In the three years since I’ve moved from Southern California – where I’d lived with only a few hiatuses since 1969 – to Europe, I’ve had enough rainy summers to make up for those many hot, dry, drought-dominated years. Two summers in Ireland brought week after week of wind-blown rain and cooler-than-normal temperatures. This summer in Austria, too, has been wet, and I’m becoming used to planning my days around rain.
Lying at the northern edge of the Alps, Salzburg has a generally moderate but humid climate, making summers seem hotter than the temperature suggests. And because the mountains tend to block the passage of weather systems, it is subject to frequent heavy rains that may begin suddenly at almost any time. They bring with them the local weather phenomenon called Schnürlregen, or string rain.
I've never seen anything like string rain. It falls heavily, steady, and nearly perfectly perpendicular, a thick silver curtain. On stormy mornings, as I write in my office, I may hear approaching rolling thunder over the shriek of planes taking off from the nearby airport. But, at times, even the thunder is difficult to hear over the steady deep thrumming of rain hitting the pavement and the roof. Like translucent weighted cords, the rain falls with such force that a mist arises between me and the dense wall of green at the edge of the wood not 50 metres from this house.
I feel it in my body. Between the noise, the sudden breath of air on my arms in the heat and the heightened tension in the atmosphere, I become distracted, unable to focus on what I'm trying to write. Even watching from inside, I feel entirely engulfed, like being within an open-sided thatch hut, isolated in a jungle.
One recent hot day, as I spent hours struggling to write, it reached 26 C in my office, the air motionless and stuffy. It was 27 outside, so opening a window was not an option. Unlike in America, air conditioning is almost unheard of here. Most shops don’t even have it. I was faced with sucking it up.
Later that afternoon the sky darkened, a little, just a light pall, and the shadows on the concrete patio became murky, the way they look during an eclipse. A chance of storm, the forecast said, and I was glad I’d brought in the wash from the line. However, it didn’t rain then, though perhaps it did cool down, slightly. After dinner on the wide covered balcony of this first-floor flat, I sat outside with a drink in the warm darkness, watching the sky and thinking.
Then from the distance came the occasional brief light, faintly and at long intervals. The flashes grew brighter and more frequent, and the wind grew stronger, and soon a light rain began. I felt the soft breath of the moving air on my bare arms as I watched the thunderstorm, possibly the most dramatic I’ve seen. The rain pelted down, heavy, weighted, thick. The horizon was opaque, and the flashes of lightning appeared not as jagged bolts but as full-on illumination, the night going from dull darkness to an intense brightness, the intensity of the sudden flash of a photographer’s strobe. It was as though there were three levels of light, the dull half darkness of the overcast night sky, a brighter light of the initial flash, and then an intense sudden brief strobe turning the night into a negative, reversing light and dark. It was as bright as anything I’ve seen, the stab of over-bright lights bringing you to sudden full wakefulness or the glare of bright beams hitting your eyes directly in the darkness.
At length the lightning and thunder ceased, and the sky darkened again. I went to bed, leaving the curtains slightly opened. From my pillow I watched the steady rain, backlit by a streetlight – like strings of crystal beads drawn across a doorway – falling into my sleep.