When my Italian husband first told me that spring in Italy began on the 21st of March rather than the 1st, I thought he was joking. “Oh really?” I exclaimed sarcastically. “And what date does summer begin on then, the 8th of June?”.
I thought he was prendendomi in giro, teasing me. When I realised he was serious my reaction was ‘just one more random thing to remember about living in Italy, Hairdressers are shut on Mondays, Alimentari are shut on Thursday afternoons, and seasons begin on the 21st of the month instead of the 1st’. I didn’t know that the 21st was the Solstice or Equinox and that the seasons in Italy were based on a date that reflected a planetary shift, and an actual change in the environment.
I came from a land where the four seasons meant little change in the climate, flora, fauna or human activities. Until I lived in Italy I didn’t understand the seasonal approach to life. Our native flora stays green all year round and the leaves don’t drop, our animals don’t go into hibernation, it only gets cold enough to snow in one tiny corner of our country, and most parts of the country stay so warm that watermelon, pineapple and cucumbers can be grown, and are available all year round.
I found that in Rome, as in most of Italy, the seasons were very distinct and easily distinguishable. Winter was very cold, summer was incredibly hot, autumn was full of leaves on the ground, and spring was full of foliage replenishing itself. You could not only feel the difference in the temperature of the seasons, you could actually watch them manifesting themselves before your eyes, and there was no mistaking which season you were in. The changing of seasons also meant corresponding changes to the types of food available and eaten, the types of wine drunk, what clothes were worn, and what activities were undertaken. These changes were anticipated and taken seriously. I was recently in Rome on holidays in September. Coming out of a Melbourne winter I was relishing the warm, early autumn temperatures, and being able to finally wear my summer clothes. A woman passed me on the street and I heard her say to her friends,
“Look at that ridiculous woman still wearing her summer clothes in September! Doesn’t she know its autumn?”
One of the new customs I was introduced to when I lived in Italy was the twice yearly Il cambio, the changeover. I listened in amazement to my Italian friends describe how twice a year they took all their clothes out of the wardrobe, packed them away, and replaced them with the new season’s clothes. This included shoes and accessories. I was warned to do this in plenty of time before the season change, which I ignored until one day when I went to work in my summer clothes and sandals on a warm late September morning. During the day it rained and the temperature had dropped 20 degrees. When I left work it was autumn. I was wet, freezing, and spent the evening scrambling for my boots and coats buried in boxes. I never left it too late again.
Melbourne’s seasons don’t seem to begin on the 1st or the 21st of the month they are supposed to. I have spent the past five years experimenting with when to do the ‘changeover’. Just as I think I get it right and smugly inform my friends that I have successfully completed an activity that upholds my new seasonal approach to life, I usually receive a phone call a week or so later asking if I am freezing or boiling and do I need to borrow a jumper or be lent a pair of shorts?
Bronte is a Social Anthropologist, and author of ‘Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all seasons’. Currently living in Melbourne she spent 17 years living and working in Rome with the United Nations.Visit her at brontejackson.com