Recently, I did one of the most British things I have yet done (and that is saying something for a life-long Anglophile). It was a drizzly morning in Newcastle, and on the cooler side, bordering on actually cold, so I opted to take a bus to university instead of making my usual walk. As I stood near the shelter waiting, there was a woman also waiting there. After a moment, as the bus did seem to be taking longer than expected to arrive, I commented to the woman ‘Bit damp today, isn’t it.’
Now, I had it on great authority (see Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox) that this was a perfectly reasonable social interaction, almost ritualistic in its own process, and one of the few ways it was acceptable to speak to a stranger in England. (For reference, I have found the north is less strict on this ‘don’t talk to people’ rule than the southern part of the country, but it still holds generally true.) After I spoke, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the ritual played out in literally textbook fashion, as we exchanged appropriate comments about the damp and the cold, and was delighted when the conversation actually evolved to also include comments about the delayed bus, and that it must mean we were going to get two at once. In fact, this last part did turn out to be true, as two #1 buses came around the corner one right after the other.
Of course, once we were on the bus, we sat in separate seats and undertook another great ritual of Englishness, that of traveling on public transportation whilst actively trying to pretend the other people around us don’t exist. That may actually be a universal thing in the world, though, but I think the English have really perfected the art of it. It’s not that I have found the English, or the British in general, to be truly anti-social, but that there are some real rules to follow, so I am grateful to my friend in Northamptonshire for pointing out the book I mentioned as a useful aid. In certain contexts, such as a Meet-Up group, people are willing to talk with you, though the important rule mentioned in the book about not being too much in earnest about the conversation does also hold true. But outside of carefully constructed social settings, such as on the streets, or on buses and trains, there are certainly restrictions and guidelines to follow when interacting with (or more likely avoiding) interacting with strangers.
The weather, though, is generally a safe topic in almost any context. (Mind, I would not try running up to someone on the street yelling ‘Bit warm today.’) I have not yet enjoyed the luxury of a full year abroad, but I can affirm that one of the reasons the weather is such a good and safe topic for conversation is that whatever the forecast is, it seems, likely to be wrong.
This may be more of a northern phenomenon, as I have not watched as closely for the south, but it is not infrequent that the forecast will call for steady rain most of the day, only to find the day a bit cloudy but otherwise nice, or conversely, that the weather forecast will directly and specifically say ‘no rain for at least 120 minutes’ while water happily falls from the sky into my back garden. So, there is always something to talk about in terms of the weather.
The other thing that I am finding, though, is that the weather is a really peculiar mix of long-term stability and short-term variability. What I mean by that is that there will not be big swings in temperature most of the time across a month, so it is possible to trace a real seasonal cycle wherein the average for let’s say March really is pretty close to what most days in March look like, even if there are some wild one-off days in there. I’m still used to Rocky Mountain weather, where it can be sunny, rainy, and snowy all in the same day, and any effort to anticipate an average is likely to go very wide of the mark. Perhaps that’s why the days at the end of February were so misleading to me. The last week of the month there were days that genuinely felt like spring days, enough that people were going out without jackets, and even in short sleeves and sandals, and the temperature had trended upwards enough I felt it was safe to switch the boiler timer off as the mornings weren’t likely to be that cold any more.
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I think March and early April were actually colder and damper than December and January were. The days were not necessarily miserable, but in general, I felt betrayed by those wonderful days in February and found myself wondering if it was really spring as we got past the equinox. I know every part of the world has their natural cycles, and they may or may not line up well with the actual astronomical days marked on the calendar for seasonal change, but I am definitely still getting used to what that that natural cycle looks like in Newcastle. I have asked a couple of people if this was a typical spring, and have received somewhat noncommittal answers, so I am going to assume it probably is. What that means for me is that spring, or early spring at least, is going to be colder and more challenging than most of the winter actually is. I can cope with this, of course, but it does mean I won’t be so quick to put my great coat away next year, too.
I must say, though, that when spring finally came, it came on beautifully and marvelously. The just-past Easter Weekend was absolutely fabulous. The sun was out, the gentle wind that blew was a warm wind, not a cold one, and everywhere things were in full bloom and blossom. I took a walk with my wife through Jesmond Dene (a small valley that guides the Ouseburn down to the Tyne River), and it was absolutely a beautiful English experience. Families were out, with kids and dogs, people were lounging on the grass in spots, even sunbathing, and everything was lush and green, fragrant and verdant. Mind you, the weekend before it had been 9 degrees Celsius, with a ‘real feel’ of 4, and a low of 0. So the contrast between the two Sundays was remarkable. Also, for those of you who might be travel to the UK soon, allow me to suggest that the ‘real feel’ a weather app might suggest is going to be much more useful than any nominal temperature range given, so pay attention to that and dress for the feel, not the forecast.
I’m hoping this wonderful run of weather is not another ‘false hope’ of spring. So far, while the week has cooled some since Sunday, it’s still lovely, and I can walk around without a jacket during the afternoons. I suppose that suspense of whether this weather will hold will give me something I can talk with people about the next time I am waiting for a bus, though. It’s a nice ritual to have, commenting on the weather to a total stranger, and having them almost invariably answer back in a very predictable way, even if just briefly. (Yes, there are a host of other rules about that, too.) For now, though, the weather is fairly nice, warm but a bit cloudy, so I think I will walk tonight to get back home, in Newcastle.