Thursday, December 18, 2008

Winter's coming

I saw some snow in the air the other day and started thinking about the approaching ‘season to be jolly’.

It’s funny how many expats comment about how ‘seasonal’ things are outside of the Anglophone world.

To an extent I know what they mean.

In the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, we became used to 365 days per year availability of just about everything. Want a peach in December? No problem – your local supermarket has just had a consignment in from Venezuela. Fancy some green beans in March? No problem – help yourself to some over there fresh in from Mexico.

This may sound great and it certainly is convenient, but against that it is part of the same syndrome that means Christmas now is starting in October if you believe the TV and shops, Easter bunnies appear in February, and Halloween costumes appear on the shelves in early September.

Many continental Europeans though find this distinctly odd. They are much more calendar aware than their Anglophone cousins and this affects shopping and lifestyles here. To them there are seasons and life is to some extent built around those seasons.

Now of course if you go into a big supermarket anywhere the chances are you’ll be able to find some out-of-season foodstuffs, particularly in the frozen sections, but you’re likely to see much more seasonal local produce than you will in, say, the UK or USA.

What this means is that in winter you’ll see mainly winter vegetables plus a few exotics perhaps, and in the summer the reverse is true. The natural result of that is you’ll also find some stuff hard to find at certain times of the year if it is out-of-season.

At this stage you may be thinking that the vegetable stocking policies of the major supermarkets don’t exactly make for exciting reading and you’re probably right, but there’s a point to this.

This ‘seasonal mentality’ can be a surprise to expats in a much wider sense also. Take clothing for an example.

In Milan the winter traditionally begins on a certain day. That’s the day that the furs (real or synthetic) and winter clothes come out by convention for public display. It’s not unknown for unseasonably warm weather to mean that people out for their evening promenade will sweat away profusely as they wear their new winter togs but that’s not important. What is important is that winter is here and this demands the public display of winter clothing. So take your choice – sweat and be ‘in tune’ or dress sensibly and get sniggered at!

This seasonality doesn’t only affect clothes and foodstuffs but even household products.

Now, living in town and with no garden, I’m not too bothered about garden materials but I know someone who is and he said he’s pulled his hair out several times over this ‘seasonal madness’ as he calls it.

Being slightly ‘green’ he dutifully went out in April to buy a leaf and branch grinder used in gardens to make compost and mulch. In all his local garden centres he received looks of surprise.

“Why do you want one of those at this time of year?”

Apparently someone somewhere has decided that this sort of task is a winter one so nobody could understand why he wanted one at any other time of the year. Predictably none were in stock and he had to wait until November to get one when magically overnight they appeared in all the shops simultaneously.

When he was called to say one was in stock, he popped down to buy it. He told me that his attempts to convince the shop after loading it into his car that it wasn’t the season for paying bills weren’t too well received.

The moral of this tale for new expats is that if you need something and see it, then assuming you can afford it you should probably buy it then and there. It may well vanish next week and you won’t see one again for another 12 months!

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