Thursday, 3 July 2014

Summer



The dog finds summer beneath his dignity

I am ambivalent about summer. It's partly a Calvinist sort of belief that life shouldn't be too nice but mainly a Celtic thing, I think. There's the terrible thermic shock to my blue grey skin and the resulting prickly heat rash, followed by a spreading, wonky carpet of freckles that refuse to fade until November. The coarsening triangle of ruddy farmer's tan at my neck, however much sodding factor 50 I plaster on. The weeks of itchy, maddening, snotty hay-fever (stop it, trees, you utter bastards), and the joyous arrival of a single, psychotic mosquito (or is it a series of pyschotic mosquitoes?) in my bedroom. The enforced contemplation of my scaly reptilian ankles and bony, misshapen knees and the ever-present menace of swimwear. You have to put the butter in the fridge too, which is against nature, and all my cheap chocolate - my stockpile of Caramels and KitKats and Dairy Milks - goes soft and melty and unappealing.

But there's also the tendency towards terrifying peaks of estival anxiety: I'm pretty sure Celts were never meant to get this warm and it does bad things to us. My ancestors would have been beating each other around the head. Now, my brain short-circuits and views everything as a threat: the phone, the car, the letterbox. Paper bags and debit cards and the shops. The absence of routine. Sticky, pinchy summer shoes with Compeed plasters half-stuck to them and half-stuck, agonisingly, to my foot. My own face. Mainly my own face. Late at night - I sleep seven heavy dreamless hours in winter - I wake and find things to fret about. That fish-related translation I did in 2009 must have been terrible. Do I still need to pay back any Child Benefit? That email I mistakenly replied to instead of forwarding in 1999. Not having a pension.

But summer is undeniably beautiful and even if it weren't, it comes around every year, so I thought that I should try and identify some things that are lovely about it. Things to hold onto as I dab Biafine onto my many weals (going to France on your holidays? Celtic? Get Biafine).

The swifts - The screaming. The amazing aerial showing-off. The making us wait for them and coming back just when you start to wonder if they're coming at all. They are brilliant bird divas, even better than the shrieking flock of ASBO green parakeets that bomb down the street mid-morning (I have a soft spot for the parakeets too, even though they are an eco-disaster).

Riding pillion on a motorbike - This only works in the city, mind. Motorbike riding on a motorway is no fun at all, it's windy and uncomfortable and terrifying, you'll get conjunctivitis and there's no scope at all for showing off. And obviously, I can't ride one myself. I am the only person in the history of our school who failed the cycling proficiency, so two wheels are out in perpetuity. But for a quick blast of the fantasy that you're twenty years younger with twenty fewer chins, there's nothing like cadging a ride on someone's motorbike (A scooter will do it too: the only thing that really won't do it is one of those ludicrous scooter things with a roof, so you're driving around like a pensioner hermit crab). You can get so far so fast that spontaneous boozing or far flung takeaways (yes, this is my idea of wild spontaneity) become a real possibility in a way they just aren't in winter. Sitting on the back of a motorbike, pretending not to be terrified going round corners, I like to try and ride like the teenage boys I watch in the streets. They lean back, holding onto the bar behind the seat with a single nonchalant hand, feet trailing cavalierly off the footrests, a lazy eye on who they're zooming past. Kings of the road. I don't think my imitation quite comes off, but it feels right.

Mornings - No school doesn't necessarily mean no alarm, but it probably means a little more wriggle room; more put-a-pillow-over-your-head-for-twenty-minutes room. And when we do emerge and it's warm enough for me to open the doors into the garden, to dodge the tortoise and hedgehog shit and sit on the green plastic bench with a cup of tea in a patch of dappled sunlight, while the hens lose their shit at the excitement of seeing someone other than the usual fat pigeon, I get a lovely rush of pure animal contentment.

Evenings - The suburbs go worryingly silent in summer, feeding into my creeping hot weather dread, but when I venture into the city centre, I'm always taken by surprise to realise there are still people in the city. There are plenty of them and they are staying up late and sitting outside, flirting and smoking and getting rolling drunk. There are small children up late because school is out and teenage miscreants blowing off steam and groups of tourists taking pictures of each other in front of the Manneken Pis and eating waffles. When northern European city centres on a summer evening take on that lingering late night warmth their southern counterparts take for granted, when the sky is indigo and the guild houses on the Grand-Place are floodlit, it's a little bit magic.

Ice cream - I can take or leave ice cream, truly. I love a Mr Whippy ("Mr Whippet" L still calls them), but you can't get them here, I don't like lollies and I despise the ubiquitous Magnum with its overly thick and claggy layer of chocolate. Whither the 1980s dark choc ice, the wafer thin, barely-there chocolate (probably 'chocolate flavour') outside, the crisp crunch and the grainy, crap ice cream? But I do love the weird, unapologetic, pleasure-loving Brussels ritual of ice cream.  Glacier Zizi at the end of our street is open until eleven on weeknights and midnight at weekends and the benches outside and all the seats inside are full. There are lots of people are sitting in their cars eating ice cream too, a bizarre Belgian custom I just can't fathom. In the queue around the window, couples on dates and elderly ladies in pairs wearing sundresses and cardies and families discuss the relative merits of speculoos and stracciatella and convey complicated, protracted orders to the unsmiling salesgirls, but no one really minds waiting, because it's warm and it's late and we're out. Even in Uccle, with our footballer's knees and angry bands of sunburn, we can pretend, just for the evening, that we live in Naples.

The drinks Iced coffee and Pimms and Aperol spritz, vanilla milkshakes and elderflower cordial and Negronis: summer has all the good drinks.


That's all I've got, so far, and it has to be set against wasps, barbecues, the fetid soup that is summer public transport and prickly heat. What else should I love about summer?

13 comments:

Patience_Crabstick said...

I'm genetically a celt, although my family left Ireland in 1847, and hot weather makes me deeply anxious. And I live in the American south, so it gets truly hot--hotter than summer in Cape Town, according to my daughter who spent six months living there.

I do love being free of the tyranny of our public school system for the summer. It's also nice that all the university students have gone home to hog all the parking spaces and restaurant tables in their own towns rather than mine.

Anonymous said...

I will think about what there is to love about summer at some later point in time.
For now, I just want to say that I absolutely LOVE your writing at any time of the year.

Happydog said...

I totally agree about summer. I especially feel bad about not being excited about it like you should be--especially if you live in Canada where the summers are short.
I do enjoy me some ice cream. And just the permission summers seems to give you to eat all the desserts and treats. And now that I'm older I find I I don't give a damn how my pasty white legs look in shorts.
And I also love your writing.....

MargotLeadbetter said...

I like the clothes, and being able to wear knee length dresses with bare legs, and sandals, and white cardigans, and going out without even taking a cardigan with you, and going barefoot, and long light evenings, and not feeling like you have to cook because it's hot, and the 'normal service suspended' feel of really hot days, and the quality of the light, and sunny mornings so full of promise, and brown-legged children in shorts and sundresses, and feeling a little bit healthy because you have a bit of a tan, and the long school holidays without any packed lunches or school runs. I love it all to be honest.

frau antje said...

Summer-hating misanthrope weighing in: As soon as every fiber of my being is not torn asunder by soccer ball banging against building, I will think of what I love about summer. No wait, here's a start, your boy that SO sensibly buries himself in bedding, books and snacks. LOVE...even as I waste away to nothing, due to travel, stress, and aforementioned fucking soccer ball. Also, own kid who seems to have no problem with the fact that I have a large, hollow area in my brain where dedicated circuits for 'leading by example' should be. And motorcycles are great, but I distinctly remember sitting down on second half of cross-continent return trip in some midwest parking lot, after too many nights camping with mosquitoes, and crying until we went to some hotel.

Margaret said...

Summer Fridays! I like that many companies give you a bunch of free days off just because it's summer. I like being able to get into all the restaurants that are always too packed during the regular season. I like the fact that NYC runs on a very old-fashioned, strict, Memorial-Day-to-Labor-Day schedule where "everyone" is gone, especially on weekends, and even if you're stuck in the city, it feels like vacation. It's hurricane season, so the weather people are constantly and entertainingly on the verge of losing their shit. (I don't like hurricanes, though. I'm not a lunatic.) Mostly, I like that it's not actually snowing.

Anonymous said...

In the summer I love gardening and not wearing shoes, going out with only one and a half layers of clothing on (counting the unders). But I hate that my groceries will spoil if left in the car, how everything is hot and sticky, I hate how the bugs are large and take up residence in every corner of the house, I hate blisters from sweating in shoes, and that smell that accompanies them. So I guess I don't love summer that much, thanks!

Sally said...

Ummm...the little fat Shetland x Welsh pony gets conjunctivitis in summer, which means I spend my time dabbing its eyes with water. She hates this, so I get dragged around by a leadrope and kicked with the occasional very small Shetland hoof (which still bloody hurts).

I can stop feeding the pet lambs though, and throw them out into the great outdoors to get fat on grass. Although my husband is a bag of nerves, with one eye on the weather forecast, as he starts harvest soon.

I do love your posts about Brussels. I can imagine I'm a sophisticated, European city dweller, rather than a hairy, straw covered farmer's wife permanently in welly boots...

Alison Cross said...

I think you did very well to come up with that list. I don't do well in the heat either - Tartarus says that I've got a wonky thermostat. Everything is always too cold, too cold, too cold.....and then it goes up by a degree or two and then I'm roasting hot, too hot, too hot.

Roll on Autumn, I say! :-D

Xtreme English said...

Nothing about Belgium whipping the USA in the World Cup??

cruella said...

The slightly too chilly swims in the nearby sea/lake/river. That's all I can say.

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Hollowlegs said...

The fruit! Nectarines, peaches, apricots, cherries, berries in all their forms, mangos eaten over the sink. Vine ripe slightly sun warmed tomatoes. Basil. Chilled Rose. Port Willunga beach. Daylight saving! Well, in the sensible states of Australia. Campari. That humming sound early in a day that is going to be a scorcher. The Boxing Day test.
As for the bad: bush fires. Always horrific.