By Oliver Brett
“Miserable out there isn’t it?” a cashier tells me in Sydney CBD. It is August, she shivers behind the counter. It is no less than 15°C , a mild day but nothing worse than that. I myself am dressed in a long jacket and wrapped with a scarf. I feel the cold more than most with my skinny frame and poor circulation. However, to me it is a pleasant day. In fact most of the “winter” has been what I would commonly describe as “lovely”. I arrive home that evening to hear the Channel 9 weatherman declaring that “finally the worst of this winter is over and we can be excited for summer”. I stare at my television perplexed and ask simply; “Why would you be excited for that?”.
This year will be the fourth Sydney summer of my lifetime and I am excited for its arrival every bit as much as I am excited for a visit to the dentist. I have treated every winter/spring day here as a blessing. I love to go for walks by the harbour. I avoid public transport as much as I can, should it be possible to walk the same distance. I am getting great use out of my most fashionable clothing, I can sit outside for hours in absolute comfort. Mornings have sometimes been a bit brisk but the addition of a light inner layer of clothing often gets me through to the afternoon where I can remove that layer and keep myself at a comfortable temperature, add this layer again for the evening commute home and all is fine and dandy. When one is too cold they can add a layer, when one is too hot they can remove a layer. Adding some cold weather accessories like a hat, gloves and scarf to the bag on the way out the door is the perfect provision to deal with whatever weather is thrown at you. I am well used to this level of preparation, having grown up on the west of coast of Ireland where the expression of “four seasons in one day” very often comes to pass.
Lets bring this back to the present. It is now late-October, we have had two days which have broken the 35°C. Bush fires in the Hunter region of New South Wales have left Sydney covered in a smoky haze with the air quality described as “hazardous”, and there is much worse to come. I am aware that the media obsession with summer may well be driven by retailers looking for a summer boom period as children receive their school holidays and international tourists arrive in droves. Equally, I acknowledge that massive parts of Australian culture revolve around the summer period e.g. festival season, cricket season, “beach and barbie” season, higher ocean temperatures etc. In response to this I always wonder “what could you actually not do here in winter?”. Conditions are ideal for sport; not too cold as to have frozen pitches, not too wet as to have mass game cancellations, not too hot as to have athletes competing at a slower more reserved pace. Music events would be incredibly pleasant to attend outdoors in winter and most likely much safer, with summer festivals continually clouded by high numbers of hospitalisations as a result of dehydration and drug-related complications (generally triggered by dehydration). When you have large water cannons spraying into audiences to prevent mass dehydration/heat stroke then you know the event is operating in defiance of nature and not in conjunction with it. Unfortunately winter festivals are a rarity in Sydney due to the imperious competition provided by European summer festivals during this period.
It can seem at times that summer in Sydney is welcomed most by those who want to have their vanity rewarded. Sydney residents have an obsession with fitness and well-being, the culture of the city and the climate only feeds this movement. Clearly there are worse movements that one could be involved with, this I acknowledge. Unfortunately here it fuels an unhealthy narcissism reminiscent of Los Angeles. People take their perception and image very seriously, certainly by comparison to Ireland where the idea of “comfort eating” during the winter months is an accepted norm. Regularly working out and making sure that others see these results via Instagram is very important here in the winter months. In the summer months this importance shifts to being seen in person, usually wearing as little clothing as possible so that all the results are on show. After all, this is what they have worked for all winter. I’m really not sure whether people enjoy visiting the beach as much as they enjoy being seen at the beach. Days where temperatures soar to +30°C are a blessing for such people. As a stick-thin pale white Irishman I probably could never understand, as much as I might try.
Often, I come to the conclusion that people just were not meant to live here during the summer months and they should be treated much like the Spanish treat their summers. In the south of Spain the region basically runs only for tourists in the summer, the pace of life for the locals drops significantly and long afternoon “siestas” are a regular occurrence in traditional districts. Locals will work only as hard and as long as they have to and dress code and hours of operation are very loose. Locals try to hide from the sun as long as possible and their meal times extend well into the evening when the sun has gone and temperatures drop. I don’t feel like Sydney businesses have allowed themselves that same flexibility and they certainly don’t respect the sun as much as their European counterparts. Everything is business as usual and this is the perception which they want to project. You will still see men and women in suits covered in sweat arriving at their offices at 9am, the temperature is +40°C but life goes on.
There is much more that I could say but I would prefer to write a completely separate article on the drought of NSW and how oblivious the Sydney population have been to its impact. I could have spoken about the hullabaloo involved in simply sitting into your parked car, vastly increased pest populations, how unbearable living in a home without air conditioning can be, but alas there is no time. However, when you are sitting outside in January, batting flies out of your eyes (and food) as you apply one cream to your insect bites and another to your sunburn, try to remember how excited you once were for the ever heralded summer.