Monday, 30 April 2012

La douche écossaise


Anyone who’s spent any time in France, especially in Lyon, will know that April is a turning point.  The weather improves, winter coats are stored away and the colour palette moves to pastels and beige.  Conversation turns to whether or not there will be a canicule (heatwave) this year…

Accordingly, Monsieur R has been poised, waiting for this seasonal shift.  I kept putting off telling him that it aint going to happen.  Before we got a chance to have this conversation, at the end of March, the weather suddenly turned to summer.  Scotland basked in glorious sunshine, enjoying temperatures in the twenties (allegedly 24 in Aberdeen).  Monsieur R managed to find his shorts and almost wore them outside, before being reminded that it was March, in Scotland and not July in Ardèche.

This surreal state of affairs carried on for about a week.  Long enough to start looking at barbecues and actually believing you could wear the summer clothes that Scottish shops sell.  And then, just when Monsieur R had been lulled into a false sense of seasonality, we awoke to snow.  Not just flurries of dancing flakes, but a proper white-out.  The temperature plummeted by more than 20 degrees and, like the morning-after-the-night- before, we all came to and remembered where we lived.  The brief taste of summer was bittersweet and left the population feeling like a child who was given a toy, then had it taken away.

The French would call this une douche écossaise, literally a Scottish shower.  The saying originally meant a hot then cold shower, reputedly good for the circulation, but figuratively  refers to any situation which can rapidly change, catching you off guard and unawares. And in our house, it’s the best way Monsieur R has found to explain the several different weather fronts that we get in one day.

Moving from France to Scotland, adapting to the climate is quite a challenge.  The temperature is undeniably different, but the real difficulty is the uncertainty.  In Lyon, the beginning of the good weather is the time to put away the winter “wardrobe” and bring out the summer “wardrobe”, with a short detour via the "mi-saison" for the undecided in-between stage.  I remember showing a new coat to my mum, who thought that it was nice, but probably not that warm.  It’s not meant to be warm, I explained, it’s a mi-saison.  This is not a clothing term we use in Scotland.  Nor do we use the concept of seasonal wardrobes.

The key to surviving the Scottish climate is to dress and plan strategically.  I have never been invited to a barbecue in France in July with the caveat that, if the weather’s turns ugly we’ll … Everyone knows that, save for a real freak of nature, the weather will be good enough to have the barbecue.  In Scotland however, every outdoor event or trip must have a Plan B, in case of snow, horizontal rain or hurricane-like conditions.  Dressing accordingly means layering clothes: a summery base layer, in case of a heat wave, topped with strata of attire suitable for sub-zero temperatures, rain, wind or all of the above.  Add children into the mix and you’ll also need a spare change of all of these clothes, plus some welly boots.  And a towel.

This can sound a bit depressing, but, ever the optimist, Monsieur R has managed to find a redeeming feature: a forced capacity for resourcefulness.  The ability to formulate and fall back on a Plan B is not a skill you need to hone if the weather usually behaves itself.  The climate of uncertainty also means that you learn to drop everything at the first signs of a good day and head for the beach (although where we live, you have weigh up the risk that it may be nice here, but raining on the coast 45 minutes away); a ray of sunshine is greeted with joy and flesh is bared, irrespective of the temperature.  Monsieur R, wrapped up in his winter jacket, looks on aghast as other parents in the playground pass by in shorts and flip flops.

This has perhaps been the steepest learning curve so far for Monsieur R - understanding and acquiring the wardrobe that goes with any time spent in Scotland.  A light jacket that’s waterproof but breathable combined with a puffy body warmer covers hot, cold and wet weather.  Waterproof trousers for knee-depth snow and severe horizontal rain.  Wellington boots.  But always knowing where your shorts are.  Just in case.

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