The weather turned and I am reminded that summer never lasts forever. The clouds creeped across the island and although the heat was still sticky and almost unbearable, it was a sign that a new season is coming. The Maltese live for summer, but as someone who is still unaccustomed to the slow and easy life in the heat, I anxiously await the cooler air. For me, the coolness affords new adventures.
Perhaps it is a token of island life, or particular to Malta, but there is much talk of the weather. The weather on this island can change people’s moods, their decisions, their attitudes. Where I’m from, weather is known to be the default topic of abstract small talk between acquaintances or strangers. Here in Malta, weather is discussed seriously and frankly between close friends, lovers, family members.
A whisper between parents, concerned that the wind will make the children wild. A laugh between two friends that the sun and heat promises an epicurean summer. A lesson passed on from one generation to the next: “Red sky at night; shepherds delight. Red sky in the morning; shepherds warning.”
You cannot hide from the weather on this island. It rolls inland from the water and confronts you without any forewarning. The weather can be volatile and unexpected; changing one way and back again. There is the southern wind from Africa in the midsummer months, known as Riħ Isfel, which brings humidity and exasperation. It makes the locals nervous and everything becomes moist. Here, there are few trees for shade, no central air conditioning. In winter, the cold wind from Europe is sharp and relentless. It is a damp cold in Malta. The weather affects the mood of the sea and causes furrowed brows on many a Maltese. A high wind in winter can change your route or cancel your plans.
On an island surrounded by water, you cannot escape the weather. On an island surrounded by water, you cannot escape anything.
In summer it is hot. You cannot start any story about a summer in Malta without these three words. The air is thick and everything one does occurs through the experience of this heat. As Didion once said of the Santa Ana Winds in California, the heat in Malta shows us how close to the edge we truly are. Bodies move slowly and temperaments can become agitated. For those who live in wintry climates, the heat is transcendent — a gift bestowed after months of cold blue ice. But, for the inhabitants of the Med, the heat is not tolerated unless it is served with a long, slow dip in the sea.
The weather in Canada, by comparison, could be considered harsher as our temperatures rise and fall so drastically, and yet we seem to no longer take much notice. Or perhaps, we think we have found a way to manage the weather. We dress accordingly in down filled coats and thick socks and stock our pantries in case of snow-ins. We regularly maintain our houses so that the roofs are strong and the drain pipes are ready to carry away any downpours. We still get into our cars despite warnings of ice. The weather does not slow the train of progress. We are generally focused on other things and the weather is a peripheral concern.
In Malta, on the other hand, the weather is treated with genuine respect. We do not swim in rough seas. We seek cover from the hot sun (we use umbrellas at the beach, we rest at home at midday, we always cross to the shady side of the street). We do not walk into the wind. We hide from the rain. We know that we are small and the sky is big. We know that the weather cannot be managed. We do not fight against it, but rather we bend to its will. The weather in Malta can be a source of much complaint: the heat is too hot and the wind is too strong; the sea is too rough and the air is too damp. Here, even though the clouds approach and summer ends every year, it comes as a blow and triggers a period of mourning. Winter is coming — the rain! the wind! — and hibernation begins.
But then when it is beautiful, it really is beautiful. The particular light of summer dusk, which turns the limestone buildings pink and warm. The clear sea on a calm day — the deep aqua water both refreshing and cleansing. Here, we live for the weather and the weather dictates the events of the day. We check the sky every morning for our instructions; the weather report being just a suggestion, a possibility for what might happen. How could you possibly predict the weather of a small area of rock in the middle of the sea?
Such temperamental weather excites me. I relish in the drama of an impending thunderstorm. I stare reverently into the power of the sea as it churns. The weather shows me how close to the edge I am. I can stand at the border of this island between rock and sea and watch the new sky approach. I find comfort in the profound, but visceral dialogues on weather, in which I am participant and witness. Together we watch the sky, quietly waiting for what is coming next.