Paris in a heat wave

Do you know what’s worse than having no air conditioner during a heat wave? It’s having an air conditioner than doesn’t work. Right now there’s a heat wave in parts of western and southern Europe because some or other weather circumstance over the Atlantic is drawing in hot air from North Africa, and all over the place pallid Europeans are throwing off their hoodies and jerseys and traipsing barefoot through public parks and throwing their girlfriends romantically into fountains, but I am just a boy in a rented apartment, standing in front of an AC unit, asking it to work.

There is something particularly frustrating about a broken air conditioner in Europe, because the Europeans are very skilled at gaslighting you. In Istanbul last year, during a heat wave, I called the superintendent of my building, a man who spoke perfect English until the time came for him to fix something. He stood in the lounge, looking puzzled, watching me jab a broom at the offending unit, then pointing to my sweaty brow, trying to decipher what I could possibly be saying.

Finally he stood in front of the vent, holding up his hand to the non-existent cold air, then looked at me quizzically, as though to say, “This is working perfectly.” I shook my head and acted out dying pitifully in the desert. He nodded his head and wrapped his arms around his sweaty self and pretended to shiver. You can’t ever beat a Turkish maintenance man, although I was sorely tempted.

I am in a similar situation now. My air-con doesn’t work (and probably hasn’t for years, judging by the corroded batteries in the remote control) and my landlord is on the run somewhere, no doubt chuckling at all the electricity I am not using. I could go and work in a café but the cafes aren’t air-conditioned either, and I don’t like being harassed to buy things. Fortunately, I am a wily old traveler and know just what to do in these situations.

The thing to do is locate your nearest five-star hotel, preferably one with a pool, but at the very least a cool air-conditioned lobby with comfortable seats and good WiFi and a table at a good height. Checking your watch from time to time and looking around as though waiting for someone who’s late, and just generally having about you the air of a chap who is used to hanging out in swanky joints is usually enough to secure you an untroubled day’s work in pleasantly cool and hushed surroundings, without chatter and sweat and noisy espresso machines. But from time to time you have to brazen it out.

I’m currently doing my day’s work at the Grand Hyatt until the weather breaks, and there is a splendid little work room just off the lobby, with a water cooler and a coffee dispenser and a small bar fridge topped up from time to time with fruit juices and fizzy drinks by a smiling attendant. From time to time I sidle into the lobby proper and have one of those complimentary glasses of welcoming champagne off the silver tray. As a work-space shelter from the heat, I am prepared to give this a good rating on TripAdvisor, but yesterday, as I was settling down to some noodling on the keyboard, some chap in a sharp suit came to the door and eyed me suspiciously.

“Have you booked this room?” he asked.

Confidence is everything in these situations.

“Yes,” I said loftily. “I have a meeting starting at half-past.”

He put his hands on his hips, and pulled back his jacket. A man wearing a suit jacket in a heat wave is a serious customer.

“Really?” he said. “What’s your name?”

I hesitated, and he pounced on this.

“You haven’t booked this room,” he said, “because I have booked this room.”

“Have you?” I said, stalling for time.

“I have,” he said. “What’s your room number?”

He didn’t say that in a friendly maybe-I’ll-drop-by-later-for-a-drink sort of way.

“Oh,” I said. “Maybe I booked the other room.”

“Maybe you did,” he said, and I saw from his tone that he had rumbled me for the chancer I am.

He stood watching me as I gathered my things, feigning nonchalance and slipping away like a thief in the night. Oh, it’s difficult for me to relay this tale to you, for I am a man who prizes his air of savoire faire, who fancies he knows his way around the world, but that encounter unnerved me. Gah, what a niggardly churl I was, what a tightwad, what a nipfarthing clutchfist, what a cheese-paring nickel-nurser, what a pinch-penny scrooge. As with so many of many of our dearest personality traits, they only become embarrassing when other people know about them.

I skulked off to some local café where I had to sweat and buy things while I brooded on my humiliation. And then, walking home to my apartment, I happened to pass another sidewalk café and my humiliation was complete, because there was that guy in the sharp suit again, but he was sitting back, drinking a beer, jacket over the back of his chair, reading the newspaper with the air of a fellow who has finished a day’s work and is about to go home for dinner. But on closer inspection, the suit wasn’t quite as sharp as I first thought, and why was he carrying that slightly shabby backpack?

And I know this was pure projection, but as he read the paper it seemed to me he had the look on his face of a man reflecting with satisfaction about a day in which with superior confidence and savoire-faire, he managed to out-bluff a fellow bluffer. And I was tempted to go up to him and say, “Say, what’s your room number?” But I didn’t, because I already knew.

Times, 26 June 2019