The Days of the Blackbird: When Italy Is Coldest

Wed, 01/23/2013 - 07:45

Carol King explains how she found out that Italy can be a cold place in winter.

When people think of Italy’s climate they conjure up images of blue skies, sunshine and balmy warm evenings. This is no doubt because the country is a top tourist destination, being the ideal place to spend a summer holiday eating al fresco and lazing on a beach looking out at the glistening waters of the Mediterranean. But that’s not the whole story.

Italy can also be a cold, damp, rainy and snowy place – honestly. I found that out some years ago when I experienced my first stay in Italy during the so-called ‘giorni della merla’ (days of the blackbird). It was the early days of January and I was experiencing a state of post-festive blues in chilly London, when I spotted a cheap flight to Sicily at the end of January. I could fly out on 29 January for a long weekend. A jaunt to southern climes seemed to be the ideal pick-me-up and I bought a ticket.

When I called a friend to tell him of my imminent arrival in his homeland I met with exasperation. His voice rose to fever pitch as he said, “But that’s the time of the giorni della merla!” At the time, my Italian wasn’t up to translating the phrase and he patiently explained that the blackbird days are the coldest in Italy. He told me they were the worst time to travel in Italy. Being pig headed and somewhat ignorant, I dismissed his warning as a typical example of Italian exaggeration. I shouldn’t have done – and if I had known the story of the days of the blackbird, I might have saved myself some trouble.

According to tradition, the days of the blackbird are 29, 30 and 31 January – although some say they include 1 February too. How they became known as the ‘days of the blackbird’ is unknown. One hypothesis is they got their name from a legend that tells the story of a female blackbird. One bitterly cold, snowy day at the end of January, the blackbird was looking for shelter for herself and her white chicks. The mother found a chimneystack, where she and her young took refuge inside from the cold and winds. When they emerged three days later, the birds were covered in soot and henceforth, all blackbirds were black.

Giorni della Merla

Blackbirds do appear as if they have been nestling in soot: the female common blackbird (Turdus merula) is a sooty brown in colour and the male is black, while chicks sport plumage in varying shades of brown and when very young have speckled breasts. The days of the blackbird are also cold: the Centro Geofisico Prealpino (Pre-alpine Geophysical Centre) records that from 1967 to 1999 the average temperature of the three days, 29, 30 and 31 January was 3.6C, reaching a minimum of 0.1C. However, statistically, the temperature tends to increase after 10 January. So perhaps the legend of the blackbird was born at a time when January was colder than it is now, or people felt that the heart of the winter was the coldest period because they had already suffered wintry weather for a few months.

And why do I wish I had known the story of the days of the blackbird? My flight from London Heathrow was delayed because of bad weather in Italy. When I arrived in Milan on the stop over, my next flight was delayed because of snow. I stared out of the departure lounge at piles of snow on the runway. There were lines of aircraft surrounded by snowploughs and men sweeping the runway. I called my friend with an update on the progress of my journey to hear an inevitable sigh as I had not heeded his warning.

While I settled down to read a book in the waiting area, I watched other passengers get increasingly frustrated and angry by the delays. Voices were raised, hands flung in the air and – being unused to the Italian way of expressing emotion – I expected to witness a punch-up any minute. That never happened: after passengers had let off steam to airport staff they then all shook hands. The airport staff smiled sympathetically and shook their heads as if consoling grieving relatives at a funeral, warmly patting passengers on the back as if they were old friends. The disappointed passengers headed off to the nearest café with mobile phones attached to their ears to relay their horror stories to their family and friends.

Giorni della Merla

After several hours delay, I reached Sicily. I spent most of my days of the blackbird indoors, sheltering from the howling winds and heavy rain outside. Buildings in Sicily aren’t built to withstand the cold, they are constructed to bear up under the extreme heat of the summer. I shivered inside a building with marble floors, no curtains and no central heating. When I left to get my flight back to London there was a huge downpour: the road to where I was staying had turned into a muddy brown river. The drive to the airport was a nail-biting experience as we wove around puddles that resembled ponds, raced along bumpy roads that were impassable because of the mud and water, and the windscreen wipers were on overdrive so much I thought they’d pop off.

The moral of the story for me was to learn to take off my rose-tinted glasses about Italy, listen to the advice of the locals and learn to eat a large slice of humble pie. I’ve since realised that places in northern Italy like Milan and Brescia can be just as cold and grey as London during the winter months. I’ve also come to know that although Sicily’s coastal areas get little snow, it regularly snows inland in the hills and mountains in the winter, meaning that Italians don’t just ski in the Alps, they ski in Sicily too, on Mount Etna and at Piano Battaglia near Palermo. I’ve learned too that according to legend, if the days of the blackbird are cold then a fine spring is ahead, but if they are warm then spring will arrive late. On a chilly day like today, it looks as if a fine spring is ahead, but I’ll wait and see what the days of the blackbird bring.

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