Friday, August 11, 2006


It's hot. Our semi-accurate outdoor thermometer reads exactly one hundred degrees. It probably isn't really that warm but it's close enough. Tonight's news will tell us what the real number is. They'll also mention that we are having an official heat wave - five or more days of temperatures above ninety degrees.

It will end soon. And it then, some day it will come again. We've been sweltering before. And we will be again.

Actually we like it hot - in fact we often go places, if not in search of extremely high temperatures, at least expecting to find them. Sultriness is a lot easier to take if you are expecting it, and know how to dress and drink for it.

On our first trip to West Texas we stayed at the resort town of Lajitas on the fringes of Big Bend National Park. The so-called main street of Lajitas is a replica of an old-west town. When it was built in the late sixties they had hoped to have it used as a set in Western movies - which stopped being made within weeks of the completion of the buildings.

Even though it was mid-September, we knew that it was going to be hot before we got there - it was in the nineties in El Paso when we flew into it, and pretty much the same temperature at our other stops, principally Marfa for our visit to the Chinati Art Foundation. And the Big Bend part of Texas just about always shows up as red or orange on those colored temperature maps that newspapers like to print nowadays.

But it would be a dry heat - humidity being at most a theoretical concept in that part of the country. We were told in Lajitas that when they talk about having six inches of precipitation it refers to the distance between the rapidly drying individual rain drops on the parched loose dirt that pretends to be soil down there. Fathers in that area talk about a rainstorm as being something that they hope their children get to see one day - even though they themselves never have.

When we got out of our air-conditioned car the heat wrapped itself around our bodies like one of those second skins that get shrink-wrapped to a car or truck to advertise something. And it stayed with us for our entire visit - only leaving us when we went inside one of the climate controlled buildings on the property.

So how hot was it?

There was a thermometer, in the shade, on the boardwalk in front of the Lajitas drug store. The round white dial with traditional black numbers had its needle pointing squarely at one hundred and ten degrees.

One hundred and ten degrees in the shade. And during the hours when it counted this was just about the only shade in town - and actually in pretty much all of the Big Bend area.

So we hydrated and hiked. The local water had an incredibly high chlorine odor and only slightly less offensive taste (which they unsuccessfully tried to cover with dozens of freshly cut lemons in each pitcher) but it was, we were told, perfectly safe. Bottled water was imported from the civilized part of the country and was priced to reflect the labor involved - so we drank quite a bit of the Atomic Number 17 chemical - with no ill effects. The desert into which we trekked every day had lots of sunniness and very little shadiness. Our liquid-intake to distance-hiked ratio might not have exactly averaged a liter per meter, but it was awfully close.

Mars and I were part of an Elderhostel studying the geography, paleontology and history of Big Bend National Park. While most of our group, ourselves included, dressed for the weather in short pants and sleeves - we looked very much like the summer edition of the LL Bean catalog - the natives covered pretty much all of their bodies except for their hands and faces. They contended that in the long run this was actually cooler than exposing our skin directly and repeatedly to the unremitting desert sun. One couple in our group bought into that approach and seemed quite comfortable in their LL Bean (or some such catalog) lightweight coverups. I myself had two long sleeve "expedition" shirts that I wore into the wasteland and they did the job for me when I alternated between sleeves up and sleeves down. But I wasn't able to convince myself to cover my legs, rationalizing that the sun's power was pretty depleted when it got down that low. Mars stuck to the short and short combo and felt cool but, particularly to me, looked quite hot.

We returned two years later on our own and found the chlorine content virtually nonexistent, but the heat and lack of shade just about the same. These Texas trips were the last time that we didn't entirely adhere to our basic travel tenet - to be truly comfortable, when in Rome, dress and drink like the Romans.


We noticed on our first European trip to the island country of Malta that the people in that part of the world dressed much more stylishly than we were used to seeing on the streets of the States. I can not remember seeing any jeans, or cutoffs or raggedy tee-shirts on anyone - Maltese or visitor - neither during the workday nor at night when seemingly the entire island strolled along the Strand that wove along the shore of the Mediterranean. We had heard this before we had left and clothed ourselves accordingly - although we did wear shorts on some of our longer al fresco outings because the temperatures proved to be considerably higher than we had been led to expect.

Malta was also our first exposure to European table waters - always bottled and always with the question "gas or no gas?" Not sure at first if carbonation went better with red or white meat we opted for the bubbly version with all of our meals - occasionally supplementing it with some not-too-bad local Maltese beer.

Our next Euro-visit was Barcelona where, because it was a major city, we assumed correctly that the day-to-day clothing norm would be a cut above the already high standard that we had experienced in Malta.

It was. And we were dressed for it having upgraded our globe-trotting gear by outfitting ourselves in mostly (you guessed it) LL Bean travel blazers and slacks. We also assumed that the temperature would be as predicted on Based on our Maltese experience we shouldn't have. It wasn't. Once again it was much hotter. We didn't dress for that.

We accepted the heat - what else could we do? Largely stuck to our apparel plan - what else did we have? A couple of times we felt quite warm - mostly we were comfortable. We felt just about always that we looked quite cool.

And we drank our "agua con gasso" plus a little lemon beer.

Then came Budapest - the hottest and the haute-est


The people of this city on the Danube, (at least those under the age of forty) perhaps in reaction to years of basic Communist couture - perhaps in recognition of their emerging position as a cosmopolitan center of Eastern Europe, were, on average, the most stylishly dressed populace we had come across in our admittedly less-than-worldwide travels. Especially the women. While we were not trying to outdo them on the high-fashion front we did find that out basic Barcelona duds easily withstood the even more rigorous style standards of that part of Eastern Europe.

In Budapest it took us a little longer to realize just how warm it really was. It was Fourth of July week which in the northeast corner of the United States is normally celebrated under hazy, hot, and humid conditions. But according to the average temperatures on, that part of Hungary at that time of year should have been in the high seventies - quite comfortable for the blazers and slacks that we brought and too cool for the shorts and tee shirts that we didn't. Not that we would have worn them anyway.

There were no incessantly shouting television meteorologists warning about "dangerously high heat indexes". And we were totally immersed in absorbing the sights and sounds of the street-life of the city. So, while we realized that we were warm, we didn't know to what degree until our third or fourth day when we finally saw an outdoor thermometer. At first glance forty degrees didn't look that bad - until Mars did the math: F = (Temperature Centigrade x 9/5) + 32 equals one hundred and four degrees.

Like West Texas it was more "air you can wear", plus humidity - a totally unexpected European heat wave.

English is the official language of Malta so our hydration requests were easily filled. In Barcelona the menus all had English language sections (point and pick) and we knew a few key phrases ("cerveza", "banos" and "agua con gasso"). But in Budapest they only speak Hungarian - to us a totally impenetrable language. Fortunately the wait-staff always asked "gas?" somewhere in the order-taking process. (We learned quickly not to be offended.)

This year we are going to Florence Italy at the end of September. The average temperatures are supposed to be in the mid seventies and Mars and I will be dressed once again in our Barcelona/Budapest best. If you happen to be in that area at the same time, dress stylishly but prepare for warm weather conditions. Like a modern version of Al Capp's cartoon character Joe Btfsplk who always traveled with a dark cloud over his head - we seem to have that big global warming hole in the ozone layer trailing us around.

But so what! The way we look at it - "when you're haute, you're hot!"

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