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Monday, September 6, 2010

A Scorcher Calls for Scorched-Earth Tactics: Reflections on Summer 2010

Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer, and you're not as beguiling as you used to be. Anything but. The National Weather Service recently pronounced Summer 2010 the hottest ever recorded for New York City. But we residents didn't need official stats to know it was a hot mess. Drama queens that we are, we became fond of dabbing our sweaty brows and declaring aloud: "I can't stand it any longer!"

Part of me wishes I'd been in London, where summer apparently started quite well but faltered badly. Even a nonexistent summer would have been better than the perfidious combination of heat and humidity that passed for summer in New York. Still, at least I didn't spend it in my other home-away-from-home, Japan. A friend has just now written that Tokyo had its hottest summer in 113 years, with 48 "tropical" nights.

But now that the end is in sight — Labor Day, YES!!! — I'm switching over to a practical state of mind. Time to think up some scorched-earth tactics for dealing with this kind of scorcher in future (as scorchers are predicted to become the norm). Drawing on my years of adapting to other countries' climates, I'd like to offer offer three suggestions for beating off the next heat wave:

1) Beat a hasty retreat to the mountains (so much healthier these days than the seashore). I have just now tested this idea by spending the final week of Summer 2010 in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It's hot up here, too, but at least you can plunge into the nearest mountain stream, river, or lake for instant relief, or run into a forest for shade. Plus the psychological benefits of gazing into crystal-clear waters are enormous after a summer that has been dominated by the devastating news of the oil spill in the Gulf. And fellow elephant seekers, please take note: New England offers the challenge of trying to spot yet another ungainly but majestic animal: the North American moose (Alces alces). We've had the good fortune of seeing three since our arrival — much to the delight of our two canines ...

2) Dance in a circle to the beat of taiko drums. Many Americans are familiar with the Mexican "Day of the Dead." Well, the Japanese have a version, too. It's called Obon and takes place in the dead of summer (mid-August), when even the living are half-dead because of the onslaught of what the Japanese call mushi-atsui conditions (if "mushi" isn't an onomatopoeia, I don't know what is). As the climate of the U.S. East Coast resembles that of Honshu Island, I propose we start up our own Obon celebrations. Being Americans, perhaps we can skip the part about our ancestors coming back to life and think of it simply as "The Day of the Living Dead." The focus could be on the Bon Odori: the custom of heading to a local park, garden, shrine, or temple, wearing yukata (summer kimono), and dancing around a yagura stage to the rhythm of taiko drums. Even if you don't join in the circle, just hearing the drumbeat can be revitalizing, getting one's blood flowing again. If you're lucky, it will keep your brain alive until summer finally ends...

3) Try beating other bloggers in the race to upload photos showing how much you are suffering, in the certain knowledge it will make them happy (misery adores company). For me, one of the greatest comforts of the past summer lay in reading other expats' blogs and seeing that the grass wasn't any greener (on the contrary, it was browner) elsewhere in the world. Here are three examples:

SUMMER IN SHANGHAI: Blogger Kristin Bair O'Keeffe entertained us with stories of how the Shanghainese handled a summer where temperatures soared as high as 40C (104F), a record. According to her report, men tend to rub their bellies while saying how hot it is, while women employ a variety of methods to make sure the sun never touches their skin, from parasols to sun sleeves and capes.

SUMMER IN MOSCOW: Jennifer Eremeeva uploaded this view from her Moscow apartment as evidence that the sufferings of Moscow residents at the hands of Russia's record heat wave had not been exaggerated. Carbon monoxide levels rose to at least six times the maximum acceptable level, as hundreds of wildfires raged across the country, some very near the capital.

SUMMER IN DOHA: On July 14, when Doha recorded 50.4C (122.7F), its highest temperature in four decades, expat Sybil Knox decided it was time to try baking chocolate chip cookies in a tray on the dashboard of her car. Hey, if life gives you blazing desert sun, try some cooking experiments ... Her blog post was picked up by the Qatari Daily Gulf Times.

Question: How did you survive the Summer 2010 — got any good stories to share, or heat-beating advice to impart?
Note to expat bloggers: Do you have a photo of summer 2010 in your neck of the woods to contribute to the above collection? Please e-mail me at


Sybil K said...

Hot was definitely this summer's theme, but what would we talk about if we didn't have all those record breaking temperatures?! Those car baked cookies gave me ten minutes of fame in Qatar, but I suspect that you could do the same in NYC (and make a fortune selling them!). Here's to cooler days ahead ;)

Peter said...

Just imagine what it was like before air conditioning [shudder]. At least in NY the subway is conditioned, unlike most of the London Underground.

Amber said...

Wow, in Paris, it honestly feels like summer never happened and we simply skipped over to Fall. We've had a only a few days of real heat in the past couple months. Actually, I've been complaining about the lack of heat but maybe I should just appreciate the moderate temps.

By the way, I loved tip number 3 - you had me laughing out loud!

ML Awanohara said...

@Sybil K: You are right, had I been more enterprising, I could have given the Greenmarket people in nearby Union Square a run for their money. (You Texans have true grit!)

@Peter: Yes, I can't imagine anything worse that being in the London underground during a heat wave. That's if it's running, of course. One of yesterday's pix of the day in the NYT's Lens blog, was of commuters crowding around a bus trying to find a way to get to work. It brought back memories of many miserable moments at the hands of striking workers in the UK. (I identify with the look on that woman's face!) Even when you sympathize with the workers's cause, it's really not fun.

@Amber: So you don't like my idea of starting up a "Day of the Living Dead"? Now that you mention it, I see that there's been a lot of complaining about the (lack of) summer weather on the Paris blogs. One woman wrote excitedly of an Indian summer in September--but then by the time she posted, it was over! Must have been similar to London... All I can say to all of you is: stop whinging and count your blessings. No summer is infinitely more preferable than being boiled alive, so to speak.

HyunSook Yun said...

Mushi-atsui is definitely a right word to describe Summer in Japan. I think "mushi" comes from a verb "musu" meaning "to heat (cook) with steam" or "to steam."

For me, most difficult part of steamy and hot Summer is to cook, especially dinner, at home.
I want to avoid the heated kitchen as possible as I can. So I look a simple recipe that requires no heating.

An easy and tasty fruit salad is a must-eat Summer food. One of my favorite recipes is fig-salad by Jamie Oliver - I think you also like his recipes, right? Figs are delicious and nutritious, and they are in season from July to August in Japan. The fig-salad was/is/will be our regular Summer dinner dish and we never got tired of it.
Here is the recipe of the sexist and easiest salad in the world. Give it a try!

ML Awanohara said...

@HyunSook: Thanks for pointing out what a struggle it can be to prepare daily meals when you yourself are steaming alive. I tend to make lots of Greek salads, esp once the Heirloom tomato season starts. I just now took a look at the Jamie Oliver recipe you recommended (yes, I am a fan of his--have signed the petition supporting his Food Revolution USA). What a gorgeous photo! Definitely seductive... I love figs and all the other ingredients; can't wait to give it a try!

awindram said...

The town banned me from leaving the house during the summer months. Apparently the thought of seeing my pasty, hairy legs in shorts was too much for the city council to bear. Now I'm finally allowed to go outside.

ML Awanohara said...

@awindram: That's why the Japanese invented the yukata robe--so people could go out in the summer without worrying about showing their legs! What's more, a single piece of cotton fabric is one of the coolest things you can wear...

May I suggest that you invest in one (long type, not the happi coat or jinbei). I wouldn't recommend the geta or the tabi, however, as they take some getting used to (bit of a balancing act), and the authorities might decide to lock you up if you appear even more discombobulated than you already are!

Also, should you ever decide to throw care to the winds and don a pair of shorts during California summers, be careful to avoid Japantown. I recall an occasion when my cousin, a flamenco dancing expert, gave a demo to my officemates in Tokyo, and one of the foreign men who attended decided to drop trou (we were all much relieved to see he was wearing shorts). For weeks afterwards, several of my Japanese women colleagues talked not about his act of stripping down (they were okay with that) but about the sight of his white hairy legs--they'd found it traumatizing in the extreme.

awindram said...

A yukata would certainly make a change from my usual look of chinos and a shirt. Probably could get away with it wearing it in San Fran, not sure about outside of the Bay Area though. :D

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe said...

Here in Shanghai, it's still hot. Hot with a capital "H." And many women are still carrying sunbrellas and wearing sunsleeves. The weatherman has promised a bit cooling later this week...pretty sure everyone in Shanghai is ready. Fingers crossed.

ML Awanohara said...

@Kristen: Apparently, Tokyoites are still suffering, too. My husband's cousin has just reported that even though September is more than halfway finished, Tokyo is still having days when the morning temperature is 28C (82F) and afternoon 35C (95F). How can people be expected to resume their normal schedules under such conditions? If these trends continue, winter will become the new summer, and summer will be one long obon (night of the living dead)!

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