This is just a personal account. I used to loathe rain. My parents lived in Washington DC when I was a kid – dad was stationed there with the Royal Air Force after the war – then returned to rainy old England.
Although I have the faintest memories of the USA, they’re sunny ones. Family pictures also show a life lived largely outside a lot of the time – dad cuddling me in Florida, on a boat catching huge fish, sitting on a doorstep in the sun. Always sun.
Now, you may say childhood memories are often sunlit (if kids are lucky and have good parents) and I agree. The England of my childhood, however, certainly wasn’t sunny. I remember endless cold days trudging to school with wind whipping round my ankles, hanging onto my hat and scarf, feeling biting cold on my face. All my muscles would tense. The spirit turns inward. Your world is limited to fighting the elements. It was horrible. My home and school were lovely. My little pals were great. Lessons were a privileged look into the (hot, sunny) worlds of gauchos on the Argentinian pampas, rubber tappers in Malaysian jungles, explorers in Africa…. But the weather outside the house and classroom was often cold and rainy and restricting. How can a kid reconcile the desire to dash outside in the sun, run around and climb trees or leap into a stream of running water if it’s 11° outside, the sky is full of cloud and steely needles of mean rain are stabbing the ground? Not possible.
How did my mother ever put up with those school holidays where day after day I’d sit glumly by the window, chin in hand, looking miserably out at the rain saying “It’s not fair. I can’t go out in that.”
“Go and read a book” she’d say. Or “Let’s go to the library” – inside again, always inside – “and choose some good books”. (Which is probably why – combined with English rain – I became a passable student and later qualified as a librarian.)
So we’d go the library, and choose some good books, and then she’d take me into Guildford High Street, to the old coffee shop at the top of the hill, and order two ‘Viennese’ coffees which seemed very exotic in the late 60s. They came in tall glasses topped with an inch of light whipped cream that to a kid was irresistible. And still I’d look out, a bit less glumly, at the driving rain hitting the cobble stones.
I was the tallest kid in the school for my age. Which meant I kept getting picked for the hockey team even though I didn’t like hockey and didn’t really (want to) understand the rules. What I did understand was that, against all reason, it was played in autumn and winter. On Saturday mornings. My mother thought it would be character-building for me to get out of bed early on a Saturday and run about on a pitch in cold weather with dozens of other little girls, wearing shorts and a flimsy shirt. The rain always seemed to start once you were on the pitch and jolly PE teachers would make you hang around getting wet in case it stopped…
After years of living inside too much in England – in Surrey, in Kent, in London – I lived in Rome for a year. It was a joy. The history, the art, the food, the young Italian men (I was 21), and….the heat. Even in winter there was sunlight and not much rain.
Later in life, I moved to Scotland. Scotland is wonderful. If you haven’t visited, it’s certainly worth planning a vacation there. I was lucky to travel all over the world in my career and there are stunning places to see from New York to Lake Tahoe, Bangkok to the Barrier Reef, Mexico City to Venezuela, Kenya to Ghana, Iceland to Finland. Still, the west of Scotland on a good day has astoundingly beautiful mountains, lochs and glens that rival some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. On a good day.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of bad days! May and Sepetmber in the west of Scotland can be beautiful. But any day of the year can feature driving rain. My ex and I cancelled one holiday in the Highlands after a day. We’d arrived after a long drive in rain so fierce it seemed as though someone was throwing huge buckets of water onto the windscreen. The windscreen wipers literally couldn’t cope. Visibility was practically nil.
And then, after 20 years of battling the elements in Scotland, I finally moved to the south of France. I’d loved France, particularly Provence, Paris and the Cote d’Azur, since I was a kid. France never disappointed me. From the food to the natural, incidental beauty you see everywhere, to the gorgeous medieval architecture, the vibrant local culture, the care and expertise demonstrated by the French in so many endeavours, the (usually) fairly gentle dramas of rural life….I loved it all. And the climate, while far from perfect – the mistral wind can be exhausting – is wonderful. There’s so much sunlight year round. The cold isn’t the searing cold of a Scottish Highlands winter. And there’s not too much rain.
And this is how I became a convert to rain. Slowly but surely, living in Provence for seven years, I started to look forward to a bit of rain. The vegetation round the house in sumer would get parched in the baking heat and I’d find myself looking at a tiny cloud wondering if we’d get a bit of rain. Just a shower? Or even a few drops? Often, the answer was No. Nothing. When rain did fall, I’d dash outside and have a good look at it. Heat and rain can be wonderful. I’d see the rainwater refreshing the lavender, roses and honseysuckle. The red squirrels would scramble down the pine trees to drink rainwater collected in the large ceramic bowl I leave out for them. Jays and little songbirds would drink too.
Somehow when we need it most, rain falls during huge Provencal thunderstorms, often at night, shaking the house and scaring the life out of the cat. I smile though and think of the small producers all over Provence, growing fruit and vegetables that will be lapping up the rain. I think of my olive trees too, soaking up the free rainwater, plumping up the olives for the November harvest, looking forward to the rich, pure, yellow-green oil I’ll have by Christmas.
In the autumn, rain has a different significance. Autumn rain means mushrooms! Really good edible mushrooms. Girolles, chanterelles, trompettes de la mort, cepes, lactaires, russules, hellevelles, pieds de mouton, pieds bleus. They cost a fortune in the markets but a few days after heavy rain you can spend a day in the forest and find them yourself. (I’m lucky to have a friend who knows French mushrooms inside out. Identifying them is a difficult business and clearly not to be undertaken by amateurs. Too many species look alike even when one is delicious and the other will kill you.)
So finally I am a convert to rain. I respect it. I like it. I like what it does. I like the feel of it here in Provence because it often falls for just a few minutes and often cools a hot day or ends a drought. It washes the white limestone dust off the natural vegetation and plumps up the crops in the fields. I was stopped by the police a while ago because my car number plate was obliterated by mud. The car had picked it up passing through a puddle on the dirt track by my house. “It’s an infraction of the law” said the pretty blonde policewoman. “A 90 euro fine.”
“But it’s not my fault” I explained hopefully. “I’ve never noticed this before. It obviously only happens when there’s a puddle on the track. Last night we had rain.”
She beamed. “Oh I see” she said. “It’s because of the rain. Well off you go this time then, but watch out – next time someone might fine you.”
I’m definitely a convert to rain.