Floundering in a holiday heatwave

New Zealand is an astoundingly temperate country. Setting aside recent freak (but still troubling) weather happenings, across the entire country and on any day through the whole year, you'll most likely come up against weather ranging from the high single-digits at the lowest, through to maybe the mid-20s.

Our hot days just aren't that hot, in the greater scheme of things. Our cold fronts are pretty minor. It's downright pleasant.

I was thinking about this the past few days as I tried to keep myself from losing my mind during a California heatwave.

Part of our July 4 day plan was a trip to the idyllic Yuba River 10 minutes' drive from Nevada City. In the past week a severe heat warning has covered much of California. We drove up from Oakland on Wednesday night and when we arrived at 9.30pm it was 30 degrees outside. We'd had our air conditioning on for the first part of the trip and weren't keyed in to the soaring temperature as we drove north. About the time we hit Sacramento (the halfway point) LP put her hand out the window. I joined her. It was like putting my hand into the blast of a hair-dryer.

I'd had thoughts of reclining in the shade by a quiet river on July 4, enjoying my book in between intermittent, casual loafs through the cool water.

By the time we arrived on the day, at 2pm, it was 36 degrees. I do not handle heat well. You'd probably be alarmed if you saw how I melt under the glare of high temperature. It's something I inherited from my father. We Robinson men are sweaty.

We parked near the bridge in the river canyon. In this heat, we were not the only ones with the bright idea to go swimming. The two swimming areas closest to the road were infested with people. We hiked a few minutes upstream and climbed down to the river. Heat like this dries your skin out quickly. There was dust everywhere. Down by the river there was little shade to go around. Everything had been baked in the sun. Touching uncovered flesh to rocks or sand was horrific, like submitting yourself to a hotplate. Within 15 minutes of arriving I resembled the physical embodiment of a puddle. The (unusually warm) water offered some respite, but there was little lolling about and casual relaxing.

The heat was unrelenting and fierce. I doused myself in sunscreen with the abandon of a man trying to paint a house. I still returned burnt. At 5pm, back in town, it was still mentally draining to be outside.

When the temperatures reach the high 30s I can't really enjoy myself. I think I need to treat it the same way I do a rainy day, in future. The extreme warmth warps my will to live.

The only hotter days I've had than this were in Washington DC in mid-2011. On one of these days I had a 5.30pm meeting and after spending the day in 42-degree heat I had to stop off on the way to buy a new shirt. But then trying to find my way after that and getting lost, I still arrived drenched in sweat.

I'm better with the extreme cold than I am with the heat. It makes for some nice symmetry in my marriage, because LP can sometimes lose her usually steady calm when the temperature falls drastically. The cold focuses me. It makes me feel alert.

I take some pride in having survived two New England winters. Our first winter there ran close to being the snowiest winter on record. A few times we went without power during heavy snowfall. The snow banks on the side of the road were about seven feet tall by the end of the season. There's really only two unpleasant things about the New England winter (provided that you layer correctly); the fact that snow in an urban setting serves as a visible memory for month's worth of filth (garbage, dog pee, cigarette ash, etc) and that when the weather starts to warm up and the snow banks melt, it leaves dark, icy cold puddles of water everywhere that are often impossible to avoid stepping in.

The irony of this to me, then, is that while New Zealand is so temperate, its winters are interminable to live through. In Boston, the temperature outside could regularly hit negative 10 or 15, but inside we would be walking about in T-shirts. Our well-insulated apartment, with its double-pane windows, kept in warmth so well that we would have to run the heater in bursts to prevent overcooking ourselves. A trip to the shops or a walk to catch the train could be bracing, but in the safety of home you were golden.

LP's and my last home in Wellington was a newish apartment on The Terrace. We moved in at the beginning of September 2008. The living room was ringed with windows. The summer was glorious. But come winter, those windows served to leak out any heat we generated inside. We slept in our clothes more often than not. The evening when I was home alone and the heater broke was about the sorriest I've ever felt for myself.   

So maybe while New Zealand gets the milder temperatures, as long as the homes are so badly insulated, it has the worse end of the stick.

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