"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Why Would Anyone Choose To Live In A Cold Climate?

I grew up in New England and one of my most vivid childhood memories was taking the train to Florida in the middle of winter – an overnight sleeper from the bitter cold of Connecticut to the saw grass, palm trees, and bright, sunny beaches of Miami.

I couldn’t sleep on that first train trip south.  What I thought were the white beaches of Daytona was only the sandy Georgian soil white in the moonlight. The train passed stands of loblolly pines and scrub palmettos and went through dark and dense forests.  As the sun came up I could see the marshy flatlands of the northern Florida coast, then orchards and fields. When the train stopped, and I walked out into the morning sun, the most fragrant, strange, and sensuous smell was in the air.  Orange blossoms. The sun was warm on my back.  I could smell dirt and growing things. The sky was clear and light blue.  I took off my sweater, and felt the warmth on my arms and my neck. I was hooked. Why on earth would anyone choose to live in the cold weather?

I love the heat and the humidity. I travel to the Deep South in August and drive with the windows down.  I want to smell the hot Delta cotton fields, the red dirt earthiness of western Alabama, the Black Belt prairies of northern Mississippi, the hot piney woods between Natchez and Meridian.  I rarely air condition my car or room.  I like to lie in the hot, moist Southern air and listen to the cars, voices, and cicadas outside.

I walk in the heat along the Tombigbee River.  When it is hot and very humid I can smell the water, the remnants of sweet honeysuckle, and the barbecue pit on the island.  I like to walk the levees along the Mississippi on the River Road to New Orleans in the summer – freighters and tankers on one side, and down the gradual grassy slopes on the other, beyond the pecan groves, and across the small country road, a grocery store, gas pump, and church.

In the cold, there are no smells.  There is no humidity to carry them.  Only the strongest city smells are held by the cold air – diesel fumes, Starbucks coffee, rancid oil from a Chinese restaurant.

During the worst part of the winter I would walk from my downtown DC office to the National Botanical Gardens – a Belle Époque glass conservatory, and spend an hour on the upper tier, at the top of the tropical canopy where the air was heavy and thick with the scent of plants and earth, and I could hear the trickle of the small stream that had been built through the low shrubs and plants below.


For years I travelled to hot places in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; and my most distinct memories are of the beaches.  I took long three-hour lunches by the Teranga pool in Dakar, eating grilled capitaine and looking out over the Atlantic.  I spent weeks on the palm-fringed lagoons of southern Sri Lanka.  I ate giant prawns and lobster on the Atlantic side of the long peninsula outside of Luanda, lambi creole near Les Cayes, and grilled snapper on the Playa Las Terrenas in the Dominican Republic.

I wear shorts, sandals, and T-shirts well into October in DC.  I won’t let the summer go.   As the days get shorter and the sun lower, I hope that maybe this year will be different – that summer will last through November, or at least warm days.  Then I would only have to survive a few months before the crocuses, daffodils, dogwoods, and lilacs.

I can only remember one time when I felt it was too hot – in the summer in Ouagadougou.  The temperature in the shade was 115F and in the airless, non-air conditioned company car well over 125F.  After two hours of meeting, all in hot, dry, and stifling government offices I began to lose focus.  I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing standing in a rutted, sandy road next to a beat-up old Peugeot Break, nor what I had done, or where I was going.

There was something exotic about sitting out by the pool at the Independence, drinking liter bottles of warm beer, watching the vampire bats take off at dusk from the jacaranda trees in the courtyard.  The temperature never got below 100F, and the mosquitos were fierce; but everyone drank there.  It was the place to go for Africans and expatriates.  It had ambience, cool, and energy.  Every African city has a place like it usually at the biggest international hotel.  I loved it.  I loved the fact that it never cooled off, only cooled down; that there was no respite from the heat, and none sought.

I was probably hotter longer in India than any other place I visited.  Back in the late 60s  there was little air conditioning, and summer temperatures in May and June were never below 100F.  In the worst part of the hot season in Delhi, temperatures were close to 120F, and as the monsoon approached the air became thick with humidity.  People died of the heat in the Gangetic Plain in the summer.  In Bihar and central Maharashtra two of the hottest places in the country, heat waves killed hundreds. On a field trip to Nagpur one year, the temperatures were unseasonably hot, and daytime highs were well over 120F.  At night, in hotel rooms with no air conditioning and no cross ventilation, it never cooled off.  The stone and brick walls held the brutal heat of the day and cooked everyone inside.


In Delhi in late September there were patches of cool near the Lodi Gardens – little oases of fresh air under the neem, jamun, and arjun trees planted by Lutyens a century before. These cool pauses meant that the long, brutally hot summer was over.

In most of India there are three months of monsoon rains, and then nine months of progressively hot weather.  There are no clouds in the sky between the rains, no variation in temperature, no cool Siberian air masses dipping down into the subcontinent.  Just hot, hotter, and hottest; until in mid-June in Bombay the first wispy clouds appear over the Arabian sea.  In two weeks they thicken and darken, and the torrential rains begin.  It is like magic.  Nine long months of blue skies and blazing hot temperatures and then, out of nowhere, the cooling, drenching rains of the monsoon.

I recently watched a good film with George Clooney called The Descendants about a big Hawaiian family dealing with inheritance.  The story is a good one about a single father raising two young girls, trying to mediate among his brothers and sisters all of whom do not agree about the disposition of the family land; but what I remember most is Hawaii.  It is always warm there, and every shot in the movie was against a backdrop of green mountains, blue water, bright sunny skies, palm trees and flowers.  Paradise.  I cannot imagine a better place to live.

So, now that I am retired, why don’t I pick up and move there?  Nothing to stop me.  The thought of ending winter forever, leaving every vestige of ice, snow, biting wind, and frost behind is very tempting indeed.  I am always amazed at the reactions I get when I tell people of my dream to move to Hawaii or the Caribbean.  “Won’t you miss the changing seasons?”, they ask.  I have never liked the changing seasons.  I get depressed when the last warm days of summer go; and fall into an even deeper funk when winter finally comes to DC.  I put up with early Spring, enjoy the the first flowers. I am excited when I see snowdrops in late January and some early crocuses on the south side of streets in my neighborhood; but only because they mean that the hot weather is not far behind.

The colors in mid-October in New England are indeed spectacular. The trees are red, orange, and yellow; but the grass is still green and the sky a deep, dark blue.  An acid-trip kaleidoscope.  But the days are cool and the nights downright cold.  Within two weeks the leaves have all fallen, light snow begins, and by Thanksgiving all is grey, brown, dismal, and freezing.  I have never gotten tired of living in hot climates, never gotten bored of palm trees, palmettos, bougainvillea, and acacia.  A world of permanent blue and green is just fine with me.

My son is an expert skier, and snowboards the double-black diamond slopes on the tops of all the Western mountains. He is always first on the lift in the morning and last off in the evening.  He says there is nothing like standing in fresh powder on the top of a Colorado mountain with the sun just coming over the peaks.

My memories of skiing in northern Vermont during my college years are of nothing but cold.  One morning it was so cold that the gearshift oil on the old VW was frozen and the lift engines could not be started. The cold was frightening, inhuman.  Why would anyone ever want to be here on the mountain in northern New England in January?

I am writing this because today was really the first winter day of the season. A cold front moved through the area and with it snow flurries and temperatures that dropped into the 20s.  Reports were of long delays at airports to the north and the chance of significant snowfall to the west.  The warm temperatures of last week were long gone.  The few impatiens that survived the soft freezes earlier in the month were stone dead.  A few hybrid cold weather roses were still blooming in Georgetown, but they were frost-bitten, tacky-looking, and not long for this world.

As a boy I used to go out into the middle of the 7th hole fairway of the golf club near my house.  The snow was often two or three feet deep, and I could build a shelter – a kind of semi-igloo facing the sun.  There I would sit and warm up in the reflected sunlight.  I could even take off my heavy parka and gloves and pretend that it was a warm day.

In a few weeks I will head off to Beaufort, South Carolina to teach a course in theatre.  The average high temperatures for that time are in the low 60s – not really that warm, but the Spanish moss, swamps, and palmettos give the feeling that it is really not winter; that South Carolina doesn’t have a winter; and the days are simply cool.  By early February it really is warm, and I don’t have to do the New England quickstep and look behind me for the Alberta Clipper coming down to freeze everything solid.

Washington is tolerable as far as a northern city goes.  It rarely snows, and there are only a few weeks of brutally cold weather; but it is never warm until April and as much as I insist on keeping my sandals, shorts, and T-shirt until early November, I am only kidding myself.

So, I think I am here for the long haul – or actually the short haul, given my age.  I plan to spend more and more time in the South and leave just a few tail-end bits of winter to go through in DC.  I know I should listen to my wife who says, “Come on.  It isn’t that bad”; but yes, it is.  I even dream about the soft breezes of Kauai.

1 comment:

  1. Your life sounds exciting, adventurous,..the way i prefer mine to be..i cant wait till i have money and travel to all these warm beautiful places, lie on the beach, sipping on a margarita, and pondering over all the beauty of this world


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