Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rainy Days and Sun-Days Always Get Me Down

We just had the London Marathon, the Queen’s Jubilee is right around the corner and the nation is preparing to be gripped by Olympic Fever, so, naturally, I’m going to talk about the weather.
Like a lot of things in Britain, weather is more difficult than it needs to be.  In a normal country, if it’s lashing with rain, you might look to your fellow commuters, co-workers or long-suffering spouse and say, “Wow, crap day, eh?”  (Or in my case, “Nice weather, if you’re a duck.”)  Conversely, a sunny morning might elicit a heartfelt, “Wow, what a nice day!” (Or in my case, the opening chorus from “Oklahoma!”)  Not so in Britain.
Here in the southeast, we have recently suffered through one of the longest periods of agreeable weather on record.  Oh, at first it was fine, and people did greet each other by saying, “Nice day, isn’t it?” but Brits become nervous if they don’t get at least three days of horrible weather per week, so after a fortnight, greetings tended to favor the more nervous, “Another nice day?  We’re going to pay for this!” or “If this keeps up there’ll be standpipes in the street, mark my words,” and, later, “I told you there’d be standpipes in the streets, now, didn’t I?”
Eighteen months of that, and toward the end, I felt guilty even commenting on the weather without prefacing it with, “Well, I realize this isn’t helping the drought, and I know we really need the rain but…nice day, isn’t it?”
And then, just when everyone thought it couldn’t get any worse, the unthinkable happened: a British Heatwave gripped what the news has begun calling, “The Drought Counties.”  (A British Heatwave, for those of you in the US, means three sunny days with temperatures in the 70s.)  It was horrible, having to suffer through those glorious days and yet not be able to say anything nice about the weather.

A woman standing in a half-empty reservoir, pointing at an
imaginary beaker of water and holding what appears to be the longest,
thinnest vibrator I have ever seen.
Then thankfully, belatedly but inevitably, it began to rain.  It has not stopped, and it doesn’t look like it is going to any time soon.
The weather is cold, windy, wet, grey and, well, just plain miserable, but the only acceptable commentary about the climate is, “Well, we need the rain.”
This leads to another bizarre quirk about British weather: despite the fact that we have had more rain in the past three days than we usually get all month, the news this morning noted that, “it is nowhere near enough to alleviate the drought.”
[Clarification: Before we move on, allow me to elucidate; there are two factors at work here—drought and water shortage.  We are (or had been) experiencing less than average rainfall: this is a drought.  People are not being allowed to wash their cars (and, more importantly, farmers are not able to adequately irrigate their crops): this is a water shortage.  People tend to assume the one – drought – caused the other – water shortage – but this is not so.  The hills and valleys of the Downs are not brown and dry, the trees are not withered; the landscape is lush and green, and the rivers and lakes are adequately filled, despite there having been less than average rainfall; only the water levels in the reservoirs are alarmingly low.  The drought did not cause the water shortage; what caused the water shortage was the government insisting on building 87 million new homes in the southeast without stopping to think that at least some of the people moving into these claptraps might want a drink of water once they settled in.
I just wanted to get that straight.  Now back to our regularly scheduled program.]
It has not yet come to the level of absurdity reached during the previous drought—where news reports showing six foot floods flowing through village streets were followed by grim reports about how sever the water shortage was becoming—but I anticipate it will shortly.
So now I’m stuck in the middle of some seriously crappy weather, but am required, by common consensus, to preface any complaint with, “Well, we really need the rain…”  I’m not brave enough to flout this social convention (and, in truth, we really do need the rain) but I’d rather avoid it if I could, so if you see me standing around on a train platform or at a bus stop gamely enduring the current atmospheric offerings, I may just look at you, shrug and observe, “Well, it’s April, it’s Britain, what did you expect?”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Going Native

This ten-year mark is proving to be something of a watershed for me.  After my Tin-Jubilee Celebrations, I had expected life to go on as it always had since I landed on these shores, but several long-standing comforts have, happenstancially, dropped off the radar more or less at the same time.
Thanks to a bout of man-flue, my supply of Halls Honey-Lemon Menthol Cough Drops is down to the final few.  (Yes, I’ve been HACK-HACK under the weather these past weeks but COUGH-COUGH despite a lingering – and, I am certain, life-threatening – chest congestion, I’m feeling better.  Thanks for HACK-HACK asking.)  I brought several economy-sized bags of these miracle cough drops over with me ten years ago because they were not available in Britain at that time and, well, if you want to live a civilized existence, you need Halls Honey-Lemon Menthol Cough Drops.

Halls cough drops are available here now (though not in the big economy-sized bag) but that has become moot: I have, in the intervening decade, discovered Strepsils, which are readily available, come in a conveniently flat box that fits in my shirt pocket and do the job nicely, thank you very much.  And if I really feel the need for that sharp blast of head-clearing menthol, I’ll buy a box of Fisherman’s Friends.
Then I found my wardrobe needed attention.  Every few years, I go through my outfits to see which shirts are beginning to fray around the collars and which pants (that’s Trousers to you locals; my underwear is another story) have shrunk to the point where they are difficult to button up.  (Really, it’s the pants that shrink; what other explanation could there be?)
Anyway, during this particular wardrobe purge, I noted with some alarm that my few remaining American clothing items were looking, shall we say, a bit tired.  For nostalgia reasons, I will not be jettisoning all of them, but the ones I keep probably won’t be worn in public.  (Incidentally, my wife does not suffer this problem; she is forever pointing to a newish-looking blouse or skirt and noting, “I’ve had this longer than I’ve had you” but this is because her wardrobe takes up 28.49 meters of closet space so when one of her outfits goes back into rotation it doesn’t emerge again for 2.47 years.)
But the real kicker, the one that has driven home the hard truth that I am now well and truly in Britain, came about yesterday as I was putting another layer of polish on my latest novel (you know, combing its hair, straightening its tie and making sure its fly is zipped before sending it out to see if it can get a job instead of freeloading off my hard drive for the rest of its life).  While tinkering with scenes, sentence structure and other bits of ambiguous text, it occurred to me—albeit, somewhat belatedly—that the book was about British people, living in Britain, doing British things and was soon going to be (fingers crossed) read by British agents and/or British publishers who might like to see “color” spelled with a “u”.
So I reset the default spell checker to British English, and discovered how many words, within a 94,000 word document, are spelled differently in the UK.  The answer is: a lot.  And the spell-check doesn’t account for words like “Tire” = “Tyre” because “Tire” is an actual word, nor does it account for general usage, so I am going to have to re-read the manuscript yet again to catch all the linguistic nuances that Microsoft cannot cope with.
To someone who is daily immersed in words, changing the etymological foundation of your language is frightening.  Suddenly, I am no longer on familiar ground; my old friends are gone, replaced by alien letter configurations containing the letter U, double Ls and an extra I in aluminum.
I realize that you—safely ensconced in your native language—probably don’t see this as a big deal, but believe me, it is such an “out of nation” experience for me that it makes me want to put on my LL Bean shirt with the missing button and frayed cuffs, cook up a nice cheeseburger with real bacon and Kraft Cheese Slices and top it off with the last of the A-1 Sauce lurking in the back of the fridge (that stuff doesn’t go bad, does it?).
And on that comforting note, I bid you cheerio, pip-pip and advise you to not take any wooden nickels, or to retrain from accepting spurious five-pence pieces, or something.