Musings about siroccos
Here we are on the last day of July and already we are physically and psychologically shutting down for a month of torpor. I suppose it’s the opposite of hibernation, the summer equivalent of which I would imagine to be estivation, which, of course, is an invention of mine to describe how the extreme heat at the apex of summer, August, has, over the past few years, given a semi-official licence for us to be petrified into immobility.
As far as I was aware, this practice of “shutdown” as it is quaintly called, was the prerogative our Italian neighbours who all, without exception, like lemmings, go on holiday during Ferragosto. I have seen even busy and industrious Milan grind to halt in August with empty streets and shops on skeleton staffing. Malta is relatively new to this vacational mayhem.
I feel it is rather strange myself that in a tiny island like ours, where the nearest resort, pool, beach, lido or spa is never more than 20 minutes away, why one has to close shop to relax during one specific month but work practices have, since I started working in the early 1970s, changed so drastically that, yes, we do go on holiday in August for relatively different reasons than just to escape the relentless sirocco.
In the days of old, before air conditioning became a necessity and not a luxury, we Maltese started work very early in the morning to avoid the fiercest heat of the day and knocked off before the temperatures rose to broiling point because we had no summertime hour displacements. We made our way down to the nearest beach and wallowed in the cool water for hours on end till the evening descended and slightly cooler breezes made life more bearable.
We had noisy propeller fans at our place of work, which, generally, shoved hot air from one corner of the room to the other. I remember the privilege of being given my own electric fan when a cashier in one of the Sliema Mid-Med Bank branches and I had got the bright idea of shoving this fan down between my feet to cool myself completely from below. This worked beautifully till I accidentally let fall a packet of fivers and suddenly my cashiers’ cubicle became like a fountain of five pound notes, much to the amusement and delight of the bank’s customers.
The funny thing is that, because of the way we worked then, with our summer half days, there was no need to go “on holiday” as one was able to balance a working morning with a relaxed afternoon. This way of life has disappeared because, today, people now work a full day insulated from the heat in capsules of artificial coldness. This causes the body to be able to cope less and less with the rising heat and creates a Catch 22 situation where people prefer the comfort of their air-conditioned offices to the rigours of having to find a spot to spread ones beach towel and adventurous aquatic manoeuvrings to avoid swarms of jellyfish.
There was, mind you, no frisson more delicious and invigorating than jumping into a cold sea after a hot morning at work. Those hours of discomfort were worth spending just for the luxury of being able to swing from the extreme of being transformed from a coffee-drinking tied and suited bank employee to, in a matter of not more than half an hour, a hatted and flip-flopped beach bum sipping icy Mojitos! O tempora, o mores!
Our summers have become much hotter in the same way as our winters have become much colder. As the environmentalists and the scientists dispute this fact and argue as to whether global warming does exist or not, all I can say is that my body seems to be able to cope with temperature variation ever less and less the older I become. It is, I believe, these abrupt changes of temperature that are responsible for our inbuilt thermostats going totally out of synch.
In Paris, last February, with temperatures that were almost arctic, one had to wear layers that one peeled off with alacrity as soon as one went into a restaurant or a museum as the tropical temperatures of central heating got to you through your wardrobe on legs. It was a sight, seeing people sitting at table in shirtsleeves and t-shirts next to piles of discarded clothes.
In Malta, if one goes to a supermarket on a hot day, after 10 minutes the chill gets to you and I feel I would give my eyeteeth for a pair of long trousers, boots and an anorak! Same happens in cinemas. Even though we depend on them more and more with each passing year, air conditioning and central heating cannot be good for us, can they?
Life has become so strange, when you think about it. Up to a couple of decades ago, possibly less, one wouldn’t have dreamt of eating a fresh tomato out of season and, yet, today, tomatoes are available all the year round as are most fruits and vegetables if one can pay for them.
The time-honoured maxim of there being a time and a place for everything will cease to cut any ice as necessities, commodities and even luxuries become objects within the reach of Mr Average all the year round and even swimming itself can be exercised even in January with heated and outdoor heated pools.
So our seasonal dependencies will gradually become a thing of the past and then what will become of us? Will we become so blasé about it all that we will cease to make any sense of our culinary traditions and vocational customs anymore? I wonder.