Patti Chiari - Bold Britons and red earth

Fri, 09/17/2010 - 04:39

Words by Pat Eggleton

A strange aspect of changing your country is that for a while you can lose what I call your “inner barometer”, the part of you that, in your own country, instinctively knows what the weather is going to do.

Sometimes when it momentarily clouds over in Sicily you might think, “It is bound to rain” but nothing happens and back comes the sun. Or it is nearly cold but not quite and part of you is waiting for that British chill in the air, which does not come.

This “loss of the inner barometer” is quite unnerving while it lasts as our instinct for weather is a deeply ingrained one although we have probably never thought about it. My instinct for Sicilian weather is not perfect yet but it is getting better and I do like telling visitors that it is perfectly safe to leave that umbrella in the hotel!

Nothing had prepared me, though, for the morning in 2009 when I woke up and thought I was Dorothy on the yellow-brick road as everything outside was bathed in a strange, yellow light that I had never seen before.
It all looked more yellow than in the photo, which was the only one I dared take as I was in imminent danger of being blown off the balcony at the time. I rubbed my eyes, closed and reopened the bedroom window, looked again and it was still there – a yellow world.

After four years, I had seen many disturbing sky colours in Sicily but I had never witnessed anything like this, so I called my friends Linda and Gino, the most sensible people I know. “Don’t worry”, said Linda, before I’d even told her why I was calling: “It’s just the Scirocco or maybe the Ghibli wind picking up sand on the way. The Sicilians call it 'terra rossa' [red earth] and it won't last long.” Sure enough, when I looked out again, the world had returned to normal. Later, the television news bulletins confirmed that the wind had, in fact, been a hurricane and trees were down all over Modica.

Someone from the UK is, of course, no stranger to changeable weather but in Britain we do not usually experience climatic extremes: if it rains one day, it is often sunny the next and thunder storms do not generally last long. Therefore thunder and lightning which lasted three days with no let-up at all came as a surprise to me when I first experienced such a storm in 2005. When it rains in Sicily it usually rains heavily and that is what makes the island so fertile.

I am convinced that it is Persephone who brings the rain every time, although she is only supposed to come in spring and, if that is a romantic, Mediterranean notion, in another matter I remain stubbornly British: I simply cannot adopt the Italian habit of just waiting for the rain to stop before venturing out or, if caught in rain while out, I cannot bring myself to take shelter until it stops.
The Brit in me cannot waste the time and is still convinced that if it is raining, it is going to rain all day, so on I boldly go and am often the only person walking around in the rain.

As I write, with autumn approaching, we are all still in sleeveless dresses. But within the next ten days or so, the Italian women, as if in response to some invisible signal, will simultaneously don autumn outfits. They will then continue to wear autumn or winter clothing until spring even if the temperature suddenly soars, for clothing, like food, is strictly seasonal here.

I do not think we will be lucky enough to have an “estate di San Martino” [St Martin's summer] this year but even without this bonus, autumn is a wonderful time to be in Sicily: there are glorious, sunny days, still without a cloud in that famous blue sky and the first year I was here I remember lunching outside in the middle of December. That is nothing short of a miracle for a Brit!

Finally, one should not, perhaps, joke about earthquakes in view of recent tragic events but the first time I experienced a tremor I did not even realise what it was: it was 5 am and the young man in the flat above had recently married. So when the ceiling started to creak and there were other strange noises you may imagine what my thoughts were...