Thursday, 5 January 2017

Oh, the Weather Outside is Frightful

Weather—particularly bad weather—is a reliable source of conversation in the UK. Here in Durham, I’ve been on walks in which perfect strangers have said as we passed, “Rubbish weather, isn’t it?” My first winter here, new acquaintances often asked how much I hated their weather. And just yesterday, reading that classic novel of Northern England, A Kestrel for a Knave, by Barry Hines[1], I laughed out loud when one of the characters greets another by saying, in reference to the weather, “Not very promising again.”

But what, exactly, are these people talking about? What is really so bad?

Dave and I in Grant Park, Chicago, during the Groundhog's Day Blizzard of 2011.
To my mind, the weather in England is generally mild and unchanging. This perspective has much to do with the ten winters Dave and I spent in Chicago, just before moving to Durham. While this recent ranking suggests that Chicago’s winters are not the absolute worst in the U.S., it’s nonetheless a city known to get three feet of snow in a 24-hour period, and where winter temperatures fall, not uncommonly, below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Walking out of the house into a -30 degree wind chill, I’d feel tears leap to my eyes; they froze instantaneously on my eyelashes.

In northern England, meanwhile, I walk out of the house all winter long with my coat unbuttoned and no hat. Average winter temperatures range from above freezing (3 C) at night to the mid 40s F (around 7 C) during the day. The first daffodils raise their heads in late January; you can watch them multiply, slowly at first but then exploding into copses of yellow, until the middle of April. And meanwhile the daily temperatures tick up slowly, too, reaching an average high around 68 F (20 C) and average low of 55 (13 C) during the height of the summer.  

Is it raining on you, Mr. Holmes?
It does rain year round in the UK, as any Yankee who watches BBC or majored in English could readily tell you, but it’s the sort of rain that local people walk freely around in without ever opening an umbrella. The expectation is that the rain will stop soon, or it’s so light they won’t get very wet. And it rarely snows.

In short, I don’t think it’s the weather that the English really are critical of—if by weather we mean temperature and precipitation. No: what they have in mind when they get grumpy about winter here is really, I think, the lack of light.

Before I moved to England, I never really thought about the role that light plays in weather. I’d thought about it only in terms of what changing light can do to a landscape. (Monet’s haystacks, for example.) Once I traveled around the U.S. Southwest with a guy who took photographs for nature magazines. He was obsessed with the golden hour, that hour just after sunrise and just before sunset when the slant of the light is less direct and thus less harsh—more “golden.” That guy would have loved northern England, as we have nothing here all winter long but low, indirect sunlight. We have the golden hour all day long.

That day is actually not long, however. In deep winter, the sun crawls up over the hilltops around 8:30 AM, slips around the southern quarter of our horizon, and disappears again by 3:45 PM.

The north of England is actually pretty far north, y’all. We’re at 55 degrees latitude north—the same latitude as the south of Denmark or Sweden. What this means, of course, is that the very short days of winter are counterbalanced by the very long days of summer. From mid May to early August, we gets stretches of “nautical twilight” and “civil” twilight,” when the sun is just a few degrees below the horizon, but for no hour between sunset and sunrise in Durham is the sky dark enough to be called, technically, “night.”While Dave and I have blackout-strength blinds on our bedroom windows—and make grateful use of them, during the summer—the rest of the house is not so well-equipped, and our visitors in June and July will always receive the suggestion that they bring eye masks with them for sleeping.

Yes, weather and light are just a question of what you are used to. For my own part, I find these wild swings from darkness to lightness quite thrilling—even exotic. I see already that I’ll mark the passing of seasons in England not by the changes in weather—incremental, as they seem to me—but rather by the changes in light.

Durham Cathedral, on a winter afternoon.
Seen from our upstairs window.
But for some people—even many who’ve lived in England all of their lives—the darkness of winter can be a real downer. The British National Health Service publishes an extensive web page on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), otherwise known as the winter blues. I’ve never been affected, for which I am thankful, but I wonder more than ever, here in the north: How do we make a sustainable life for ourselves in a place where the weather may seem so intractably hostile? How do we live through long periods of darkness without succumbing to the winter blues? In this year of all years—when many of us from the U.S. or in the U.K. feel alienated from our own countries, for political and cultural reasons—this question takes on a dual meaning. It’s been part of my thinking this winter about the Danish concept of hygge.

If you’re from the UK, you probably don’t need a definition or pronunciation guide, since hygge is now entrenched in the British zeitgeist—to the point where there’s been an actual hygge backlash. (More on that in a moment.) For my fellow North Americans, however, I’ll say that it’s pronounced HOO-gah (somewhat like an old bicycle horn) and means, generally, a way of being cozy, calm, and peaceful—particularly in the darkest times of the year.

Dozens of books about hygge have hit the UK market. One that I’ve read and liked is The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way toLive Well, by Meik Wiking, who is also the head researcher at The Happiness Institute, based in Copenhagen. In his book, Wiking makes much of the fact that Danes—despite their “horrific weather” and “some of the highest tax rates” (9)—routinely rank among the happiest people in the world.[2] Weik attributes this national happiness, in large part, to the Danish obsession with hygge.

As I understand it, hygge is an everyday quality. It is the creation of a comforting, peaceful atmosphere—in the home, in the work place, in restaurants or bars or other places where people gather—that can be sustained every day. Light is perhaps the most important component of the hygge atmosphere. Hygge light—comforting, cozy light—does not come from a big, glaring overhead fixture but rather from small scattered lamps. Lit candles are even better. Hygge, in short, is about simple pleasures—often associated with being in good company, in a warm, well-lit place during the ravages of winter. Hygge is sharing hot drinks with friends or a loved one; socks and sweaters in front of the fireplace. Presence with others. Gratitude in the moment.

What could be bad about that?

But there is a hygge backlash of sorts forming in England. The criticism, as you might have guessed, is that hygge can lead to insularity, to too much looking inward. The dark side of hygge—for those who agree that such a thing does exist—is that it becomes an excuse to hibernate. To bar the door and shutter the windows indefinitely, to hunker down with your inner circle and forget the rest of the world.

I am biased, of course , but I think the people in my new town have found a way to do hygge one better. In mid November—the time of year when you start reckoning with just how short the days have become, knowing they will only get shorter for the next month—Durham hosts a light festival, called Lumiere. Artists from across the UK and beyond build huge light instillations all over the city, often making use of local architecture. A light display, set to music, is projected onto the massive outer walls of Durham Cathedral, and onto the castle as well. Walking around downtown Durham at night, you see one light installation after another. The best way to get a sense of the magic is to watch this video. Or you can visit Durham during the four nights of Lumiere; you can stroll the streets and the riverbank and Palace Green with many other light-happy people, everyone talking and drinking and eating—and marveling at the strange nighttime beauty of our town, transformed by these painters in light.  

Durham Cathedral, during Lumiere
Lumiere is hygge-like in its focus on a cheery atmosphere, on light in darkness, and on being together—but in a much more communal way. You have to put on your coat and your shoes and walk out into the city—you have to join with thousands of others—to experience Lumiere in its fullness. It’s hygge and not quite hygge: hygge with a more outward-looking, external focus. Or hygge, improved, I think.

Earlier this winter, when I first read about hygge, I had a vivid hygge memory of my own. It came from a time in mid 20s, when I lived in Guatemala and worked with Witness for Peace, during the last years of the Guatemalan civil war. Two friends on the Witness for Peace team and I had been visiting refugee camps in Chiapas, Mexico all day. We’d been walking through rough terrain in hot sunlight for many miles, carrying backpacks; we had sat around talking Spanish with organizers in various of these small scattered refugee camps for several hours. But at last our long day was done; we’d had supper; we were bone tired. One of our hosts in the last camp we came to that night led us to our sleeping quarters—a galera, a building with a thatch or tin roof and partial walls and a dirt floor.

Many galeras in the refugee camps were large enough to hold a small village apiece, with bed sheets or tarps strung between beds to cordon off room-like spaces. That year, when I went out to the camps, I’d learned that sleeping quarters often meant a plastic sheet on the dirt ground, on which you unrolled your sleeping bag. It often meant, too, that you’d share the space with dozens of other sleepers.

Another hygge moment from my Witness for Peace experience:
in Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala, 1993.
But the galera our host led us to was surprisingly cozy and small—reserved for the three of us only. We each had a wooden platform raised off the earth on which to spread our sleeping bags, and we had several big tallow candles. We lit the candles and set them around the ledges of our galera, just as it started to rain. Outside, water ran off our eaves; it streamed from trees all around us. It made the most beautiful music. And our candles burned brightly; our bellies were full. I felt that deep tender ache in my muscles that meant I’d sleep well that night. Under the rain’s clatter on our tin roof, we lay side by side in our sleeping bags and told stories. We were dry and warm and together.

I remember who was with me that night—Laurie and Chad—but I don’t remember what we talked about. I just know they were there, and that we were friends, and it was a comforting moment. Outside was more rough terrain we would cross, and a war zone not far away. In our working lives, across the next days and months, we’d have much to do with that war and its victims. That night, however, we were looking at it from a short, sweet-feeling distance. We had not removed ourselves from that reality; instead, we took a small rest from it.

This, in part, is what I hope for in 2017: that I’ll remain aware of the world’s darkness rather than trying to hide or to save myself from it, somehow. At the same time, in the midst of that darkness, I’ll have some friends, and a candle.  

[1] No, fellow North Americans, I never heard of this novel, either, till now. But apparently it’s to the North of England what To Kill a Mockingbird is to the U.S. (To Kill a Mockingbird combined with Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, perhaps.)
[2] This link takes you to The World Happiness Report, 2016. Scroll down to page 22 for the rankings by country.


  1. This is exquisite writing and thinking, moving us gracefully from the most trivial of subjects into the deepest. Your conclusion is perfect. You've named exactly what I am seeking now. Thank you.

    1. Thank YOU, Shirley. I always cherish your feedback, as a fellow writer and ponderer (if that's a word) and seeker.

  2. I loved your post-- cant wait to experience if first hand!!

    1. Thank you, Wally! I look forward to seeing you over here on this side of the pond, too. Maybe you'll even want to think about coming in November, for Lumiere! (Cheaper plane tickets that time of year . . .)