The joys of winter in July

"Here's a brief weather forecast for the period until midday tomorrow: It will be very cold tonight and cold by day. And that ends this news bulletin."

I'm standing in my kitchen early in the morning, ears glued to the radio in hope of a promise of warmth. I'm wearing two pullovers, thick tights - ordered specially from England - knee-high boots, and two skirts (one on top of the other).

In the depths of a Zimbabwean winter, fashion has flown out the window. Out of one of my 14 windows, to be precise. I see now I have a surfeit of windows, none of them double-glazed. Like most people living in Zimbabwe, we have no central heating.

It's freezing. Literally. The white rose-creepers in the garden next door have been frostbitten. Brittle-brown ash leaves collect in the ridges of the tin roof of the garden shed.

In the evening, my husband and I wrap ourselves in blankets to eat supper, shivering over the candles.

The first time I came to Zimbabwe it was June. I knew that it was winter where I was going but naively imagined winter in sub-Saharan Africa would be something like, well, summer in dark, damp England.

Enthusiastically, I bought a new sugar-pink cap-sleeved T-shirt, cargo pants, and a sweet short-brimmed sun hat in the supermarket the day before I left.

And then I spent lunch hours trawling central Harare's shops looking for a coat or a warm sweater, anything to keep the cold out. I had to settle for a man's sweatshirt, navy blue with a zipper that broke on the second day I wore it.

But boy, was I glad to have that top.

Surfing the Internet now, I find my favorite old French Web pages. I'm transported to other Julys I have known.

"Bronzez sous le soleil espagnol," one ad urges. ("Tan under the Spanish sun.")

"Partez pour la plage," another tempts. ("Travel to the beach.")

Back in another world, my old world, July and August meant summer, sitting on the banks of the River Seine, and spending long lazy days on the pebbled beaches of Riviera resorts like Nice and Antibes.

Paris, where I used to live, was deserted for those two months - by Parisians, that is. Noisy groups of tourists jammed the steps of the Eiffel Tower, queued outside the Louvre, and fanned themselves at the Luxembourg Gardens.

Married and now in Zimbabwe, I have to get used to a new tempo.

July here is the peaty smell of wood smoke in the dusk from countless roadside fires. It's the hoarse cry of the purple-crested lourie in the mornings outside our bedroom window as we dress in haste, huddled over our one-bar electric heater.

July now is the sound of myriad crows cawing and wheeling high among the rooftops, if I'm caught in the city center at dusk.

It's the new nibbles on my hand soap in the bathroom each day. The cold has driven the mice indoors, where they're happily plowing tunnels high up in my thatched roof. There's a fresh spattering of straw on the fridge at breakfast.

July, too, means a hurried search for handwoven woolen rugs at my local flea market. We need them to lay over our cold marble and stone floors.

Of such stuff are my Julys now made. And they have their own special promise.

July in Zimbabwe is grapefruit season. Just now I have three fruit bowls full of the plump sunny things sent to me by my mother-in-law. She got them from the citrus orchard down her road.

I eat a juicy orb for breakfast and then again at lunchtime, watching the sugar crystals glint in the sun. Winter here, unlike in England, can still mean sunshine.

Sometimes, by midday, the gray curtains lift to show a perfect paint-blue sky. I sit outside on a wooden chair, face tilted to the brightness. Next to me, Jezebel the kitten rolls on his back, his fluffy white belly mirroring the clouds.

We stay there for as long as we can, gratefully soaking up the rays before the cold hours of night we know will surely follow.

A few meters away, a crowd of flat-topped poinsettias tower over the fence, stalks bare of leaves and faces lifted to the sky like shocking red sunflowers.

Wintry Julys can be beautiful, too.

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