To understand Australia and Australians, one must understand heat. Heat is more than just a temperature range. Heat is a cultural regime. There are right ways to talk about heat, right ways to understand what it means to be really hot.
I’ve now lived in Australia for a long, long time, in Sydney, Newcastle and the south coast (of NSW). Here are some random observations about heat.
There are two types of hot – Normal and Hot Days.
Normal heat is just that – everyday, regular heat. People sleep under cotton honeycomb blankets – the type New Zealanders only ever experience in hospital. By 10am it’s pretty hot and probably time for a swim if we’re being honest. If you haven’t gotten shit done by 11 it’s not going to happen. 4pm is when people start emerging again, falling into the ocean for a swim or surf and then home for cold beers and multiple cucumbers. This heat is sometimes referred to as ‘disgusting’ or ‘revolting’.
Also, night-time temperatures become an issue – they’re even reported in the news – because if kids aren’t sleeping, no-one’s sleeping. This feeds into the pervasive, slightly sexist cult of the suburban family, which is something else I’ve noticed in Australia. There is a lot of talk about family and kids here. I’ll perhaps look into that another day.
Generally though, life carries on as normal. People go to work, kids play in the playground, dogs lie around and pant. Only the greetings change, from, ‘Morning’ or ‘How’s it’ or Gidday’ to ‘Warm enough?’.
Hot Days, on the other hand, are fairly rare. Anything upwards of 40c is actually hot. People remember how many Hot Days there are every summer. This is our second summer without any ‘Hot Days’ (so far). The summer before last, however, we had three or four Hot Days.
People also remember what happened on those days. Examples include;
– The top of the avocado sacrificed all its upper leaves
– there was a bushfire up behind XYZ
– James’ new girlfriend made him mow the lawn in the middle of the afternoon, because her parents were coming for Christmas, and he spent the next three days close to death.
– The thrust bearing on the Pajero let go somewhere near Braidwood (Braidwood’s climate oscillates between Cryogenic Death and Anvil Of Sun. Best avoided under any conditions).
– Auntie Michelle went into labour
I remember one particular Christmas/New Years in Newcastle when the temperature got to 47 a couple of days in a row. We drove to the beach with ice packs under our armpits, worrying that the car would catastrophically overheat (it didn’t). A fire broke out behind Newcastle, and we bobbed up and down in the waters of Stockton beach, with about a thousand other people, wondering whether the dirty orange glow had consumed our houses.
There’s a kind of dull panic that sets in around 40 degrees. The streets go quiet. Blinds go down. Animals and birds fall silent. People start checking the ‘Fires Near Me’ app. Plants shrivel and tomatoes literally cook on the vine.
In coastal NSW, days above 40 are fairly rare. This is because the main cause of hotness – westerly winds bringing heat straight from the desert, is usually kept in check but the coastal sea breezes that relegate it to the unmentionable western suburbs. Sometimes, though, the flow is strong enough to push the heat through to the coast.
The other type of real heat is homegrown – simply a lack of air movement. Sydney especially suffers from this, the heat island effect cooks the city from the ground up.
Every used car in Australia smells like B.O. All of them. People sweat openly, they stand in the post office or supermarket, the perspiration pouring off their chins and down the back of their calves. Everything slows down. Sometimes there are flies. And when there are flies, they are everywhere – on your face, climbing up your nose. Babies hate them.
For me, it’s not hot until I feel that first bead of sweat running down my belly.
I like the heat. I chose to live in Australia, and I knew what I was getting into. Now, where’s my beer?