They say that during a heatwave such as the one we’re “enjoying” at the moment you shouldn’t look at a thermometer or check the weather forecast — it just makes things worse. Your body already knows that it’s forty degrees Celsius (one-hundred and four degrees Fahrenheit) so what’s the point in torturing yourself? As for taking in a weather forecast; anyone that’s lived in Spain for any length of time knows that when a pocket of high pressure comes to rest over the country in late June/early July, then there’s no shifting it. That scorching, bone-dry Saharan air is here to stay until late August. And the meteorologists agree with me. For the benefit of my readers I ventured online to have a gander at the long-range forecast for Spain, and the news is grim, very grim: no let up in the punishing temperatures until at least July 26 (this is as far into the future as the forecasts go).
A Paddy like me is not built for the heat. Thousands of years of natural selection on the Emerald Isle has produced a Gaelic race perfectly matched to the maritime climate. Evolution has seen us ditch unneeded melanin so that our bodies are as white as the foam on the waves lashing Ballybunion strand. Our eyes are piercing grey or green to allow us peer into the misty gloom and soft rain that cloaks our island. Our feet are wide and hobbit-like (the famed Celtic foot!) to help us pick our way over the boggy ground and slippery rocks as we snuffle for spuds. But take us from our tepid, rain-soaked, light-starved natural habitat and us Hibernians are like fish out of water. Those clear eyes are blinded by the sun and cloudless skies. The feet, as they swell to grotesque proportions while the mercury rises in the thermometers, become a hindrance — and render the poor Paddy a laughing stock as he plods his ungainly way along the burning asphalt . And the skin, the skin . . . If the natives here in Spain didn’t already know I was a guiri (the Spanish pejorative term for a Northern European tourist) from my broad, hunter-gatherer forehead, then the eldritch, livid, hive-red, perspiration-doused appearance the Irish hide takes on at temperatures above twenty-five degrees sure as heck gives the game away. To say I stand out like a sore thumb here in Madrid in hot weather is no exaggeration; as well as the turkey-scraw-ruddiness of my summertime complexion, my body visibly throbs, just like Elmer Fudd’s big, fat old thumb when given a hammer bang by Bugs Bunny.
In a refutation of Cartesian philosophy, it’s not just the Celtic body that suffers in the heat, but the mind as well. For the last few weeks I feel like my brain is unravelling. I’m forgetting words. Names. Important people’s names — I couldn’t put a name on Scarlett Johansson last night, which is a real sign I’m going batty. Sometimes I forget where I am, or what I’m meant to be doing. The Wildean wit with which my colleagues, friends and family have become so familiar is absent, gone fishin’ until normal temperatures are restored. No jokes. No clever observations or banter. Just grunts and monosyllables. Zombie talk and zombie actions. The heat is literally driving me to distraction. Thank God I’m not suffering from delusions or experiencing visions or hearing voices or contemplating going postal — yet. After fifteen minutes walking under the sun, an emptiness enters my mind, as if parts of it are shutting down to maintain homeostasis. I just hope they come back on line in September, when I can resume my quest to pen the great Irishman-in-exile novel and keep all those around me slapping their knees with the cleverness of my repartee.
To add insult to injury, along with having to drag myself around like a beetroot-faced, sweat-drenched dope (as well as all the other inconveniences — the not sleeping, the loss of appetite, the smells coming up from the street) — this heatwave has also decided to fight dirty and has gone for a below-the-belt sucker punch. It has destroyed a batch of my home brew. Just before the heatwave began I had the inspired idea of brewing five gallons of stout. As I milled the grain and savoured the aroma of malted barley, oats and roasted grain, I pictured my future self cooling himself down in August and September with lovely smooth pints of the freshest, crispest stout this side of Dublin. My mash went magnificently, my sparging splendidly, my boil beautifully and the primary fermentation phenomenally. It was when I transferred the young beer to the secondary fermenter that things began to go wonky. More specifically, mother nature reared her ugly head and decided to inflict this current heatwave upon Madrid. Temperatures in the house went from a yeast-friendly twenty degrees Celsius to close to thirty. The yeast did not take well to this ramping up of the thermostat. They got stressed. They turned ornery. Stressed and ornery yeast do not make for good beer. When bottling time came my stout smelt like mustard (or over-boiled cabbage, take your pick) indicating the presence of dimethyl sulphide, which is what unhappy yeast tend to produce — in bucketloads if they happen to be having a particularly bad hair day (or flagella day — microbiologist joke!). So now I’m left with five gallons of mustardy stout, which will go down the drain unless that great healer, time, in combination with the slow metabolism of the yeast in the bottles, can turn that nasty dimethyl sulphide into something more palatable. (Most home brewers recommend leaving such mustardy brews a good six months in order for the off-flavours to be metabolised.)
When it gets as hot as it is at the moment and when those temperatures are sustained night and day (in Madrid night time only knocks a half dozen degrees off peak temperatures) for more than a couple of weeks you begin to realise that even the natives aren’t particularly cut out for this cruellest of summers. Just like you, your workmates complain about exhaustion and their difficulty in sleeping. People are crotchety and, well, under the weather. There is a heaviness and sluggishness to folk’s movements which isn’t evident at other times of the year. There’s nobody out walking as people take to the air-conditioned comfort of their cars. It is only after sunset when people begin to venture out and it is then that the terrace bars fill up. And I’ll tell you this for nothing: there’s nout like an ice-cold beer to fight off the hyperthermia — unless it happens to taste like mustard!
PS: if you think us poor human beings are suffering in the heat, spare a thought for the automobiles of Madrid. I’ve never seen so many breakdowns as I have this week. Every day on my way home from work I see at least two frustrated motorists pulled into the lay-by, bonnets up, arses up and noggins peering into a steaming engine. It’s like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang without the music!