I used to think I was accustomed to heat from growing up on the farm and unloading hay bales in high-barn heat, but that was nothing compared to this. It was July 2010, and I was backpacking along the Western Front of World War I with my companion Lynn. The trip consisted of walking for 10 or so miles a day and visiting still-flat battlefields, towns that had been razed, graveyards of boys younger than I — a cultural experience which taught me that people behave differently toward each other when war took place in their backyard — but I was also unprepared for the heat and France’s lack of air conditioning. On the farm, you could work for a handful of hours then come inside to stand in front of fans spinning behind screened-in windows, but in the north of France, I could find no relief. We would stop for a baguette sandwich at a brasserie — no air conditioning. We’d walk into a small store selling fruits and vegetables at the end of town — only the doors were propped open. In Compiègne, we stayed two nights in a small hostel above the Rue du General Leclerc with two windows open to a breeze which did not exist, and each night I wrapped the sheet around my knees and willed myself not to move so that I’d become cool enough to sleep.
On July 9, Lynn and I biked to the forest where the Armistice was signed that had ended World War I. The cool of the forest and the breeze of biking brought a bit of relief, but on the way home, the heat flamed off the pavement, and my feet sweated so much in my flat shoes that I could barely keep them from falling off. I didn’t know what to do. I remember thinking vaguely that people who had lived before the dawn of air conditioning had survived before.
“We stopped by the river, ditched our bikes in the shade, and laid down in the grass with our hats over our faces like an impressionist painting,” I wrote in my journal on July 9. “I was so hot that it almost was painful to move. A slow breeze pushed the air along. A father and son fished to our left. Downstream, the air was filled with splashes and children’s screams. We biked reluctantly back into town and bought two chocolate ice cream Popsicles and ate them slowly in the shade. We did not talk — I was too hot to. The chocolate melted thickly and gagged in my throat, and my body oozed with it. For the first time in life, I sucked on the ice cream, drop after drop, because I needed to savor.”
When there are no easy options to becoming cold, you have to resort to the techniques of older times: lemonade, sprinklers, and swimming pools. For Lynn and me, this meant that we’d eventually stand up and bike to a French store called a Monoprix and linger by the refrigerated cheese section, me carrying a 4-pack of yogurt around on my arm that I never intended to buy and rubbing pinches of salted ice from the fish display on the back of my neck.
But I will most remember the Magnum ice cream bars, Belgian chocolate ice cream bars which were recently introduced to the US, and how Lynn and I had shared ice cream not just on that day but also on others: ice cream (after we’d tasted the famed, monk-brewed beers) at the Abbaye de St. Sixtus outside of Westvleteren, Belgium; ice cream that we ate on the edge of a French small town that I no longer remember, ice cream in Albert, France, after touring the small but good Somme 1916 Trench Museum.
A few days ago, I ate a Magnum double chocolate bar, purchased from Target, anticlimactically in my apartment after a few solid hours of cleaning. This time, it was more of an indulgence than a method of cooling down — thick chocolate ice cream with fudge rimmed with a double wall of Belgian chocolate. However, when I bit into the bar to test the chocolate by its crunch, I could still hear the echo of the gravel beneath our hiking boots.