Summer frights

We’ve been in Australia three and a half years now, but apparently I still haven’t shaken off all my northern hemisphere-based assumptions about life and its ways. This becomes particularly evident as high summer approaches, with its glorious Australian sun piercing through the thin ozone layer above Canberra turning everything technicolour and iron hot.

As temperatures creep up past 35C, the locals retreat deep into their houses, mostly bungalows with broad eaves all around, external shades you can roll out over the windows and big leafy trees out front. There’s not a sound or movement detectable behind thick blinds and no one ever seems to use the chairs put out on the porch. Cars sit sparkling in driveways, windscreens blocked off with silver shades.

Meanwhile, in my non-Aussie mind, my instincts are to crave sunlight and fear Vitamin D deficiency, and to panic that the kids won’t sleep well if they haven’t been outside twice a day. As a result, I still underestimate the Australian sun, and I’m mildly shocked when I find that the playground equipment is too hot to play on by 9am, or my face gets sunburnt because I chose to wear sunglasses on my head instead of a hat, or we leave the satnav roasting in the car and its screen goes psychedelic.

Inside the house, I’m not much better. Until Canberra, I’ve only ever lived substantially north of the equator – in Tokyo, London, Beijing – where my dream was to live in a property that’s flooded with sunlight, ideally south facing with big windows and an open view. Needless to say, I never achieved that. In Tokyo, apartment living for a singleton on a modest income barely afforded a view let alone a south facing one, but I would look up at the small rectangle sky and project onto it many a profound thought. In London, where DD and I first started living together, each morning we’d pull back the curtains and throw open the windows, more out of optimism than anything, and each evening we’d wonder if those streaks of sunlight weaving between the clouds were enough of an invitation to have dinner out on the fire escape even though it was actually blimmin’ cold. And in our Beijing family apartment, our delight in having a large window overlooking the city was somewhat marred when on most days we were staring dead eyed at a panorama of soupy smog.

In comparison, our bungalow in Canberra’s inner suburbs has windows facing east and west, with the sun pouring into the front of the house in the morning and glorious sunsets visible beyond the back garden. I refuse to pull the external shades down over the windows, because blocking the view is blasphemy. Each morning before breakfast I stride through the house pulling up every blind, for my northern hemisphere self yearns for the sun streaming into every room, gently caressing the furniture, warming our bodies and souls, beaming hope and joy into the day ahead. But alas, the Australian sun cares not for my vision of domestic felicity painted in watercolour; instead, it’s neon bright, it’s strong, it’s bloody hot. It blinds my children while they’re chewing their toast, fries them while they’re playing on the floor and these days it tries its utmost to ignite the baubles on our Christmas tree. So half an hour later I’m back striding through the house pulling half the blinds down again.

The other thing that catches me off guard in the Canberra summer is the cicadas. From sunrise to sundown, there is a constant surround sound chorus of these creatures, who are mostly hidden in the large swathes of foliage that exist all around our neighbourhood. Each year when I first hear them, I immediately think of Japan where cicadas are synonymous with high summer, where the mere sound of them seems to raise the heat and humidity a couple of notches – your vision starts to blur, your sweat pores gasp for breath, and you start flapping your hand by your face like a mad thing. But you also feel a vague sense of satisfaction that you are in that moment experiencing Quintessential Summer – much like you might in London when you’re chaining G&Ts on a hot July afternoon jostling between drunken colleagues in an alley behind a pub.

As the summer rolls on in Canberra though, I realise the cicadas here are different from those in Japan. Firstly, Japanese cicadas are more tuneful, more harmonious, more rhythmic, while the Canberra versions drone on in an indistinctive, unvarying hum. As such, after a while you can almost tune it out like you would the hum of an air con unit. Perhaps because of this blandness, the cicadas don’t particularly evoke in me whimsical sensations of Quintessential Summer – but they do evoke certain other sensations when they start dropping dead around the garden and I accidentally crunch them underfoot. These buggers are big and striking; they’re easily six centimetres long and charcoal black, the fine lines on their wings like silhouettes laser cut from card. But their eyes are what really get me going: they’re a demonic red, and if the head has detached from the body and the eyes are bulging out from the fragmented skull – that’s not a highlight of my day.


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