Summer’s for fun, isn’t it?

2010-02-18 00:00

SHE was half Sioux, an artist with a gold ring through one nostril and a way of looking at you that was lazy and amused and slightly wicked all at the same time. Fern. We shared a house some 25 years ago. For nine months of the year she earned her living pedalling furiously around San Francisco, a Barbie doll tied to the handlebars of her messenger’s bicycle like a freaky ship’s figurehead. When summer came she stopped and took a three- month break.

Summer was for fun. Summer was for living, easy living. Don’t we all believe that? Sometimes I wonder why. It’s easier to understand it being hardwired into people from the northern hemisphere who are shaped by the intensity of their winter. But here on the eastern seaboard of the southern tip of Africa, summer is different. You could say our psychological summer, that time of heady los-ness and the desire to celebrate, is a more complicated affair. While it’s hard to suppress an expectation of sun-drenched fun, summer is never quite what we imagine.

As a child growing up on the coast this dawned on me when I realised that the long, six-week stretch of beach- time opportunity we looked forward to all year was seldom realised. For most of the holiday the weather was grey and muggy. Then, when we had returned to our school with its dazzling view of the ocean, we would be taunted by The Big Blue sparkling like a pampered diamond.

We’re in the final month of the season and, apart from the last fortnight, summer has felt like a letdown again. There’s been so much rain the concrete verandah at my house in Hilton has gone green. There’s a thick carpet of moss on the driveway and the damp feels normal.

Driven by the calendar’s end-of-year excesses, in December we plunge into the global ritual of celebrating summer but holidays are likely to be disappointingly grey and wet. The children may still swim in the rain but what’s summer if you don’t get sun on your body?

Of course there are other perspectives. When a friend visited in January from Cape Town she remarked on how nice it was to have rain to take the edge off the heat. If you don’t like being hot, a Cape summer is an ordeal of unrelenting intensity.

And two summers spent in Alaska taught me to be stoical about rain. There everyone wore gumboots all the time and nothing stopped for the endless drizzle. I even went to a braai where we first drenched the wet pile of wood with petrol before setting it ablaze. After an Alaskan winter, summer rain is a piffle.

Perhaps that’s the point of summer, that it’s not winter. In Alaska this contrast is stark — 20-hour days versus 20-hour nights, and two layers of clothing versus survival gear — but even here we celebrate these differences in a watered-down form.

Summer may have its irritations but they’re nothing when compared with the perils of its shadow. And after summer comes autumn, when we finally get that golden weather we’ve been craving for months.

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