The ex expat
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