My least favourite word, in all languages, is “inshallah” (Arabic, meaning God willing). It reminds me of being with my family in Morocco as a child and being furious. Are we going to go to the pool next week? God willing. Are we still going to the pool tomorrow? God willing. Are we going to the pool in two hours? God willing. What did god ever have to do with the opening times of our local swimming pool? Is he the one who knows where grandma put all the beach towels?
Every other question I asked got the dreaded “inshallah” treatment. I hated it. If I’m honest, I still do. I like having plans and sticking to them, knowing what I’m doing next and feeling certain it will happen. It is one of the reasons why I enjoy living in Britain. It is a country full of people who instinctively distrust spontaneity, and it makes me feel at home.
I just worry it is all about to change.
If you are reading this piece in the southern half of England and in the days following its publication, you are probably sweating slightly. Your blinds may be down, and your window open but only because it is not facing the sun. You may have damp hair tied in a bun above your head; you may be drinking a hot cup of tea because you read somewhere that it will help keep you cool. Still, it is quite likely that you are feeling too warm.
Your skin is sticky and it feels like your brain isn’t working properly. You are bored to death of drinking water but your mouth feels unbearably dry if you do not hydrate every ten minutes. You are over-heating and it is not even a novel experience anymore. London going above 30°C and staying there for days on end is no longer exceptional. It now happens every year.
Every newspaper, magazine, website and blog has published at least one list of tips on how to survive the heat. You have probably read them all. Some of them might sound helpful but, really, none of them are. When it’s too hot, it’s too hot. There is nothing to be done. It is like a hangover: sometimes you can have a greasy breakfast or a full-fat Coke and feel better. Sometimes you wake up and know that nothing will save you.
When this happens, there is only one thing to do, and it is to make your peace with it. The national conversation on climate change often focuses on the politics and economics of global heating – which is entirely right, but it is not enough. We must aim for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and find a sustainable way to exist on this planet but, on a human scale, we also need to accept the fact that hot weather cannot be ignored.
You can wear thick layers if it’s cold and carry an umbrella if it’s raining, but if it is 38°C outside (the forecast for London on Monday), you simply cannot continue as normal. As I learnt during my summers in Marrakech, life in very hot weather is different. People move and talk at a slower pace during the day. Sometimes they do not do much at all after lunch, choosing instead to get everything done early in the morning then later at night. The streets are empty when the sun is up but families go for walks at 10pm. Dinner only happens at night, even if night falls late in the evening.
Perhaps more importantly, people in hot weather are different. They are more relaxed, less prone to planning. There is, after all, no way of knowing how the heat will make you feel tomorrow or the day after. Sometimes you wake up and know you can handle it; sometimes it takes everything you have just to get out of bed. You’ll only find out when it happens.
It is also harder to care very much about things when it is very warm. You have already relinquished a degree of control over your life; you can lose a bit more. On a personal note, I have found recently that heat tends to breed over-familiarity. I have had conversations with work contacts in the sun that I would not have in the winter. Somehow, neither of us could face being formal while trying not to melt.
It is an odd shift to be experiencing, as someone with Mediterranean and northern European blood who chose to embrace the latter. Summers in London are beginning to feel like those childhood months at my grandmother’s house. The air is different here now. At least it is a life I am used to, even if it is not one that entirely suits me. As far as I can tell, many people in England are still buried deep in denial.
I can’t blame them, but it isn’t sustainable. That’s the thing about heat: you just can’t ignore it. Believe me, I tried. England is changing and so we must change as well. God willing.
[See also: In a drying world can humans learn to adapt?]