How to Stay Warm in Winter

Wintry view behind our house

Stay in bed. Or emigrate somewhere warmer. Although I have considered the latter, the former is less hassle. It’s distinctly appealing during the continuing cold snap. Getting out of bed requires courage; getting out of the shower demands even more. Those few frozen moments as you fling on your clothes are excruciating.

Welcome to winter in southwest France. After Sunday’s snow, Monday dawned to minus 13°C. Although the morning temperature struggled up to a balmy minus 9°C yesterday, it had second thoughts and was minus 12.5°C this morning. The daytime temperature has not been above freezing for almost a week. We haven’t experienced temperatures like this since a similar spell in 2002.

Getting About

On Monday I was supposed to do a photo shoot for one of my articles. No way was I going to risk life and limb in the car. The main roads are cleared but the minor ones around us are like ice rinks. For the first time ever, our walking group cancelled its Wednesday promenade, although I understand a few brave souls did it anyway.

We managed to get to the village, 6.5km distant, on Tuesday with the SF driving. Being Swedish, he is used to driving in these conditions but our car is not equipped with snow chains or winter tyres so progress was slow. We didn’t expect the Tuesday market to take place so stocked up at our local Casino supermarket. However, the newsagent told us she had seen the vegetable man’s van driving up the main street. He comes all the way from Figeac and I admire his courage and tenacity. We didn’t go and check him out, though. La Place de la Halle is the coldest place on earth in winter.

Keeping Warm Against the Odds

Last night we slept wrapped in our dressing gowns. Normally, the cat is unceremoniously dumped outside at night. The past two nights he has had a special dispensation and has taken full advantage of it to sleep on our bed. Keeping the house even tolerably warm is a struggle and our complicated heating system is going full blast around the clock. We also light the woodburning stove early.

France is one of the bigger users of electricity in Europe and has had to import it from neighbouring countries this week to keep up with demand. Apparently, 31% of electricity consumed in France is for domestic usage. Most new houses have electric heating. And EDF (Electricité de France) has encouraged people to switch to it. I’m afraid we are partly responsible, too. We have a heat pump – pompe à chaleur – that is, of course, powered by electricity.

Complicated Heating System

Ugly white gas tank

We had the heat pump installed six years ago. When we moved here, the house had gas central heating and the gas was stocked in an ugly white tank. During a tough winter seven years ago, the supplier Antargaz filled it up three times. The cost? €1,000 a tankful. Realising we couldn’t continue like this we looked into other options. Oil was almost as pricey then. Traditional electric radiators were out of the question in a house like this. So we went for the heat pump.

At that time, the government was offering a 40% credit d’impôt – tax credit – on the cost of the equipment. Even after that, it was still expensive but the SF calculated that it paid itself off last winter in savings on heating. Ours works by drawing in warm air from the outside (the SF informs me the correct term is ‘calories’) and transferring it to the wet radiator system. It’s not the geothermic type that draws heat from underground. Drilling into solid rock is ruinously expensive.

The heat pump is effective down to about minus 5°C. Then it starts to struggle and has to keep reversing the flow to melt the ice that forms on the heat exchanger. So we still have the gas boiler, which we switch in to work in tandem with the heat pump. Since we now use much less gas we had a smaller tank installed in a more discreet position.

Before you move here, no one tells you how cold it can be in winter. Fortunately, temperatures like this week’s are rare. But once every 10 years is more than enough for me. The upside is that we have bright sunshine and clear blue skies. No doubt people in Vladivostok or Murmansk would laugh at our feebleness but they’re used to it.

Vivement le printemps!   

Frozen sunset

Copyright © 2012 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved


  1. Another really cold moment is undressing to go to bed. A few nights recently I’ve had to sit on the edge of the bed for five minutes or more to psyche myself up into taking my nice warm clothes off! Our neighbour literally wears the same clothes all year round and I’m fairly sure they stay on at night too. Only the thought of turning out like that has stopped me from sleeping in my clothes lately!
    We manage with one tank of gas, which includes gite usage, and lots of wood which luckily is ‘free’ since we have a lot of woodland. However, it involves a lot of chopping, splitting, lugging etc. Oh for the summer …


    • Oh yes, that’s awful too but at least we have an electric blanket so it’s nice and cosy once you’re in. I often wonder how people managed in this house before central heating. Like your neighbour, I suppose they just kept the same clothes on throughout the winter.
      Our woodland is not extensive enough to supply all our needs so we have to buy as well.
      Once the spring comes, we’ll forget all about this!


  2. I am so glad we left for Costa Rica!

    2007 gave us three weeks of sub zero temperatures…..and I think the same in 2002…..we had everything lagged to the hilt, so nothing froze….not even the oil which was in a huge metal tank buried in the garden, but the woodburner was belting it out non stop, the shutters were closed, blankets hung down the staircase as baffles…and it was still cold!

    We had to insulate the poultry houses with bales of straw and defrost their water several times a day, slithering down the garden to do so….

    No, it’s not every year …but when it is it’s brutal!


    • Thank goodness it isn’t every winter! I don’t remember 2007 being too bad here but 2002 was certainly a year to remember. We have heard so many stories in the past few days of people with frozen pipes etc. We are just praying that it doesn’t happen to us! This cold snap is going to continue for a few days and then it will get warmer – and probably snow.


  3. Ummmh! I’d like to experience such a winter, once and once only for experience sake. But the cost of heating must be a psychological torment. Here in Perth, Western Australia, we have insulation in the roof space, and slippers and dressing gowns in the robe–that’s enough to get us through the occasional -2deg nights we have to bear-up-under in winter (the 25 deg days help thaw me out so don’t worry about me :)). Sorry I just can’t relate to such cold. But an interesting article none-the-less.
    Cheers Jimmy


    • Hi Jimmy, nice to hear from you. Don’t apologise for not having cold winters – I don’t hold it against you! It is rare that it’s so cold here – that’s why I’m making such a fuss about it. It will make spring all the more welcome when it arrives; and it is lovely here in spring.


  4. I’m renting in the heart of Rouen city centre for the first time since moving from the uk countryside – the one advantage seems to be that while its minus 8 out if town, its only minus 5 in the city.(all that escaping heat from all the other houses is suppose) So I enjoy all the joys of mains gas – so far so good. However since my husband is temporarily working in Nigeria and I speak to him every day on skype, it is hard to see him in 40° in a t-shirt, whilst we’re wrapped up in jumpers having to brave going outside at all! Laughingly he says that seeing me in twenty jumpers is making him feel hot – ha ha doesn’t he realise he already is!! Really good information on heating as we will be buying soon – and yes in the counrtyside! I agree those gas tanks are nasty ugly things but oh so necessary.


    • Rouen is a nice city but I must admit it’s more than 30 years since I was in the town centre. I love living in the countryside but the town does have certain advantages – one of them being that it’s less cold in winter. I am very envious of your husband. I am writing this wearing woolly tights, socks, furry slippers, warm trousers, a long sleeved T-shirt, thick woolly jumper and sleeveless fleece. Getting the right heating system is very important. Gas is now very expensive so think hard before going for that. The same goes for oil. And make sure the house you buy is well-insulated or have it installed if it isn’t. Ours is hopeless in that regard but we’d have to remove the roof to do it.


    • I’d rather not imagine it, thanks very much! Norway is cold enough already in my opinion. Mind you, this week our village was colder than Bergen.


  5. It’s cold here in the Lot as well! My electric heat is working overtime to keep this house warm.I lost water pressure yesterday and today nothing was coming out of the tap. I was afraid all the pipes were frozen, but the village ‘grapevine’ called and said there was a big leak in a main pipe that our water company was working on. Water is back to normal as I write this, but frozen pipes are another nightmare of this cold. Bundle up!!


    • Poor you. This is not the time of year to be without water! As long as you keep your house reasonably warm the internal pipes should be okay. But there’s not much you can do about the water company’s network.


  6. OK so we have not got snow here on the Costa Blanca. But it is all relative because by our standards it is B cold! So I can relate to the extra clothes, (sitting here with 2 pairs of socks, and much more!) heating problems etc and people in the UK say cut the Expats Winter Fuel Allowance! (Not that I get it anyway)


  7. Well if the Gulf Stream packs up, the whole of the northern hemisphere will be up the spout, so I’m not sure where we’ll emigrate to. Even here in the Finistère where (no I won’t go on about it) we have a clement climate. I has actually frozen two nights this week. But only -2 which quickly went away. After living all my life in the Loire Valley, in the heart of the countryside where winter temperatures were crippling and I had goats and horses and chickens and ducks to feed and water, I thought it might be sensible (given my great age…) to live nearer a town. So I’m on the outskirts of Quimper, and have mains gas central heating which is really comfortable. Although it does depend a little on electricity. In other words, if there is a power cut, the boiler doesn’t work… I also have an enormous wood stove which I also got with help from the Government a few years ago. But I do pine for the countryside, I can’t get used to living even on the outskirts of town, and shall soon leave all this comfort to go back to the wilds (of the Finistère, not the Loire Valley, not daft!).


    • I would find it hard to live in a town, however nice it was, after living here. No way we’ll ever get mains gas out here. We’re lucky to have running water!


  8. Hi Vanessa, Sounds like you’re having a bit of a hard time of it but the cat is obviously happy.
    We don’t have central heating but we do have our Rayburn in the kitchen and a wood-burner in the living room. We have a small elec rad in the bathroom to take the chill off the air and a couple of gas bottle heaters which we can wheel around. Apart from that, we blanket up the drafty (isn’t it draughty?) front door and come in the back way, and we wear lots of warm clothes, of course. The bedroom is never heated but we have an elec blanket with hot water bottles as back up.
    This morning there was a 9-hour power cut in all the villages along our ridge – we were fine, but our newly-moved-here English neighbours had no back-up (gas) cooker so couldn’t even boil a kettle. They came to us for breakfast. They’ve now gone out to buy a camping gas ring.
    We wonder if these winters are going to become the norm?


    • I don’t know what we’d do without our electric blanket. And we’re praying that the electricity stays on and the boiler doesn’t go on the blink – this house would be uninhabitable otherwise.
      I do hope this doesn’t become the norm but I suppose if the Gulf Stream packs up, which it might as a result of global warming, then we can probably expect regular repeats. Then I really will emigrate!


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