This column first appeared in Malta Today
…there are no children at the beach. Well, let me qualify that. There are no Maltese children at the beach, because it is mostly a local custom that when school is just around the corner, that’s it, playtime is over, and parents start preparing their offspring for the autumn routine.
Of course, I can see the sense in getting children used to being back to some kind of routine such as an early bedtime (rather than the ‘no bedtime” casual approach in summer where everywhere you go there are babies asleep in their prams and energetic toddlers running around very late at night). Otherwise they will definitely not be able to struggle awake before the school van arrives. But I am always struck by the overnight change which happens around this time of year. One minute the beaches and pools are swarming with kiddies and then poof! It is like they have been abducted by aliens.
As the calendar creeps towards the end of September, for many it signals no more swimming. The most often-quoted reason is that children might catch a cold and miss school, but I am always mystified as to why they would catch a cold precisely now, when it is still quite hot? Going back to school can be painful enough as it is but making it seem like the end of fun is tantamount to the sound of prison gates clanging behind you. Our warm temperatures have been known to stretch well into November, and while it is getting cooler at night, the days are still definitely in summer mode. As any doctor will tell you, colds and flu are caused by viruses when our immune systems are weak, or by not washing our hands when we come into contact with public handles and doors, and yet many people insist they are caused by feeling cold or the change of seasons.
This is similar to the still pervasive custom of not allowing children to swim before their exams are over, even though we are already in sweltering temperatures by June. I would think that even taking a quick dip in the sea would do a world of good to students swotting away at their books, in order to refresh their minds, but maybe that’s just me.
On the other hand, for those who prefer, quiet uncrowded beaches, with plenty of personal space between one towel and another, and weather which is still warm enough to swim without feeling that you are sizzling on the sand like a rasher of bacon, this is the perfect time of the year.
Of course, once it starts, the school routine also drastically changes the lives of parents. Come September, their alarm clocks are no longer set for them to make it on time for their own jobs but to fit around the timetables of school transport or the mad dash also known as the school run. Households everywhere will be resonating to the sounds of parents desperately chasing their young children around the kitchen table to try to get them to put on their socks and shoes. In autumn, it is like children become the adults, but instead of a briefcase they are there waiting forlornly with their school satchels, for their morning commute.
Even Facebook changes its discourse at this time of year. As regular as clockwork, instead of people complaining about the outrageous prices of a “day by the pool, all inclusive” because they did not get the full value of their 60 Euro per person, we will be regaled with two inevitable threads of conversation (a) the horrendous traffic as schools start and (b) school transport which doesn’t arrive or has not been provided. The inevitability of it all makes one wonder why year in, year out, nothing every changes and the perennial problems are never resolved.
You can tell summer is almost over just by the general feeling of wistfulness in the air. There is something poignant about the end of summer, although I know that people who hate the heat cannot wait for it to be over. But for those of us who love this season, the long lazy days which turn into balmy evenings, and being able to stretch out the many things you can do all in one day will be missed. As the days get shorter and it gets dark earlier, and flip flops will eventually be replaced by boots, the fleeting memories of yet another summer also mark the passage of time. The cliche’ is true that as you get older, time runs like quicksand through your fingers. It was just Santa Maria, how can we almost be in October?
As happens ever year, there will soon be a major storm which always seems to take us by surprise even though it has often coincided with the start of school. FB statuses will also inevitably announce the arrival of the pouring rain, just in case you don’t have any windows. Boats are berthed, boathouses-cum-summer homes are closed up and the long traffic jams to go to the seaside every weekend will soon disappear.
Most of all, the end of a Maltese summer for me also brings with it what is known as ‘anticipatory nostalgia’, that feeling of missing the present before it is gone.