How to survive summer heat in Barcelona

Me re-learning to use a swimming cap after 20 years of not having worn one.

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I present you with the typical Barcelona summer week. Hot. And humid. Despite having lived in Spain for years, my first socialization has left lasting notions of appropriate summer weather. Which is not this one… I present to you exhibit 1 – “Latvian summer”:

You see the difference, right?

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So I’ve had to develop strategies for survival. And the good news are that the locals have been doing the same thing for millennia. You may frown about lunches consisting of gazpacho and melon, sleeping siestas but then filling terraces until late in the night, and mothers warning their children to stay in shade, but it all makes sense. Here comes my list of survival strategies for heat. I do my best balancing certain levels of comfort with sustainability, but in extreme situations survival wins.

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“Vete por la sombra, hijo”: Fear the sun and stay in the shade.

What stupidity looks like.

Sunburns is how you tell tourists apart from locals (well, that and ugly sandals). People in North are raised to adore sun instead of fearing it. It takes years to change it, but try to take Southern sun threats seriously. Sun burns and heat strokes are awful, and you have nobody else to blame for it.  This is the real reason for siesta: it’s dangerous out there in the middle of the day. Stay in! If you have to go out, do it in short bursts or during mornings or evening.

In urban context protecting yourself means staying in the shade and a good pair of sunglasses, especially if you are participating in traffic. I got my first pair of real deal optical sunglasses in 2015 when starting to take commute-by-bicycle seriously, and wish I had done so many years ago. Forget the 5€ fast fashion stuff and invest in your eyes!
And I still wonder why modern Spaniards don’t use parasols… That would be so weather-appropriate and ladylike, despite tiring one’s arms.

If leaving the city or planning for a daytime picnic in a park, a heavy duty sunscreen, light clothing that covers body and beach umbrella are the way to go.

If you have managed to get burnt, aloe vera, sour milk products, or heavy neutral creams + wet towels can help while bras and other tight fitting garments + errands to run will make your life miserable. In case of a heat stroke, first step is to identify it (headache, dizzyness, nauseas) and get a buddy to help you to bed and wet towels. These strategies apply for mild cases only! There are cases of both sun malaises when only professional help will be of use. Try not to get to that point.

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Move differently!

Moving the body is very important but climate puts restrictions on it and it would be very foolish to ignore them. If you are moving outdoors, please, do yourself a favor and try to underestimate your capabilities. My little thing this season is the elevator. I work on the 6th floor and never take the elevator between October and May. But now there are days when – after gym and bicycle commute down to the campus – I do get into it. The same goes for popping in home, dropping things and going on errands. That’s the winter modus operandi. Now I know very well that I need a shower and 15 minutes of rest before taking up the next task. Little acts of kindness to the body go a long way!

Formal exercise is even more dangerous. I have no idea how people manage to go for a run during the summer here, bet clearly nobody does it between 12 and 17pm. Inside activities depend on AC. Some yoga places become hot yoga places (which is good for stretching!) and others turn into freezers (which is good for pneumonias!), but all gyms advertise their swimming pools. I’ve succumbed to it, hence the swimming cap!

For years I’ve been toying with the idea how water activities might be the best ones for me. I sweat a lot and water prevents the discomfort of that, I always loved playing wit water and mud as a child, I had tried some low-key water aerobics and loved it… but I never learned how to swim properly and the Mediterranean is way too salty for me. So I’ve finally obtained some unsustainable gear – I already had a Speedo swimsuit (made in China), a 2015 “promise” purchase of double polyester that needs amortization, and now also a pair Birkenstock flip flops (EVA, made in Germany) and a silicone swimming cap (Decathlon-Nabaiji, made in China) – and got into the chlorinated water. And I love it, despite the overall tackiness and the smell, oh, the smell! So far it has been water aerobics with people at least twice my age, but one day I will swim properly. Pinky promise!

Birknestocks have provided so much toe happiness and the biggest feet blisters, as they are clearly not a walking shoe. At least not for 5+ km of brisk walks in 28C heat.

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Adjust the temperature

Getting into a swimming pool is only one way of adjust the temperatures in your favor. Depending on your circumstances, you might have several other at your disposal (in order of eco-friendliness):

Right clothing: Fashion-wise summer in Barcelona is paradoxical. I wake up and even the thought of putting anything on seems awful (a bra?! no…) but, if I manage to overcome that repulsion (with the Lush dusting powder if we are in a heat wave) and leave home, everybody else is in the same situation. So we suffer together and the standards of respectability get low-low-low. Not everywhere, of course, but among junior researchers here pants that I would swear off as pajamas, both long and short with pom pom hems, are definitely a thing. Combined with a tank top and maybe a bra. My approach is loose dresses of natural or regenerated materials, but I do have a pair of those pajama pants (since 2010).

Draft: Depending on your living spaces, a permanent draft could be an option. Just make sure that your windows/doors are fixed to avoid slamming and possible damage.

Wet towels: Grandma (and science!) trick that works! Wet your towel in water and put it on skin, works like a charm. I cover myself with a wet towel in very hot nights. Cools off very quickly! Also wets the bed but nobody cares at these temperatures.

Showers: If in winter I may take 2 showers per week, summer means several short showers every day. On the worst days my shower schedule might look like this: woke up sweaty and sticky – shower 1, came home sweaty and sticky – shower 2, too hot to sleep (i.e. sweaty and sticky) – shower 3. Water is the best cooler and stickiness remover. Just keep them short and no-soap (if applicable), and let yourself air-dry if possible.

Air conditioning: Many places are AC-ed, some of them too much so (I’m looking at you Barcelona metro and light railway, and supermarkets, and so many other places…). I indulge AC at work, as it gets stuffy because of the coworkers, computers, and the permanent draft trick does not work well here. At home we have been resisting the urge so far this year, bedroom AC being our last resource if it gets really really hot and impossible to sleep.

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Water and fruit are your friends

As in most places that have seasons, Spanish winter and summer menus are two very different things. A hot meal is the last thing you want, but gazpachos, salads and watermelon straight out of the fridge is the real thing. Most fruit and veggies are in season and many of them don’t have to be cooked.

The vegan trick to cover at least the legumes (because dark leafy greens are not really happening that much), is adding chickpeas or tofu cubes to those salads. And hummus, a lot of hummus.

While most summer fruit and vegetables are full of water (that’s what I think about when carrying watermelons home, it’s basically just a fancy container for water), you still need to drink plenty of it. Water, lemon water, kombucha, room temperature herbal teas (natural rooibos is very nice for this!), and an occasional IPA are the drinks of my choice. Not the crappy sugar waters, I have watermelons for that!

I have a few tricks that make me drink more water. For example, when I fetch my first kettle at work, I also fill my glass with cold water. I have only 1 glass at work, so then I have to finish that cold water before the tea water boils (and I can start brewing my herbals).
And I always leave a big glass of water on the table when going to bed. I normally wake up several times per night, and that water both hydrates and refreshes my morning breath.

Ginger and lemon second fermentation kombucha. Foamy, sparkly, and not made by Coca Cola, Ltd.

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Chub rub and what to do about it?

I sweat a lot, my thighs touch, and I like to walk long distances. In warm weather this combination often ends in chaffing and pain. I tried the “use deodorant on you thighs” strategy and I’m not impressed. Talc-based baby powders (stay away from it and google why!) and this Lush product also have their cons: bathroom full of white powder and rather limited staying power. But it helps to get dressed in those mornings when putting anything on seems impossible. I cover myself with the powder, get my dress on (while trying to avoid stains) and get out of the door. Then there is no way back! As all Lush products, this one is extremely fragrant. To make sure I don’t smell like a Lush shop and to make it last longer, I mixed the original powder with the same amount of cornstarch. It’s already cornstarch based, so it mixes seamlessly, smells a little less intensely and lasts twice as much. With the next one I might shift the proportions to 2:1 in favor of cornstarch.

I haven’t tried or read the ingredients on this product, but sounds promising if you like to have the big pharma on your side (and between your thighs).

An alternative to creams, powders and potions is not sweating that way. It took me a stupidly long time to realize that an additional benefit to bicycle commute is the absence of chaffing, unless I do many kilometers in heat. I’ll take backpack-sweat over chub rub any day, thank you very much!

Another option is looking into shorts as an underwear alternative. Preferably ones you already have.

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What are your tips for heat survival? Have you had to fight the Northern obsession with sun while you should’ve known better? What’s your favorite summer recipe?

Luīze

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