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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Clea Skopeliti

‘It’s brutal’: Europeans tell of sleepless nights and dizzy spells in heatwave

An ambulance next to the Colosseum in Rome
An ambulance next to the Colosseum in Rome, where temperatures hit 41.8C on Tuesday. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

With sea temperatures in the high 20s, open-water swimmer Grabiela Rojas feels it isn’t safe to train in the ocean near Valencia this summer.

Rojas, 35, is instead training by swimming laps in an indoor pool, rather than long distances in the ocean. “It’s way too hot in the water,” she says of Spain’s coastal waters, which have hit new records for this time of year. “There’s a point where you can’t cool down. It’s brutal.”

Rojas tried to train in the sea a couple of times about three weeks ago, but says it felt dangerous. The water offered no respite from the heat. “It’s so humid and then you get into the water and it’s like stepping into a soup. After five minutes I was out of breath, felt dizzy, panicked a bit and got out. I decided that I’m not going to go back until September, or whenever it cools.”

Grabiela Rojas
Grabiela Rojas. Photograph: Guardian Community

Rojas says she installed solar panels at home this year, allowing her and her husband to keep it affordably cool. “We’ve been running [air conditioning] non-stop because it’s free. Last year, we were way more conscious because we didn’t want to have a €500 electricity bill.”

However, the unit in the bedroom broke last week, and waiting for the repair has been miserable. “I can’t function if I can’t sleep in a comfortable environment. The fan doesn’t help. [My husband and I] are sleeping in separate rooms because another body of heat is too much.

“I just try not to go out. Last year, I would go out at night for a walk – now I just don’t want to. Going outside feels like a punishment.”

A fourth heatwave is forecast for southern Europe next week, leaving people in the region with little chance to recover from the last one, which saw parts of Sicily reach 47C (117F).

In an attempt to escape the heat, Rosalyn Smith, a sales representative near the northern Italian city of Pavia, has gone up to her shack in the hills of Varzi. But even at the elevated altitude, conditions are proving difficult for the 67-year-old, who has lived in Italy for 35 years. “I went to a higher altitude but the heat and the mosquitoes have followed, which is so unusual. I’ve been bitten terribly. There were a few last year, but five years ago there were none at this altitude.”

She says being kept indoors by the prolonged extreme temperatures feels reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic. “It’s like being in lockdown again. It brings back the old feeling of staying out as little as possible. The heat stops you from thinking straight. I’m having sleepless nights – I keep turning the pillow over.”

Rosalyn Smith
Rosalyn Smith. Photograph: Guardian Community

Smith says the summers have changed since she moved to Italy more than three decades ago. “It’s a completely different thing. The intense heat starts earlier and goes on for longer. In Italy, they call it la bella stagionethe beautiful season. It no longer is. I can’t wait for summer to be over.”

Noelia Rubio, 43, a shop owner in Madrid, is struggling with fatigue as the Spanish summer stretches on. During the summer months, she sleeps in a room in the basement of her home because it is cooler. “[But] it is still hard to fall asleep because it gets hot in an instant when you lie down … and once asleep you sweat through the night. We are all sleep deprived; you get up in the morning already tired. This goes on for two to three months every year and the season is getting longer.

“We used to joke we had like a week of spring and a week of autumn weather. No longer the case: summer now starts in May and ends in October.” Whereas she used to sleep in the basement between late June and late August, last year she didn’t return to her bedroom until the end of October.

“You can get used to the heat but it is still easy to get dehydrated and get a headache even if you are indoors. I think everyone’s health is affected. The heat is not a problem when you are on holiday but in your everyday life, when you are working … it is really frustrating.”

A digital thermometer on a street in Madrid gives a reading of 41C
A digital thermometer in Madrid this week. Photograph: Miguel Pereira/Getty Images

Others say heat stress is causing them to lose work. CB, a bicycle food courier in Budapest, cancelled shifts early this week in fear for his health. “Financially, I’m going to feel the burn next month when I get paid, but I feel it was worth it because I don’t want to get heatstroke.” The 32-year-old recently moved from the US to Hungary to be close to his father.

During an earlier heatwave in the city, the courier believes he experienced symptoms of heatstroke. “I had chest pains and was delirious on my bike. Even at night I couldn’t properly cool down – I don’t have AC; it’s not really a thing here in Hungary. One of my colleagues is also struggling. We talk when waiting for orders. I’ve noticed there’s less couriers on the road,” he says, though he is uncertain whether that is due to the heat.

Francesco, a paramedic in Milan, is also feeling the physical and psychological impact of the heat. “Usually, I don’t suffer from the climate – I’m quite adapted. It’s the first time in my life that the heat is a problem. Near the end of shifts, I feel the psychological effect of extreme heat – my brain wasn’t working properly. I feel always tired and I am more irritable.”

A group of people at a water fountain near the Acropolis
The Acropolis of Athens and other archaeological sites in Greece announced reduced opening hours as a result of the heatwave. Photograph: Miloš Bičanski/Getty Images

“The air in the city is so hot that even when I start my shift at 6am I arrive at work drenched in sweat and I must have a shower before starting. As soon as I start working my uniform becomes a suffocating moisture trap and I am soon drenched in sweat again. Many times I have to call other ambulances [for] support because I don’t have the strength necessary to lift and move patients.”

Temperatures in the city have become noticeably more extreme in recent years, according to Francesco. “I can perceive the difference in temperature from the [central] point in the city and outside the city. In the ‘eye’ of the city, it is like being in a furnace.”

Jen Rouse
Jen Rouse. Photograph: Guardian Community

Extreme heat may affect older people more than others, and while visiting her mother-in-law in the Athens metropolitan area this week, Jen Rouse, 38, was concerned for the 73-year-old’s wellbeing. “I worry a lot about the impact this heat is having on my mother-in-law’s health, particularly with the increased risk of wildfires. The last time there was a fire near Athens the air quality in her flat was appalling,” says Rouse, a copywriter from Hastings.

Like Smith in Italy, Rouse also notes the climate-related issue of mosquitoes. She says she was bitten by a tiger mosquito – an invasive mosquito species increasingly found in European countries – in Athens for the first time.

As well as concerns for her mother-in-law, Rouse says she is worried about the impact of heat stress on her eight-year-old daughter while in Greece. “Our daughter came over dizzy on the first day and we had to retreat to an air-conditioned pharmacy to sit down,” she says. “Its just crazy with these temperatures and we haven’t even hit August yet.”

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