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A temperature reading of 46 degrees Celsius in Rome on 18 July 2023 Domenico Stinellis/AP/Alamy

'Like opening an oven': Irish people in European heatwave recount 'unrelenting' heat

European countries have been hit over the last week by the Cerberus heatwave, with temperatures in the high 30s and 40s.

“YOU WANT TO have your nice sun holiday but after a certain point, it’s just too extreme.”

European countries have been hit over the last week by the Cerberus heatwave, which has brought oppressively high temperatures in the 30s and 40s. 

The heatwave follows a record-hot start to July as the World Meteorological Organisation confirmed that the beginning of the month was the hottest week globally in modern records.

A spell of warm weather in the summer is often appreciated but excessively high temperatures bring risks like heat stroke, dehydration and wildfires.

The Journal spoke to nine people from Ireland who are living abroad or on holiday in countries where the temperatures have soared over the last week.

Some found the heat more bearable than others but all have adopted various strategies to try to cope with the heat, from staying indoors and abstaining from cooking hot food to cooling clothes down in a freezer and planning to move to a cooler country.

For workers, a lack of air conditioning in older apartment buildings in city centres was raised frequently as a contributing factor to struggles with the heat. Several people described seeing people in cities fainting or throwing up due to the heat. 

Some of those we spoke to raised their own concerns about climate change, pointing to the intense heat as a worrying reminder of the conditions that are likely to become more common and more disruptive in the years to come.

0af4eda155d546f8914e93baf733cce0 A fire burns trees next to a road near the village of Agia Sotira outside Athens Thanassis Stavrakis / AP/PA Thanassis Stavrakis / AP/PA / AP/PA

Patrick, who lives in Verona, is spending the summer near Palermo in Sicily and got married earlier this month – “luckily, the week before the heat struck”.

He said the family is keeping doors and windows closed during the day to keep the heat out before opening them up in the evening to try to get some air.

“We have a 20-month-old and keeping him entertained inside is the tough bit,” Patrick said.

“This evening we set up an inflatable pool under some shade so the plan is to get him into that during the day and plenty of water. Not much else one can do though apart from hide. There is no acclimatising to it, Italians are struggling too.”

Elsewhere in Italy, Jane and her partner Cormac, from Galway and Leitrim, are living in Florence, where temperatures have hovered up around 38 and 39 degrees. The city is located in a valley and gets little breeze, according to Jane.

“We get up quite early to try to avoid the sun and then we have what’s called a riposo, it’s like an Italian siesta. Then we’ll leave the house again once it’s cooled down at about seven or eight o’clock, but between one o’clock or even two o’clock and six, it’s just absolutely the height of heat, we just can’t leave the house at all. If we do leave the house, we’ll be sticking to the shade.

It’s fairly roasting. Everyone’s showering once or twice a day. We’ve all got our factor 50 on and we’ve got mosquito spray because the river goes through Florence and anywhere near the river is really bad for mosquitoes and with the heat, it made it even worse.”

Like others suffering from the heat, their apartment does not have air conditioning.

“Instead we have three fans on the go. We’re actually sleeping in our sitting room right now. We’re not sleeping in the bedroom because it’s too hot, and we put our T-shirts for bed in the freezer, we wet them a little bit and we put them in the freezer before we go to bed. That’s been really helpful.”

Cormac works in an Irish bar, where Jane says a lot of Irish tourists and others are coming in for the air conditioning – “including myself!”

“There are lots of restaurants and cafes that have air conditioning but they’re usually packed to the gills with people.

“Definitely Irish people are suffering in the heat and it’s important to remind people to always stay hydrated, and if people are drinking alcohol in the sun, to remember that it hits them a lot harder than when drinking not in the sun.”

rome-italy-16-july-2023-an-ambulance-in-piazza-del-popolo-to-treat-people-with-heat-exhaustion-on-another-sweltering-day-with-high-temperatures-in-rome-the-italian-health-ministry-has-issued-a-r An ambulance in Piazza del Popolo, Rome to treat people with heat exhaustion on 16 July 2023 Amer Ghazzal / Alamy Live News Amer Ghazzal / Alamy Live News / Alamy Live News

Larry and his partner have just returned home from a holiday in Sardinia, an Italian island that has been one of the worst-affected locations during the heatwave, where they saw the temperature reach up to 41 degrees and the UV index climb to 11 – a warning level indicating a very high risk of harm from sun exposure.

“I usually cycle everywhere but we had to have a car. The only way we managed to have a holiday was to drive everywhere and leave for a few minutes back and run back to the car,” Larry said – though opening the car after it was parked, even in the shade, was “like opening an oven”.

Larry’s partner had attended a work conference the week before, which proved challenging for attendees wearing formal wear in the hot weather.

As the temperatures climbed during their holiday, even the host at their accommodation, a life-long local, told Larry he was struggling with the heat. On the last day before their flight home, the couple spent time waiting in a museum with air conditioning because of the intense heat outside. 

Meanwhile, Spain issued red alerts for extreme heat in three regions on Tuesday due to the temperatures, with weather agency AEMET warning that the country has experienced “above-normal” temperatures nearly every day of July so far.

Since Saturday, firefighters on La Palma have been fighting a raging wildfire that has destroyed 3,500 hectares of land, burned down around 20 houses and buildings and forced 4,000 people to evacuate, though it appeared to be dying out by Tuesday evening.

John is originally from Coolock but has lived in Malaga for seven years, where he says the heat has become “unrelenting”. He intends to leave Spain due to the temperatures but cannot return to Ireland because of the cost of living.

We can’t even go to Mass in the early afternoon and must only go out at night.”

John said he now planning to move with his wife to Hungary, her home country.

“My bills have shot up. Other folks where we live in this gated community, which is full of Irish at the moment, keep their air conditioning on 24/7,” he said.

“I spoke to Spanish friends who don’t remember the heat as bad, although it’s always hot in July and August, but this is incredible. Having to sleep with a fan on beside me is a non-runner, so I will be an Irish climate refugee! I can’t go back to Ireland because the similar cost of living for us would be too much.”

several-people-refresh-themselves-and-refill-their-water-bottles-at-the-canaletas-fountain-on-july-18-2023-in-barcelona-catalonia-spain-thirteen-communities-continue-today-on-alert-for-very-hig People at the Canaletas fountain in Barcelona, Spain on 18 July 2023 Alamy Live News Alamy Live News

Geraldine is an Irish woman from Roscommon on holiday in Murcia on Spain’s Costa Blanca, where she described the heat as “stifling” but said they are fortunate to have access to a pool to bring some relief.

“We keep the blinds down so the sun doesn’t get into the apartment, so we’re living in partial darkness indoors in the daytime. We open the front door from time to time just to see if things have changed outside, but the stifling heat remains,” Geraldine said.

She said the outside door handle is too hot to touch directly and their rental car is “like getting into a hot sauna – it momentarily takes your breath away”.

“There’s nowhere to go really except the supermarket to stock up on food as the beach would be unbearably hot and the local town of Mazarron is out of bounds for the same reason.

“One of those holiday pleasures is eating outdoors in the evening, followed by a leisurely stroll on the corniche, but that is out of the question now,” Geraldine said.

At night time the air conditioning is running all the time and we’re hoping this system of staying cool doesn’t overheat and break down. We’re acutely aware of the high cost of using air conditioning for long spells, both environmentally and economically, but we have no choice.

“Not the break we had hoped for but we feel very lucky to have a pool nearby, an apartment with air conditioning, and lots of books to read.”

Not far away is Maria, who is a retiree who has been living in Torrevieja with her husband for almost 20 years. Maria prefers the warm weather to Irish rain but said that it’s important to take care.

This time of the year, we don’t even walk far. If we’re going shopping, normally we walk, but now we go in the car and we don’t carry back anything. If we’re going for a meal or something, it’s never very far away.”

Maria and her husband have access to a pool that they use during the day and are drinking an “enormous” amount of water, as well as making salads and gazpacho instead of hot food and having cold showers and fans on during the night.

She said that temperatures in the 30s are typical in their part of Spain in July or August, though the humidity this year has made it feel particularly hot.

a-brown-bear-enjoys-an-ice-cream-of-different-fruits-to-combat-the-high-temperatures-of-a-heat-wave-at-the-zoo-aquarium-on-july-13-2023-in-madrid A brown bear is fed fruit in a block of ice at a zoo in Madrid on 13 July 2023 Gonzalez Oscar / Alamy Gonzalez Oscar / Alamy / Alamy

In the inland Spanish capital of Madrid is Jane, who has been living in the city for several years and is 27 weeks pregnant – “it doesn’t make it any easier”, she said.

Jane said the intense heat is very uncomfortable and doesn’t bring the same novelty for workers as it might for tourists.

“The downside to being in Madrid is it’s not near the beach but it is a bit drier because it’s not as humid, so that makes it a little bit more bearable,” Jane said. “We have a pool in our building, but with work and stuff, you don’t really use it.

“I work from home. We don’t have any air conditioning, which is not easy,” Jane said. 

Jane and her husband, who grew up in Madrid, moved to the city around three and a half years ago. “He does find it hot [but] he bears it better than I do!”

“We try to get out in the morning for a walk because it’s a little bit cooler around 7 or 8 am. From 9 am, the sun is starting to come up, so you start to feel the heat more.”

Spain temperatures Highest temperatures recorded in Spain on 17 July 2023 AEMET AEMET

Further north, Rachael is living and working in Berlin, where temperatures are lower than in more southerly countries like Spain and Italy but still reached 35 degrees at the weekend. Rachael was also on holiday last week in the south of France, which was “ferociously hot”.

In Berlin, Rachael’s apartment, like many of the older buildings in the city, does not have air conditioning.

“It is very stifling. I was sitting at my desk, fanning myself with a physical fan I bought in Spain as a child on holiday,” Rachael said, adding that the lack of air conditioning in older buildings is “a hurdle that a lot of people are struggling to overcome”.

Even on public transport, when people are all packed into the trains together, it can be quite claustrophobic.”

On her holiday in France, she was applying Factor 50 suncream regularly but still got sunburnt. “In that level of heat, you’re sweating off the sun protection faster than you can reapply it.”

“You want to have your nice sun holiday but after a certain point, it’s just too extreme.”

Also in Berlin is Conor, a Donegal native who is based in London but working in the German capital for the summer for the second consecutive year.

He said Berlin is “definitely not a city that’s built for this kind of heat”.

“It’s a big city of glass and concrete. There’s just no escape from it. The office is hot, the apartment is boiling, and there’s no air conditioning,” he said.

Temperatures have fallen to the mid 20s in Berlin this week but the weekend high was “unbearable”, he said.

“From talking to the locals, they definitely say that that’s not normal… Nobody wants to leave the house and that kind of weather.

“I live in London normally and we’ve got these crazy heat waves these last couple of years. You can really tell the city is not built for it. Berlin is not built for it. I think in Ireland we have this sense that sure, we wouldn’t mind a couple of extra degrees on top of what we get in the summer, but I think we’ll regret that because our cities are definitely not built for it either.

Everything is built to keep heat in, not built to keep heat out. If this is what Ireland is going to be like in 10 years’ time or 20 years’ time, we’re going to seriously, seriously struggle with it.

He said the heatwave raises concerns about climate change and the risks that come with higher temperatures.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow but if we keep going the way we’re going, if Dublin has 36-degree heat in the summer on the regular or Galway or Cork, it’s going to be hellish. That’s what I would be worried about.

“We have to tackle climate change but also the damage in terms of increased temperatures in the next couple of decades is probably done, so we also have to start thinking about how we manage that heat, like retrofitting buildings not only to keep heat in but to keep heat out.

“It’s scary because I don’t think we’re doing anywhere near enough to tackle it.”

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