Expat Chronicles: Air Conditioning

My first trip to London was a couple of summers ago. The plane arrived on a glorious July day, with clear skies, temps around 80 and a slight breeze in the air. After a long cab ride from Heathrow to our hotel in Canary Wharf, I dropped off my stuff and lit out to see the city.

I took the tube to London Bridge station, crossed the Tower Bridge by foot and walked all the way down to the Westminster area, following the Thames. The weather was perfect. Even though it was hot by London standards, it felt refreshing to someone who just arrived from the sweltering, 95ish humidity of North Carolina.

I’d always heard London weather was pretty lousy – rainy, windy, rarely warm, often miserable. But not this day.

It didn’t take long for things to return to normal. A day later, London got the weather I’d expected: rainy, windy, 60 degrees, miserable. No more long walks along the Thames. I sought indoor fun instead. At one shop I stopped into, the cashier said, “Y’alright?” and I said, “Yep I’m fine, how are you?” and she said, “Lovely, nice to have proper London weather back again, innit?”

I wanted to say, “Huh? Are you out of your mind? The weather sucks today. Yesterday it was sunny and warm. Today it’s rainy and windy and cold and miserable.”

But I just nodded, smiled and went on my way.

It’s two years later now. We’ve been living in London for about 19 months. It’s 90 degrees outside now, and sunny. Hot, you’d call it.

I now understand what that cashier was talking about.

The reason I understand is because I know something now that I didn’t know then, and it’s this: London does not believe in air conditioning.

A study done about a decade ago found that less than 1% of homes in the UK have A/C. That compares with more than 75% of homes in the U.S. The UK percentage has probably gone up over the last 11 years, but not by much.

When it’s hot outside in London, it’s even hotter inside. There’s no escaping it. It follows you around everywhere. You don’t have air conditioning, so you stay hot. That’s how someone can look at 60 degrees and rainy as a nice July day. I didn’t realize this on my trip a couple of years ago because we were staying in an air-conditioned hotel.

I finally realized it last year, during our first summer living in London. It happened to be one of the hottest, driest summers ever. The first day that temps creeped up above 75 Fahrenheit I went to find the air conditioning thermostat in our townhome, only to learn that there was no air conditioning in our townhome. There’s no air conditioning in just about all the homes.

That’s not just a UK thing, either. It’s a Europe thing. We traveled to Paris that summer, as well as Strasbourg, Zurich and Milan. Beautiful cities. Very hot temperatures. Very little air conditioning.

Being an American, I thought this bordered on the insane. It was 2018. Air conditioning had been available on a mass scale in the States for six decades or so. How come Europe lagged so far behind?

It wasn’t just because Europe is full of old, pre-A/C buildings. Plenty of modern homes and businesses have been built over the last 30 years or so – including our townhome – and they don’t have A/C, either. Even new apartment buildings being built today don’t have it. Many offices have it, but not many apartment buildings.

I decided, early on, that the lack of A/C in Europe must be a cultural thing. Recent research has confirmed that suspicion.

Most Europeans don’t believe in air cooled by a machine. In fact, they look down on it. They say it’s bad for the environment. They say it’s too cold. They say it’s an American thing, and that Americans are just too soft and/or spoiled to suffer through a little heat every now and then. German government agencies dissuade developers from installing A/C in new buildings by refusing to offer subsidies to those that do.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the politics of air conditioning. Yes, it’s not great for the environment, but it’s much less harmful than other emissions, like those that come from cars or factories. New technologies are being developed that make A/C more environmentally friendly. New building materials are making homes less dependent on climate control. Steps are being taken, and that’s a good thing.

But A/C still isn’t catching on across the pond. Many Europeans visit the States and are horrified by how cold the hotel rooms are, apparently unaware that you can adjust the thermostat higher or just turn the damn thing off.

I will say this: It’s pretty easy to criticize air conditioning when you don’t live where temperatures hover around 90 degrees for months at a time, with no relief. London’s average high temperature in July is 74 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a Google search (first page, top graphic). In Berlin, it’s 76. In Copenhagen, it’s 71. In Stockholm, it’s 75.

Here are some average July highs in the States:

  • Houston: 91
  • Miami: 87
  • Washington, DC: 89
  • Las Vegas: 107
  • Phoenix: 106
  • Atlanta: 89
  • St. Louis: 90
  • Philadelphia: 89
  • San Bernadino: 96

If you don’t know the difference between 75 degrees and 90 degrees, step inside an air conditioned room sometime. Then step outside to the 90-degree heat and humidity.

I’ve lived without A/C before. During the late 1980s I rented an apartment at an old building in Charlotte with no central A/C and no window unit. I spent one sweltering summer either trying to sleep on the bare wooden floor by the open screen door or calling friends in the middle of the night to see if I could come crash with them. You couldn’t sleep. You couldn’t relax. You couldn’t think straight. You hated the thought of cooking because it just added another layer of heat. You spent your days splashing your sweaty face with tap water. I finally broke down and bought a little window unit because my landlord was too GD cheap to buy one herself.

(Speaking of which: you can’t put window units in most of the London apartments I’ve seen because the windows open outward rather than up and down. Which means you can’t even put screens on the windows when you need to open them to let air pass through. So the open windows have no screens, allowing bugs to flit in and out at their leisure. We’ve even had a bird fly in).

Meanwhile, the world is getting hotter. This is scientific fact. The reason I know it’s fact is because so many people with a vested interest in it not being fact keep calling it fiction.

Europe and the UK are ill-equipped to deal with it. We’ve had a couple summers of record highs over in this part of the world. The incidences of heat stroke and heat-related illness have risen along with the temperatures. It can get well above 100 in some of the subway trains. Lots of people are suffering.

Many Europeans frown on A/C, but watch how many of them scramble into air-conditioned malls or grocery stores when the temps creep above 90. See them take 25 minutes to buy a can of Heinz beans and a loaf of bread.

I don’t know what the UK and Europe plan to do about it. I do know that in hot parts of the world with growing middle classes, like India, more homeowners are getting air conditioning. That’s the way technology and evolution work. When humans see a problem, they try to overcome it. Human nature.

I know what our family did about it. We bought a couple of small, portable air conditioners that come with long hoses you stick out the window. They do a pretty good job of cooling things down to a tolerable level.

If you’re waiting for me to feel bad about that, you’ll be waiting a long time.

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