Europe's big chill brings frozen tubs and snow-white palms

CHANTAL Hattu came home from work to find her bath clogged. It was frozen. ``I've never seen anything like it,'' she exclaimed.

A cold wave has swept over Europe this week, surprising and shocking Europeans such as Miss Hattu of Paris.

By American standards the 14 degrees F. temperatures registered here are not exceptional. But this represents the most frigid weather reported since the 1950s, and as thermometer readings are expected to stay below freezing at least through the weekend, usually temperate Southern Europe is struggling to respond.

Some enjoyed overcoming the difficulties. As the first significant snowfalls in a generation hit Rome, cross-country skiers glided to Sunday mass at the Vatican. Riviera residents also skied to work under white palm trees after a record 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) fell in Nice. And children gathered in London's famous parks to revel in their rare opportunity for a snowball fight.

For others, though, the snow meant tragedy. At least 36 people have died in France alone as a result of the cold. And a major fire in which a number of elderly people lost their lives has been attributed to the weather.

Throughout the Continent, the plight of the poor has produced front-page banner headlines -- and emergency relief. For the first time in 10 years, Brussels opened public rest houses where cold citizens could come to warm up and sip hot soup by a fire.

In France, the government has come to the aid of private organizations, which have been overwhelmed with people seeking relief from the cold.

Paul Quil'es, minister for transport and housing, has decided to keep Paris's Metro and other stations open throughout the night to provide additional heated shelters. He also ordered railway authorities to open warehouses, and troops were called in to install beds in the shelters.

Clasping his cold hands after a visit to the windowless, unheated temporary lodging, Mr. Quil'essaid, ``We better work quickly before it gets colder and the situation gets out of control.''

The winter chill has already caused serious ecological damage. Animals all over the continent are suffering, from the flamingos in France's southern Camargue region, who have been forced to flee their frozen marshland homes, to monkeys in German zoos whose tails have frozen.

Agricultural harvests also have been hurt. In Valencia, Spain, one-quarter of the orange crop has been wiped out. In Italy, thousands of olive and fruit trees have been destroyed.

Danish fishermen have found their catches frozen on reaching port -- and they are about the only fishermen equipped well enough to brave the stormy, frigid European waters.

Train and airline service have been interrupted. And in West Germany, drivers are encountering especially icy roads and snarled traffic because of a Greens-inspired ban on the use of salt to clear roads.

Even more important, the price of oil rose 10 to 15 cents Wednesday on the spot markets. If the cold continues, it could send Europe's bill for imported oil soaring.

Meanwhile, electricity companies are pushing to meet the increased demand. Electricit'e de France has marked record energy consumption this week, and limited blackouts have been reported across the country.

Company officials plead that ``the situation is manageable,'' but the people do not seem to believe them. Television news programs regularly begin with reports direct from the control rooms of Electricit'e de France monitoring the situation.

``You aren't going to make it, are you?,'' a skeptical reporter asked.

In general, as a trip to Madeline market shows, the public attitude has mirrored this skeptism. Customers bundled up, huffing and puffing, whine as if the world were near an end.

``It's impossible,'' a woman says.

``I can't cook, because my oven is frozen. I can't bathe, because the hot water's broken. And I can't relax, because I'm too cold.''

At her complaint, the salesmen chirp in. Jean-Claude Barriere says soon there will be no fresh sole left.

Gerard Delaret says his vegetables are running low. Already, he says he has no leeks left. And what's a Frenchman to do without his leeks?

(Not to harp on other national preoccupations, but that lament echoes the kind of irony that permeates some other tales of woe from around the Continent. In Belgium, for example, bank customers were irate because quick-cash windows were not functioning. And in Czechoslovakia, an ice hockey game had to be canceled because the icemaking machine froze.)

Of course, not all Europeans were complaining. Hardware stores are notching up big sales in insulating material. Parisian furriers report record sales of fur coats. Most of all, long underwear has become chic in this chicest of towns.

``Sales are booming,'' beamed Daisy Nouchi of Damart, Europe's largest maker of long underwear. While the company is finding customers in all age groups, Mrs. Nouchi revealed that young women are among the biggest buyers.

``Long johns are `a la mode,'' she said.

A few hearty individuals have even braved the cold without bundling up.

Mrs. Louis Levionnois, for example, took a dip in the River Orne in Normandy. Outside the temperature was 24 degrees F., yet the elderly woman said she had to do it. Forty years ago, she had promised her swimming instructor that she would continue to swim year-round, no matter what.

Moreover, some Parisians are beginning to realize that as cold as they are, there are those who are colder. Finland, after all, has suffered from record -58 degrees F. temperatures.

``It'll get better, it has to get better,'' reflects Miss Hattu.

When she came home to find her bath frozen, a relatively common occurrence this week in older apartments, she said she felt sick. Now she is looking on the positive side. Yes, she'll just have to suffer going dirty for a few days.

``But with nothing else to go home for, I stay in the office late,'' she says. ``At least, I'm getting a lot of work done.''

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