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Killer Air

Wrap up your necks before the air conditioning gets you

When asked for a clear-cut example of the difference between American and French culture, most people tend to gravitate towards a difference in politics, gastronomy, or romantic customs. But I think of central air and heat.

Sure, some big-city dwellers in places like New York and San Francisco are the exception to this rule, but a big chunk of American households have a thermostat that sends either perfectly-chilled or toasty air blasting out through vents in each room. As a Midwesterner, I grew up with this, not only in my home but in every other building I ever entered. The harsh winter months in Missouri were nothing to fear because you could simply crank up the heat to your liking in your home or car, and the stifling heat of summer was tamed by icey AC. In a way, the weather meant nothing… it was simply something to tolerate while walking from a building to your car and vice versa.

But those gusts of tempered air that were the constant white noise of my upbringing are not only considered foreign to my French counterparts. They’re dangerous.

A lot of French people think that air conditioning will kill you.

Not immediately, of course. But slowly and stealthily. And by attacking the most vulnerable - according to the French - part of the human body: the neck and throat.

A lot of French people think that exposing your neck to cold air will kill you. Your neck gets cold, your throat gets a tickle, your nose starts running, and then, BAM. Dead. This is why we think of the French as scarf wearers. Not because of fashion, per se. The French wear scarves to stay alive. That’s not the only way they deal with changing temps, however.

Many a French home features radiators, not central heat, that keeps things toasty in the winter (but braving the elements to catch your freezing-cold bus or metro is an entirely different thing). And because of the usually-clement climate throughout France, air conditioning isn’t actually needed. Even in the dead of summer in the south of France, soaring temperatures are dealt with by running errands or being outside only in the morning and evening, taking a nap in the afternoon, and cooling your home by opening and closing shutters at strategic times during the day.

In the face of global warming, I applaud these energy-efficient choices. Even though it seems as though the infamous canicule - that’s French for heatwave - takes the country by storm more and more often with each passing summer, I still understand why it doesn’t make sense to have air conditioning in places where it would only be used a few weeks a year.

But, well, most Americans beg to differ. And in the not-so-distant past when we could still travel trans-Atlantically, perhaps the scariest thing to French tourists visiting the United States besides the prospect of being shot, getting fat, or receiving a thousand-dollar bill for an unexpected visit to the emergency room was la clim’.

French friends have spoken to me, wide-eyed, of the horrendous AC on New York City subways. Former French lovers who have traveled home with me have insisted on eating outside in 90-degree weather to avoid the scratchy throat and goosebumps that would result from la climatisation inside a restaurant.

This fear makes it dead easy to spot a French person when at the airport or any tourist destination. Look for the people who, indoors or outdoors, always have a scarf wrapped around their necks to protect them from the killer air. And a little sweater tied around their shoulders. And a jacket, just in case.

In the winter, this strong reaction to inside temperatures is no better. Perfectly sane French people will speak with conviction about the fact that the heater dries out sinuses, dries out your precious throat, and is likely the root cause of all American ills.

The thing is… they’re probably right. Not only is it better for your body to adjust and experience every season (within reason), but it’s definitely better for the environment. But what strikes me is how differently the French and Americans not only perceive the idea of central air and heat, but how they actually experience it. I have seen French people get sick from not keeping their throats wrapped up when exposed to cold air. But I’ve also met Americans grow faint in the sweltering heat, unable to function in a world without AC, or be bedridden for a week for not properly dressing (and wrapping up their necks) in the winter.

I’ve experienced it all. I’ve been the American schvitzing my way across 30-degree Celsius Paris, complaining that the city in summer was unbearable. And I’ve been the person wrapping up my exposed neck and rolling my eyes due to greedy Americans and their constant battle with the elements. In the end, I think your bodily reaction to la clim’ - or the lack thereof - shows that it’s less about the actual science and more about the mental constructs and customs that we adhere to.

I would wax poetic on what other subjects we could apply such a thought to. But it’s already 80 out today, and it’s too hot to think.


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