Autumn is a season I had all but forgotten about. For years, it would seem, summer would jump straight into winter and my soul, without having had a chance to adapt, would miserably shiver at the thought of yet another long succession of cold and rainy months.
It didn’t used to be like this.
I remember the long autumns of my Bulgarian childhood, when nature would gradually change from lush greens into harvest yellows and reds. My primary school was backing onto a hill and, I recall our teacher taking us up there one autumn afternoon to play and pick pine-cones, acorns and foliage to use in a collage during our next art class. We had a little pick-nick up there on a clearing among the trees dressed in orange, yellow and red. Then we ran around and the leaves – thickly covering the earth – crunched beneath our feet.
As a teenager, every autumn we would be taken out of school for two weeks for the compulsory brigade. In other words, instead of studying, we would congregate at a meeting point in town early each day and then a line of coaches would ferry us to one of the many vineyards surrounding my home town of Varna. We would spend the day picking grapes and, mostly, having fun under the watchful eye of our teachers, who would tick off on a piece of paper the number of buckets each one of us would fill.
Using teenage labour like this was a cheap way for the local companies to ensure that the agricultural produce was harvested on time. It was also considered that the brigade gave us – the unruly youth – a first-hand understanding of hard graft. When the two weeks were up, we would return to school and after a month or so, would receive the money we had earned with our own hands.
I don’t know if the practice of brigades is still in force in Bulgaria today, but looking back with hindsight, it was, mostly, good fun.
So, yes, I remember these autumns clearly. The warm sunny days of summer’s last hurrah when the trees in their best autumnal attire would come into a sharp focus against the perfectly blue sky. Then the drizzle and the rain, and the sleet. The streets would get wet and sometimes fast streams of water would run down them dragging handfuls of miserable fallen leaves – all brown and broke.
Then, one morning, usually in November, we would pull the curtains up and there it would be – the first snow. White and sparkling for a little while, before the sea breeze decomposed it into dirty slush which squelched under our boots.With this autumn was officially over and we could start looking forward to New Year’s Eve, which before the Fall of the Berlin Wall was the biggest celebration of the year, rather than Christmas.
I think things started going wrong for autumn and I after I moved to London in the year 2000. Initially, I enjoyed living in a weather continuum. I mean, after the temperatures of Varna – where summer often hits the 35 degrees Celsius mark and winter can plummet down to a minus 5 to minus 10 – living at a year-round average of about 12 degrees felt like a blessing. No more crazy hot days when you felt like you would liquefy. No more terribly cold mornings when the wet sea breeze would chill you to the marrow of your bones.
Apart from a couple of cold weeks in winter and a couple of hot weeks (if we were lucky) in summer, London seemed to exist in a weather capsule, where it was deemed normal to wear open shoes in December and to carry a summer coat in July.
Plus, fashion was always three to six months ahead of the astronomical seasons. As such, colourful flip-flops and floaty sarongs would appear in shops as soon as the New Year was rung in and heavy coats, thick tights and knee-high boots would adorn the window displays on Oxford Street from June onward.
This additionally skewered my perception of natural weather rules, but what completely made me dispense with autumn was the unrelenting advance of Christmas.
Christmas is big business in the UK.
I read somewhere some time ago that back in Victorian times, Christmas shopping was not done until about two weeks before Christmas Eve. This would have been deemed totally disorganised, lax or simply crazy by standards today.
Not only people start shopping for Christmas presents and food earlier and earlier each year, but British department stores seem to be surreptitiously bringing forward the dates on which they happily open their Christmas departments and start playing cheesy Christmas muzak in their stores. I think, doing this from the end of September onwards is now perceived as normal. As for bookings for Christmas parties and meals, they are taken from August onwards.
Coupled with the drizzly skies, this willingness to turn Christmas from a day of celebration into a three-month long commercial festival really didn’t leave much space for autumn at all. In the end, I felt pressurised to start thinking about Christmas as soon as the August bank holiday was gone. So, I stopped paying attention to autumn at all.
Last year, when we moved to Northern Italy, I have to admit, I sort of skipped autumn again. It is just that October and November in our new hometown of Vicenza were hotter than most of the British summers I had behind my back.
The sun was blazing high up in a joyously blue sky. A long succession of warm days followed one another only interrupted by a short-lived rain perhaps every three weeks or so. And even though the ever so stylish Italians were walking around tightly wrapped up in their fashionable jackets and with a scarf artfully knotted around their necks, I took every and any opportunity to go out of the house in a short-sleeved top.
I craved vitamin D, I craved the sun and it felt like the perfect summer to me.
A year later and I have acclimatised myself to the local weather and dress code expectations a bit more. Even though the sun has been shining on most days and the thermometer has been hitting anything from 20 to 30 degrees in the early afternoon for most of October, sometimes I would look around, shiver involuntarily and profess the words: ‘There is a bit of chill in the air!’. At which point my very British and thus very resilient to the cold husband invariably laughs.
Getting used to my Italian environment has brought me a sudden realisation that, yes, it’s autumn! It is not late summer, neither is an early winter, but what we have here is a glorious season of harvest, of nature changing its dress and of the human body getting adapted to this natural transition from hot to cold.
For the first time in many years I have my eyes fully open and my senses fully tuned to the change around me. I admire the trees with their orange, yellow and red leaves. I enjoy walking on the fallen leaves and hear them crunch, I notice the variations in the array of available fruit and veg in the local supermarkets and shops, which only sell what’s in season rather than what has been flown in from far away.
We went on a little trip this past weekend to a small town in the bosom of the Dolomites. The road took us past high hills and steep slopes. I could see how nature was just on the verge of a universal change. Individual trees here and there had already put on their new clothes and dazzled the eyes with their bright foliage. Give it a week though and the whole mountain would be a riot of warm rusty colours.
I enjoyed seeing it and comprehending it all. Sitting in our little red car braving the winding road I felt like autumn had reclaimed me again.
Here is to a beautiful season of harvest, longer nights and adaptation to change. Enjoy!