The ex ex­pat

Friday - - Contents -

Our colum­nist is slowly mas­ter­ing the cli­mate chit-chat in the UK.

It’s not the cold, the rain or even the mis­er­able grey sky that puts Kate Birch off the Bri­tish weather, it’s the cli­mate chit-chat she can’t cope with “They say it will reach 33 de­grees to­day…

that’s the hottest day for 70 years!” ex­claimed a voice to my right as I was stand­ing in my lo­cal Sur­rey su­per­mar­ket.

Mo­men­tar­ily distracted from the ef­fort of pack­ing my gro­ceries (re­mem­ber that, ladies?), I turned to see a mid­dle-aged man clutch­ing his eco-friendly hes­sian shop­ping bag and grin­ning inanely.

Did I know him? Was he mad? Was he even talk­ing to me? Yes, it seems he was (talk­ing to me, not mad). Unused to strik­ing up idle chat with com­plete strangers, I couldn’t think of a sin­gle thing to say.

Thank­fully, the woman to my left saved me from my so­cial hic­cup, pip­ing up with an equally inane weather wit­ter­ing, which seemed to sat­isfy said man. All was right with the weather and the world.

Let me make some­thing clear. I am nei­ther mute nor rude, nor so­cially in­ept. I am, how­ever, as this ex­pe­ri­ence proved, cli­mat­i­cally chal­lenged. I sim­ply don’t have the me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal so­cial skills that liv­ing in the UK de­mands.

In Dubai, you are more likely to be tram­pled by a camel in a one­sie than be con­fronted by a stranger on the sub­ject of the cli­mate… that is a very Bri­tish trait, or so I thought.

It seems the French are also par­tial to some par­lez on the weather. It’s a neu­tral and inof­fen­sive topic that tran­scends bound­aries, and fu­els po­lite chat­ter – an ice­breaker to fill stranger si­lences – and stud­ies show the French love it as much as the Brits do. Straighttalk­ing Amer­i­cans do not, while those ruth­lessly ef­fi­cient Ger­mans think it a to­tal waste of time.

The Bri­tish ob­ses­sion with the weather is a well-worn cliché (to even say it’s a cliché is a cliché) but, as I’ve dis­cov­ered in the past six months, it’s also a re­al­ity. A study in 2010 showed more than half of English peo­ple talk about the weather at least once ev­ery six hours (yes, re­ally!) with 70 per cent check­ing the fore­cast at least once a day.

Yes, on our at­mo­spheric con­di­tions, even the most ed­u­cated and in­ter­est­ing like to shoot the breeze. Shake­speare loved noth­ing more than us­ing cli­mate com­par­isons (“Shall I com­pare thee to a sum­mer’s day?”) and I know rather more Brits – in­ter­est­ing ones, too – than I’d like to ad­mit, who tune into the ship­ping fore­cast for plea­sure.

Part of the fix­a­tion is due to our cli­mate be­ing so un­pre­dictable. While the changes in Dubai weather are in­cre­men­tal, as pre­dictable as post­brunch re­gret, in Blighty you re­ally can get four sea­sons in one day.

Some­times we have snow in June – it stopped a cricket match in 1975 in Der­byshire – and, even rarer, sun­shine in Au­gust. Along with ma­jor Ev­ery­one’s an ex­pert on the weather and noth­ing can stop the out­pour­ings of cli­mate com­men­tary in­ter­na­tional land­mark events like the day Diana died or Kennedy was shot, my mother still talks about the win­ter of 1963 when the sea froze in Dorset and the heat­wave of 1976 (32C for 40 con­sec­u­tive days) when the govern­ment first is­sued wa­ter-sav­ing tips. Tak­ing a shower with a friend is ad­vice since dropped.

I know 32C sounds pos­i­tively pedes­trian in the Emi­rates, but in the UK it’s a national cri­sis. This sum­mer is proof. Sev­eral days of 32C heat caused chaos, with sports days can­celled, trains halted in their over heated tracks and health warn­ings for old peo­ple (re­mem­ber those, too?) in the me­dia.

This ob­ses­sion is also ex­ported. While liv­ing in Dubai, I en­coun­tered Brits on hol­i­day check­ing the weather ‘back home’, con­grat­u­lat­ing them­selves on es­cap­ing the rain*, cold*, heat­wave* (*delete as ap­pro­pri­ate).

We may moan about the rain, even what kind of rain it is (Ox­ford Dic­tio­nar­ies On­line pro­vides some 130 words with rain in the def­i­ni­tion) but give us a week with­out any and we’re crying drought. Too cold in the morn­ing, too hot at night – if com­plain­ing were an Olympic sport, we’d prob­a­bly say the Games have be­come too com­mer­cialised.

So, what have I learned? Well, be­fore leav­ing the house, I check the weather fore­cast. Firstly, to make sure I am dressed for ev­ery pos­si­ble even­tu­al­ity (it’s all about the lay­ers). Se­condly, so I have cli­mate chit-chat ready. It’s not as sim­ple as it sounds. I’ve had to learn a whole new vo­cab­u­lary, adding ‘parky’, ‘nippy’, and ‘bleak’ to my win­ter wardrobe and ‘splen­did’, ‘glo­ri­ous’, and ‘swel­ter­ing’ to my sum­mer one.

Ev­ery­one is an ex­pert on the weather, and noth­ing can stop the out­pour­ings of cli­mate com­men­tary, anal­y­sis and fore­cast­ing. I swear, I caught my hus­band check­ing out the clouds the other day be­fore re­as­sur­ing me they were “too high for rain”.

And that’s ex­actly what the bag-clutch­ing, sun­shine-wor­ship­ping man in the su­per­mar­ket queue was play­ing at. He’d spent the best part of 50 years hon­ing his come-rainor-shine small talk and had found a cap­tive au­di­ence to daz­zle with his idle knowl­edge of iso­bars.

I was not able to re­cip­ro­cate then, but have now de­vel­oped into a su­per­mar­ket stalker, prowl­ing the mi­cro-cli­mate of the frozen food sec­tion, ca­su­ally throw­ing in ref­er­ences to the tem­per­a­ture to any­one who will lis­ten.

Turned out nice again, hasn’t it?

Over­worked, over­whelmed and over there... long-term Dubai ex­pat Kate Birch misses

her maid, strug­gles with small talk and is des­per­ate for some­one

to pack her shop­ping

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