Monday, April 4, 2011

Life In Britain: A Little Mist Must Fall

Originally published on

LONDON - Contrary to popular belief, it does not always rain here. In fact, by American standards it hardly rains at all. The great heavy storms that drench the Midwest and at times pelt the U.S. coasts are rare in Britain. The last time I heard thunder here was in summer 2006.

In Britain, it mists. Sometimes the mist is fine, like the sprays at Disney World that cool beleaguered tourists. Sometimes the mist is heavy, like jets at a car wash. The months stretching from October to March are almost nothing but mist. Miserable, soul-destroying, bone-chilling, ceaseless mist only occasionally broken up by snow.

It is perfect weather for sitting inside, and often true to the stereotype, many Britons find refuge in pubs. The definition of what exactly constitutes a pub is loose. In some cases, pubs resemble American sports bars; others are more like old churches. But there is always drink, and there is always talk.

The British are exceptionally good talkers. It is a product of their centuries spent in public houses, using the combined body heat of others to stave off the effects of perpetual cold mist. Stuck for months on end in these confined spaces, the British have honed the art of discussing anything and everything at length.

The discussions are not always based in fact. Sweeping generalizations, wives' tales, third-hand wisdom and weak summaries of things overheard are common. A night spent in the pub could easily lead to a week of fact-checking if anyone bothered to do it. But again, the company is good.

In the spring and summer, the mist clears, sometimes giving way to real rain. But sometimes there is sun, and those are the times Britons live for. When the sun shines on the British archipelago, it does so in a way that one never experiences in America. The sky feels closer. The grass grows greener. Pub conversations spill out into beer gardens. The lawns of city parks become a quilt of picnics. All that mist makes the sun shine brighter, and suddenly, Britain becomes the most wonderful place in the world.

Britain is full of contradictions. It is an idiosyncratic little island that once ruled the world, where one facet of life coexists with its opposite.

The British, for example, are in love with bureaucracy and order -- everything in this country requires three forms and a passport photo. Yet they delight in ridiculing their authority figures.

On television, blows to the skull, whether by foot or chair or headbutt, are edited out of professional wrestling. Not proper. But there are multiple free channels featuring nothing but topless women encouraging you to call them.

Britons complain endlessly about the outdated and inefficient ways in which they approach almost every task, but they'll complain loudest when someone suggests making a change.

They drive on the left but walk on the right. McDonald's franchises can be found next to the ruins of Roman fortresses.

For an American living in Britain, it can be dizzying. British culture has so many things in common with the United States that some Americans refer to this corner of Europe as "the 51st state." Pub legend has it that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once did the same.

But Britain is not America. They do things differently here; it is a different place. Sometimes the variances are hard to grasp, like a mist, but they are there, and they are often what makes living here worthwhile.

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