Old people are dropping like flies throughout Southern Europe from the extreme heat wave that has been buffeting this part of the world. From Romania, Macedonia and Greece come daily the reports of people completely unprepared for the heat passing out and some of them dying. It reminds me of the summer back in the late 90’s when I was in college and the temperatures throughout France and England were topping 100 on a daily basis and people were succumbing to heat stroke. It’s hot here in Istanbul. The temperature for the past three days has risen into the mid 90’s and as high as 100. Making it far worse, however, is that it has also been quite hazy and the haze traps the heavy air pollution from a city of 12,000,000 that really doesn’t care all that much about the environment. Istanbul exists in a sort of bubble immune from the corrosive action of PC campaigns. Istanbullus, for instance, never take a holiday from smoking, no matter how hot it gets. They buy small bottles of water for a half lira a piece and then throw them out on the street when they are done. I buy these bottles sometimes, though a I die a little bit inside every time I do, thinking of the neverending pile of plastic rubbish growing in the world’s landfills. I also try to expiate my sin by refilling the bottle from water cooler at work rather than just buying another one.
Its not as hot here in Istanbul, though, because the city is so thoroughly surrounded by water. John Freely, on the first page of his masterly, “Strolling Through Istanbul” quotes a Byzantine poet who described the city as “surrounded by a garland of waters.” The currents and breezes created by Istanbul keep the city from absolutely baking. As does the fact that unlike New York, there is far less asphalt to trap the heat. It’s a good thing too because it hardly ever rains here in the summer time and almost no one has air conditioning.
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The lobby of English Time, the language school where I work, is really the only thoroughly air conditioned place that I experience throughout my day. Not the whole office, mind you, but only the lobby is air conditioned where prospective students come in and sit down to find out why they should learn English with English Time. The office is very impressive, actually. The buildings on Istiklal Cadessi (Independence Street), of which English Time is one, are mostly stately mansions. They are relics from the bygone days when Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman Empire and these gorgeous piles with the high, gilded ceilings and frescoes were the embassies of the richest nations on Earth lining the boulevard then called la Rue De La Pera. Now, of course, the capital is in Ankara, as are all of the embassies and the current inhabitants of these buildings are middling English Academies, restaurants, music shops and night clubs. Regardless of the current occupant, the office is impressive and each day, after slogging my way through the streets I sit quietly in the air conditioning until my body temperature returns to double digits.
I have browned considerably in the month that I have been in Istanbul and along with my manner of dress and my beard I am beginning to look like a Turk. I am actually flattered when Turkish people ask me questions in their language, not realizing that I am an American. They have one sure-fire way of telling that I am from the west, however; I sweat like a pig. I hate disgusting; I find it positively revolting. Yet everyday as I push my way through meandering crowds of people, trying to stay in the stripe of shade on the margins of Istiklal, I am pouring buckets of perspiration from my forehead. The Turks never sweat. I don’t know how they do it. They are just as heavily dressed as I am and yet they walk around looking cool and composed when the sun is blaring down on them like a malevolent finger of God.
I appreciate air conditioning in a completely new way, living here in Istanbul. My mother always keeps her house frigid with central air conditioning from mid-May through October. I used to hate it because I would walk around with a constant chill around my ribs but now I yearn for the blessed Freon cool of her house. Still, I’m here for the summer and I have to deal with the heat so I have approached staying cool in a number of ways.
For one thing I choose my routes through the city based on the angle of the sun. I avoid long walks through open spaces where the sun strikes my forehead full force until I beg for mercy. I choose narrow streets with tall buildings and walk on the shady side of the street. I also take frequent breaks when climbing up hills or walking longer distances.
I wear light colored shirts and when possible, light colored pants. I can’t wear shorts to work but I find that even if I could, light pants tend to reflect and diffuse heat better than my own bare legs. I do wear sandals to work, which is a necessity in a city as roughly cobbled as Istanbul. My footwear allows me to diffuse more heat from my body though after three weeks of not wearing socks and shoes, my feet are beginning to look like Frodo’s.
I drink a few gallons of water per day. That’s obvious but what is not so obvious is that I also drink a good amount of salt per day. Salt helps your body retain water and you lose lots of it when you sweat. A great source of salt is from drinking Ayran. Ayran is a Turkish drink made from yogurt that is like salty sour milk. It sounds disgusting and it is the first few times you drink it but it grows on you and it goes down very well with many local dishes. Ayran gives me my salt and keeps the benevolent bacteria in my gut happy,
I don’t get too close to people or stand in crowds. There are many benefits from avoiding proximity to other humans in hot weather. You are less likely to be robbed, for one thing. For another deodorant hasn’t exactly taken Istanbul by storm. The most relevant reason, however, is that crowds of people generate heat in a big way. It can actually be quite disgusting standing by the door at the ferry dock waiting for them to open up so we can board ship and get to the European side.
I also use every possible human convenience at my disposal. I have always prided myself on stair climbing and walking the streets of cities but when the temperature starts topping 90, I have to admit that I find myself lingering on escalators, elevators, trams, buses and funiculars. I like exercise but climbing Galata Hill in dress clothes on a 90 degree morning is an exercise in masochism.
I know that New York had a heat wave a few weeks back. I actually read an article on Yahoo the other day about buildings using ice blocks for cooling rather than AC because they are more efficient. I know that not every heat wave is necessarily a symptom of global warming but they do make you think about it. It seems ironic that what can be such a blessed comfort, air conditioning, is one of the contributors to climate change through Freon emissions and the use of energy. Still, living in Istanbul through a heat wave without air conditioning, I find the prospect of a world without AC eminently doable.