual feature. This year, at least 36 people died in the heat wave that prevailed for more than 30 consecutive days in northern and central India in the month of June.

As global warming is here to stay, my advice to European friends would be: Learn to cope with the heat and get ready for a warm Christmas!