Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Summer in Western Europe

◎ Yu Guangzhong

Light-hearted as he seems, a traveler is in fact under great stress. Though on vacation, he is nevertheless subject to the restraint of time. He can do whatever he likes on the trip, but he has to keep the expenditure within the limits of his pocket. Wherever he goes, he has to take with him his cumbersome hand luggage. He faces the most horrible possibility of losing his money and credentials, which will reduce himself to a pauper of unknown background. And, besides, he can never be sure of the weather.

That’s what I’m like now. I’ve traveled all the way from the southern tip of Spain to the northern tip of England, experiencing a variety of climates until I’ve become apathetic to the elements. I’m now sitting in a medieval castle turned hotel, writing an article for my readers. The day is just dawning. In Central Scotland, there lies under the grey wet clouds a wild wooded region, beyond which a green mountain stands faintly visible. In the chilly air of the early morning, I have to be dressed in a woolen sweater while sitting on a stone wall one foot in thickness. But I need, in addition, an outer garment to keep me warm in case I come down the spiral staircase—the intestines of the castle—to take a stroll along an unfrequented path down the mountain slope in search of secluded places of quiet beauty.

By Taiwan standards, Western Europe has practically no summer at all. Summer in Taiwan is characterized by man’s copious perspiration as well as daytime chirping of cicadas and nightly croaking of frogs while in big European cities, like Paris and London, the mid-July temperature is so moderate and comfortable that none sweat even in the sun. Hotels and cars in Western Europe are usually not air-conditioned because hot days are so few that people don’t bother about having a cooler. The cars I hired for long-distance driving in Spain, France and England had fans, but no air-conditioning.

The climate of Paris in summer is like that of Taipei at night. When you go out on an early morning or late evening, your woolen sweater will be hardly warm enough to keep out the nip in the air. When you walk along the Seine, where it is even chillier due to the strong wind coupled with the cold waters, you have to wear a windcheater. Then, all you need is just an unlined garment in the afternoon when it is warm, but you’ll feel like putting on more when you are under the shade of buildings or trees. That’s all for things aboveground. Now things underground. The subway of Paris is better than that of New York, London or Madrid, but it is so hot and stuffy that you feel like taking off your woolen sweater. Consequently you’ll be annoyed by having to don or doff your clothes now and then, depending on whether you’re aboveground or underground. In July, Parisians in the open are seen dressed in the clothes of all seasons, ranging from young girls’ vests and short skirts to elderly women’s thick overcoats. In July, Paris has sunny weather almost every day. Sometimes the sky is blue and cloudless for days on end and, when night comes, it never turns pitch dark, but remains a deep blue. There are no mountains in its vicinity and few high-rises in the city proper. Montmartre in the north of the city is a mere hillock. As the sun never sinks below the horizon until 9:30 pm, the days seem even longer and the nights even shorter. And the afternoons seem to last endlessly. Nevertheless, sometimes a thunderbolt also comes from the clear sky. On the morning of July 14, French National Day, when President Mitterrand was presiding over the review of a massive military parade on Champs Elysées, it suddenly started raining in torrents. The President and the military band, caught in the downpour, found themselves in a very awkward situation. TV viewers even saw the bandmaster bend down quickly to pick up the baton he had dropped onto the ground in a flurry.

In Northern and Central France lie boundless level plains with varying climates. Rouen, which is a one-hour ride to the north of Paris, is cooler while the central reaches of the Loire River, which is a two-hour ride to the southwest of Paris, is much warmer. The latter becomes very hot in the afternoon, but cooler at night with the bright moon and stars in the sky.

Down in Spain, the climate is arid and warm. Madrid is located in the center of a plateau. Its noontime temperature in July is not sultry, and you have to wear a woolen sweater towards the evening. In Southern Spain, when driving in the Andalucia region and along the Costa del Sol, I found everything dry and hot. The grass was turning yellow and the rocks were dry. The earth was like a pancake roasting under the deep blue firmament. Alarmingly, the roadside grass often started burning by itself. Unlike Taiwan which is humid, Southern Spain is hot and dry and so people there don’t sweat at all.

England is at the other extreme, being overcast and wet with a low temperature. It was gloomy all the time and kept drizzling intermittently during the three days when I stayed in the River Embankment area of London. Sometimes the morning sun made its brief appearance at daybreak, but the sky turned overcast soon after breakfast. While crossing Waterloo Bridge with Wocun against the July wind blowing from the River Thames, a nip in the air sent shivers down my spine, forcing me to turn up my fur collar. We drove up north through Oxford with its dreamy spires, Ludlow with its illusory old castles and Chester with its ancient bridge and solitary ferry crossing. Rain clouds continued to hang over our car and raindrops remained intact on its windows. After entering the Lake District, Cumbria, we found rivers and lakes everywhere and the sky full of rain clouds. Occasionally a speck of light blue would appear over the horizon only to be soon blotted out by dark grey rain clouds. I could not help complaining against Wordsworth for grudging me a sunny scene of the beautiful Lakeland as described in his poems. In Hawkshead, I put up for one night at a small inn. Looking out of its window, I saw all trees around the lakes wet with rain and all mountains shrouded by clouds. How I longed to tell the great poet[1] lying in Grasmere Churchyard that in ancient China there was also a great poet[2]domiciled in a region of rivers and lakes!

[1] Referring to the English poet William Wordsworth(1770-1850)of the romantic school, who was buried in Grasmere Church after his death.

[2] Referring to Qu Yuan(formerly translated as Ch’u Yuan c. 340-277BC), minister of the State of Chu during the Warring States period and one of China’s earliest poets. His failure to win the support of the corrupt king of Chu for his honest and progressive proposals made his life a tragic one. Seeing no future for his beloved country, he drowned himself in the Miluo River in Hunan Province.