10 Vital Signs That Show the Hot Weather Has Got to You

The heat is of nostalgic magnitude. This is London, but for me there are echoes of summers long past in Washington DC, where pavements glued to your feet, or perhaps vice versa.

By TheAgency (CJStumpf) 20:34, 9 February 2007 (UTC) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I got my DC driver’s license on just such a day, with my mini-skirted backside welded to the plastic seat of the VW Beetle and a dozen or so empty Coke cans rattling around in the back, a testament to the hours of practice I had put in for the test. The official Department of Motor Vehicles photo taken just afterwards shows sweat dripping off a victorious 16-year old face.

There was no respite by day, but sundown would bring honeysuckle-drenched evenings and the sweet sound of soul.

But, as I say, this is London 2015.  The UK Government has already put out advice on dealing with the blistering heat wave (known in other countries as ‘summer’).

Grantchester

I find it very bearable at first, especially by the river.  It’s also rather lovely to water plants in the early mornings, though I note there is no dew.  Then the symptoms begin, building up until there is only one conclusion: the heat is winning.

Vital sign 1: People are saying, “Hot enough for you?” For those who don’t know, this is the customary British response to a hot spell, as traditional as Pimm’s and pith helmets. Considering we’re alleged to talk about the weather non-stop, our meteorological remarks are strikingly unoriginal (see also “Nice weather for ducks” and “Brass monkey weather”).

Vital sign 2: Shops have run out of fans and paddling pools. You can’t buy a desk fan for love or money, says a friend who has tried both. The middle classes are wilting because Prosecco is in short supply I expect pith helmets will sell out soon. 

Vital sign 3: Office workers strip off in the park as usual, but now they avoid the sun. They walk on the shady side of the street and even slink home via dark alleyways, the kind you normally avoid for fear of being knifed for your wallet and PIN.

Vital sign 4: People jump into rivers and canals, risking life and limb.

Pushkin

Vital sign 5: The cat refuses to step outside. I can’t hold my hand on the pavement for five seconds, which is a sure sign that the cat made the right choice.

Vital sign 6: I have an ice cream. The heat must have got to my brain, because I never eat ice cream. I even make gazpacho, ignoring the fact that it always leads to gaz.

Vital sign 7: Sleep becomes impossible without air con or heavy duty pharmaceuticals. Eight hours’ involuntary aquaplaning really isn’t as refreshing as getting in some zeds.

Dyson hot+cool

Vital sign 8: Even Mr Dyson’s magnificent machine fails to save the day. On day two of the heatwave, I rest my head in the freezer atop a packet of broccoli florets.

Vital sign 9: Now commuter trains are cancelled because it’s the wrong sort of heat. Only in Britain. 

Vital sign 10: I’m longing for it to be nice weather for ducks.

nice weather for ducks

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Learning to be Sick in Washington, DC

When my mother went to live in Washington, DC, in the 1960s, she discovered that being ill there was not like being ill in her home town of Alexandria, Egypt, where everyone fussed over her and soon made her feel better.  Here’s one of her stories.

“When will Dr Smarts be able to come and see me?” I asked the receptionist who’d answered the phone.  His name had been given to me by a friend.

The receptionist laughed. “Come and see you?”

“I have a sore throat and a temperature, my nose is stuffed up, and I can’t taste food.”

“I have a cancellation for 3pm tomorrow. Take two aspirins, drink plenty of fluids, and we’ll see you then.”

“Doesn’t Dr Smarts make house calls?”

“Not unless you’re in your 80s.  Even then, he prefers to see patients in the hospital.”

Hospital? I shuddered.

I called the school where I taught to say I was ill and wouldn’t be in. The secretary was understanding.  “There’s a virus going round.  Drink plenty of fluids.”  What was a virus? No Alexandrian had ever mentioned the word ‘virus’.

It was a miserable day spent alone.  My friends were either at work or otherwise engaged.  The only visitor I had all day was the building engineer who came to check the air conditioning.

Polish TV

But there was American TV, to which I had quickly become addicted. Alas, the early afternoon movie was an old one, Suez, and it made me homesick for Egypt.  When I saw all that sand and all those familiar persistent flies, I burst into tears.

Where was Nagibeh, our old housekeeper, to sit in my room till I fell asleep, and my little sister’s nanny, the fat Dia with her rosary and fervent prayers? Where was my mother to read me stories? Where was the kind Greek doctor who puffed his way up the stairs and who made me feel better even as he blew smoke rings into my face?

The following morning my temperature was up.  Although it was a warm September day, I was shivery.  I wrapped up as for a polar expedition and walked the one block to Dr Smarts’ office.  How extraordinary that he did not make house calls, and me so nearby too.

Dr Smarts was unimpressed with my symptoms. So I coughed over him and exaggerated my aches and pains. I did such a good job that he decided to run some tests.  He also wanted to know the medical history of every member of my family.  He was beginning to get on my nerves.  All I probably had was a bad case of la grippe, which some nasty-tasting medicine would cure in no time.  And here he was asking me about my family.

Sick as I was, I gave him a colourful account of being ill in Egypt.  Egypt? He wasn’t quite sure where it was. I even told him about the time I was so sick with indigestion, Father called the doctor in the middle of the night. I’d eaten a whole kilo of sudanis, delicious peanuts bought off a street vendor, and had thrown up 10 times.  Nagibeh had cleaned the carpet with savon de Marseille.  Dr Smarts had never heard of savon de Marseille.  His general knowledge was pitiful.

“Couldn’t you have just put the carpet in the washing machine?”

To give him credit, Dr Smarts was a good listener and jotted down everything I said.  No doctor I knew ever wrote anything except prescriptions.

“What do you normally eat during the day?” he asked.

“I have an English breakfast: eggs, bacon, toast, coffee.”

“Lunch?”

“Well, first there’s elevenses.”

“What’s elevenses?”

Ignoramus, I thought.  “It’s a mid-morning snack” I explained patiently. “I have hot cocoa and biscuits.”

“How many biscuits?”

“In our culture it’s considered rude to count what one eats.  However, if they’re chocolate, most of the box.”

“Lunch?”

“Where I teach, lunch is usually cold cuts and salad.  I’m not fond of lettuce.  I’m not a rabbit. But at 3pm before I pick my daughter up from her school, I have a chili hot dog at People’s Drug Store.  My main meal is dinner: chicken or meat, potatoes, spinach, a banana. No dessert. But sometimes before bed I have a tuna sandwich with mayonnaise.”

The doctor put his pen down and looked at me. “It’s a wonder you’re not the size of a house.”

“I ate much more in Alexandria” I replied hotly.  “My father and grandmother ate like horses, and weren’t fat at all. My mother hardly ate a thing and was always ill.”  Dr Smarts looked shaken.

“You know, Dr Smarts, in Alexandria they say ‘Eat, eat, bil hana wal shifa.’  That means with pleasure and good health.  We also say ‘Bon appetit.’ And doctors all make house calls.”

“We used to make house calls too.” He sounded wistful.  “Anyway, you’ll be fine.”

“What about a prescription?”

“Just drink plenty of fluids and take aspirin.”

I bundled up again under the amused eye of the receptionist.

As I walked home, I thought of what I’d write for La Reforme Illustrée, our friendly Alexandria Sunday paper. No house calls, no prescription, counting biscuits! How uncivilised.

I resolved never to be sick in Washington, DC, and you know what?  I never was.

© Jacqueline Cooper

The March on Washington

About 250,000 people were there that day in 1963, and I was one of them.MLK crop

I didn’t actually march. I skipped because I was a child at the time, excited to see what was happening just a few hundred yards from where we lived in Washington, DC.  So, holding my mother’s hand, my blonde pigtails flying, we went down 23rd Street.

As we neared the Lincoln Memorial, we heard Mahalia Jackson sing.  She was very big in those days.  I may have whispered to my mother just how big I thought she was.

August is invariably muggy and close in DC.  But the atmosphere was terrific.  Though inter-racial tensions may have been high, not for a moment did we feel out of place, let alone intimidated, and I’m sure other white people there didn’t either.  Even my mother, who’s known for being chicken, never thought to turn back.

Curiosity took us there.  Respect and awe kept us there.  Yes, I heard Reverend Martin Luther King Jr make that speech.  It is with me still.

My memories of the day are neither profound nor erudite.  How could they be, when I was so young?  Yet even now I remember it.  That’s why MLK has a place on my wall and most of all in my heart.