Sunday, December 5, 2010

Snow Joke

This week Mike and Toni take a look at the current weather in the UK ....


There’s snow here in Britain. Again. As I write this, on a Friday, I have been “working” from home since Wednesday and have not ventured outside for two days. No reason to, really, I’ve seen snow.

After eight years, I am no longer surprised by the depth of ineptitude the British display where snow is concerned. Basically, it snows, and the country shuts down. At first I used to be amused by this, but now I just take it in stride and have even come to believe the British are often unduly hard on themselves for being so helpless in the face of six inches of frozen water vapour.

Mainly I think it is due to the fact that the British love to point out how rubbish they are at things. There’s no world cup going on at the moment, and the Olympics are still over a year away, but it’s snowing, so they can point to that and say, “We used to run a great empire and now everything stops as soon as there’s a bit of snow! What happened?”

I’ll tell you what happened; you don’t get enough practice. If it snowed like this every winter—five to fifteen times each winter—believe me, you would be as good at it as we are. But when you have a population of 60 million people and only 18 of them own snow shovels, well, things can get out of hand.

So let’s leave the question of why the Brits are so hopeless with snow behind and focus on the more important issue of why, when it does snow, do they all go out and buy a sled.

We had a significant snowfall just last February. And the year before that we had a fairly decent display. And each time people flocked to the stores to buy sleds. Don’t they all have one yet, or are these some EU regulated biodegradable type sled that only lasts one season?

That is one of the biggest disadvantages of living in Great Britain. But we’re not talking about the EU this week, we’re talking about winter, and having such a mild climate means that you don’t naturally keep two sets of gear on hand: summer gear (footballs, short sleeve shirts, a barbeque, deck chairs and a collapsible swimming pool) and winter gear (sweaters, ice skates, sweaters, skis, sweaters, snow shovel, sweaters, rock salt, sweaters and sleds). Back in the States, progress of the yearly cycle was marked by the ritual packing away of all seasonal gear, putting it in the garage loft and hauling out the boxes filled with items to see us through the coming six months.

With what amounts to a single season all year long, there is no delineation, and no real need to maintain a stock of exclusively winter/summer accoutrements.

So that is why Britain is now at a standstill: it’s snowing, and they don’t know how to prepare for it or how to deal with it once it’s here. And with all the kids out of school, the only thing to do is go buy a sled and take them to the nearest hill.


If it wasn’t for a personal family disaster this weekend, I would be half smirking at the snow panic in the UK. Unfortunately, my cousin got married in the Birmingham area on Saturday, and many of our family members from the northeast of England either had one helluva time getting there or (as with my sister) had to turn back, and the planned family get together in the hotel bar the night before, was abandoned.

Still, I can‘t believe how incapacitated the UK has been this past week. Living in Chicago, where we have snow and dangerously low temperatures every winter has definitely toughened me up. Many big cities in the US are deluged with snow every year, (see below) and boy are they prepared for it.

Average annual snowfall (in inches) for the snowiest large US cities:

Cleveland, Ohio 63.1
Denver, Colorado 61.0
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 52.4
Detroit, Michigan 44.0
Boston, Massachusetts 41.8
Chicago, Illinois 38.0
Columbus, Ohio 28.8
Indianapolis, Indiana 27.0
New York, New York 22.4
Washington, DC 21.2
Kansas City, Missouri 20.1
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19.3
Baltimore, Maryland 18.2

Many residents own snow blowers, we all have an abundant supply of snow shovels and de-icing salt, and some even have fancy salt spreaders like this one.

Chicago has a $17 million snow removal budget, and almost 300 snow ploughs, with 40 fancy new ones this year alone. Typically, with a large snowfall, the ploughs are out in the wee hours of the morning and all but the narrowest side streets are cleared by the time people set off for work. The winter parking restriction went into action last week, so if you park on a designated arterial road between the hours of 3am and 7am, and it snows, your car will be ticketed and towed. Given that we woke up to an unexpected six inches of snow on Saturday morning, I’m guessing a lot of people were looking for their cars that day.

One of the most controversial traditions we have in Chicago is “dibs”, where people place lawn furniture (and anything else that works) in “their” parking spaces after they have dug out their cars. Literally, they expect you not to move them and park in the spot.
Can you believe it? As you can imagine, it leads to fisticuffs every year, although the mayor has unofficially endorsed it, although it is still technically illegal. Streets and Sanitation will tolerate it for about a week after a major storm, but then the chairs are removed as debris.

Oh, and the dogs wear booties. Seriously, the temps are sometimes so low that frostbite is a risk, and the salt on the sidewalks causes major problems for dog paws.

I should really go and buy some now before they’re sold out!

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  1. Loved the dibs bit-that's amazing !!

  2. I was surprised to see Boston ranked so high on this list, but perhaps that's because I spent my early childhood in Vermont, where it *really* snowed. Down here in southern New England (and by the shore) we often don't get much snow some winters. We still haven't had our first snow of the season (boo).

    One reason why Brits don't stock up for seasonal changes -- I'm guessing they don't have as much storage space as Americans. We Yanks love our closet space, big homes, 2- and 3-car garages, deep freezers, and basements. Whenever I've visited homes in Britain, storage space is minimal.

  3. LOL, last week there was a news story on London radio that more sledges were being flown in. All was right with the world.

    And don't be completely deceived. Here in D.C. it's all panic stations when it snows, we're pretty lousy at it too. At just the slightest hint at snow everyone panics and runs to the store for milk and bread, like milk and bread is all that's required to survive! When we had that major snow last winter we were not prepared and our area ran out of road salt. But like England, D.C. is one of those sort of in-between areas where we get snow some years and some years we get none, but then can turned around and get completely slammed. It's hard for governments to predict these things well enough to be fully prepared. On the other hand people would do well to calm down a bit and take these things more in stride. If you can stay home, stay home. I'm amazed at how some people think that not even 3 feet of snow should preclude them from spending their day at Wal-mart.

  4. Toni - re: city parking - ugh, what a pain in the arse!

  5. It really is. People in houses usually have garages but the people in older flats have to rely on street parking. The other thing that happens in the snow is that the ploughs come down to clear the streets but they create a 'wall' of snow on either side of the road, completely blocking the cars in. Unless you have a Hummer, it's almost impossible to get your car out. That's why there's so much fuss about the dibs thing. It can take you a good hour to get your car out and it's very frustrating when someone comes along and steals 'your' spot!

  6. When my friend's boyfriend moved up to Chicago with his car to join her she gave him a snow shovel and lawn chair as a welcome gift. He was a little confused about the lawn chair. My roommate is fond of saying people respect broken lawn furniture more than the mayor.

    Of course it really doesn't snow too much in Chicago. It's certainly no Buffalo, NY where the average snowfall 93.6 inches.

  7. I consider myself less rubbish at snow than the average Brit, but then I'm from Wales and used to the stuff. We don't get much here in the midlands of England, and even less when I used to live down south. The year I spent in Scotland was more fun - waist deep snow.

    I don't get why everyone hasn't already got a sled - we have. I'm thinking of getting a harness so my dog can pull it. He's a Norwegian Elkhound, which looks similar to a husky, so snow is his favourite kind of weather. He's not keen on boots though - pulls them off.

    The point about storage is a very good one. We have a (folded up, covered) table tennis table and a patio table still outside because we can't fit them in the garage. There's no chance of ever, ever getting a car in our garage. And as for a garage loft? That's my bedroom!

  8. I think that we are just left to rot in Britain (notice I don't EVER say Great) However if anyone ran my country down then I would defend it with fettles raised! People who cannot face breaking their neck on the icy pavements are just left to it. The roads are only gritted if the snow is falling/has fallen but only major roads and doesn't seem to get done on the side roads at all. Pavements are never cleared by the council. We are told if we clear it & someone falls on what we have cleared, then we could be sued. So nobody in the city wants to risk that and pavements are left treacherous.
    If some one falls on an uncleared pavement that would be classed as an act of God or maybe they could try to sue the council but they wouldn't stand a chance. Either way, it doesn't help anyone trying to get to the shops.
    Maybe if we had lots of snow every Winter then we might have a better service but we might go years before we get any more (SW England).
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  9. Since it doesn't snow often in the UK I think we shouldn't mither so much about it. I used to love it when I lived in Canada as a child, it's where I learned to cross country ski in order to get to school!!!!

  10. We haven't got a sledge, but then we live in the Fens so haven't any hills.

    Fascinating to read the two sides of the coin re snow. I sometimes think we Brits are a tad hard on ourselves about our ability to cope. I suppose central and local government has to prioritise and, to be fair, snow in such high amounts isn't that common in the South of England.

  11. I think southern England is labouring under an illusion that it doesn't get much snow - there's been lots of snow in London the last three winters. Perhaps it needs to invest just a little more in gritting lorries etc.

    I am always impressed how quickly the roads get cleared out here. Although I know that Washington DC couldn't cope at all when they had a major blizzard last year.

    As I write I am seeing the first flurries of this winter on Long Island...Brrr!

  12. I grew up in Milwaukee and can confirm they have the same "No parking this side of the street if there's 3 inches of snow". I've also had my car towed (twice!) because of this.

    It's irritating - you either have to trust the news report on how many inches of snow to expect or set watch by the window at 3 in the morning with a ruler and your car keys.

    One could argue that you should just park in a no tow\no snow zone but as I'm sure it's the same in Chicago, parking is very hard to come by. Sometimes you just have to take your chances or suffer walking 10 blocks with 6 bags of groceries to get home.

  13. This is my first snow while living in London, and I'm finding it amusing and exciting. Like an unexpected holiday where everyone has leave to show up late to work (or not at all), spend most of the day making tea to warm up, and skipping out early to beat the rush home. A much greater sense of occasion than in Chicago (my hometown), where a couple of feet overnight doesn't make anyone blink.

  14. Ugh, don't remind me about plowing.

    We don't have a car, we rarely need one (except to ferry my grandmother to the doctor, but I'll get to that. Car service is still cheaper than owning a car.) Because the folks who own the property by the bus stop don't believe it's their sidewalk, for YEARS I've had to go down there and shovel the sidewalk before the snow got packed down, otherwise your feet would cramp and freeze if the bus didn't come right away. (And I've never gotten so much as a thank you for it either.)

    But that's not that big a deal. Shoveling here, shoveling there, it's all the same, right?

    Last year my grandmother came to live with us. The ONLY access she has to the outside is via the back alley, a private little access road outside our backyard. She can't go through the front because here on Staten Island we believe it's not a house without 20 steps on the porch. My front yard is literally five feet above street level!

    It's not our access road, and it's not the city's either. It belongs to the people who live in the houses behind us. Since they never use it, they don't shovel. Well, I won't complain, they don't seem to notice us using it. But because it doesn't belong to the city, the city has no qualms about plowing the street and leaving 7 foot piles of crushed ice and snow, every storm, RIGHT at the head of the road.

    I didn't realize this last year, and was profoundly annoyed to have to spend well over an hour just clearing the pile, before I could even get started on the mess that was the road itself. I'll take reserving a parking spot with piles of garbage (or, uh, lawn chairs) any day over *that* mess.

  15. Conuly - oh, I hear you. What a pain eh? We have the same flight of steps up to most houses in our Chicago area and it's lethal at times like this. The dog yanked me down this morning and I almost went "arse over tit" if you'll excuse the expression. Don't have quite the same alley fights but we do have the one neighbor who never, ever clears the sidewalk - despite very heavy hints from everyone else.
    Still over here (to Maggie's point) - you are required to shovel and ice, rather than leaving it alone like you do in England. (And I can verify her point, or - when I did my law degree in the 80's - you could be in more trouble in the UK if you shovelled and someone fell.)

  16. I'm convinced that the collective British chorus of "we're rubbish at dealing with the snow" is a mind-games trick related to something mentioned above, the fact that the snow seems to give people here a justified excuse to show up late for work or not at all. In order to reinforce the idea that truancy is acceptable, you have to work hard to continuously demonstrate that the local councils et al. are handling the snow badly. So you go around loudly complaining about how rubbish Britain is when the snow falls, and seek out examples of particularly poor behavior by councils, train lines, etc. to reinforce the point and allow the truancy to continue. In Minneapolis (also missing from your list but with a pretty significant annual snow total) perhaps being a little late might be acceptable in a serious snow event but skipping work altogether for the paltry amounts of snow that shuts Britain down completely? No way!

  17. I must say I do kind of wonder from this post why people don't have snow shovels. If they can be bothered to go buy a sled why not a get a snow shovel too.

  18. Our Ski cabin is in Norden CA, one of the snowiest spots in the continental US. It gets an average 10.4M or 409 inches, of snow per year!

    There is typically 7-10 ft of snow banked around the house.

    Now that's snow!

  19. What does a snow shovel look like anyway? Is it just a normal spade? I'm considering putting winter tyres on my car. Does that count as snow efficiency?

    I heard that it's now official that we won't get sued if we clear the snow from the fronts of our houses. Although I think everyone's too scared to do it unless we get it in writing!

  20. To answer my own question, here's an attempt at a link - dunno if they work in comments? Probably not but there's always copy and paste.

    Basically it says you're unlikely to get sued in Britain, but says in Minneapolis and Boston you can get fined for not clearing snow within 24 hours.

    But what if you're away on holiday?

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. Toni - I am curious about Camilla possibly becoming Queen. If she is crowned and (King) Charles died first, what would happen? I assume the crown wouldn't be passed down Camilla's side. Would Prince William then become king right away even if (Queen) Camilla survived? Camilla being queen would just be figurative? We've been talking about it with the kids and not sure of the true answer. We turn to you, oh sage one :)
    XO L

  23. Hiya,

    I linked to you in my post today:

    XO L

  24. Happy: Thanks for the link!
    And Camilla would not become queen, Prince William would become king.

  25. Like we had the Queen Mother before she died. She was queen consort (i.e. wife) of whichever king it was before Elizabeth. I'm sure I should know his name... was it George?

    My excuse for not knowing is that I wasn't born then.

  26. @Mrs Baum

    No snow shovels are lightweight and wide so you can shovel more snow at one time.

    Like this

  27. HH - Sorry for my tardy response but others have jumped in for me. Camilla would just be The Queen Mother like the Queen's own mother was as soon as her husband the king died. Anyone who marries a monarch doesn't really hold a title that could be passed on. Even though she is now the Duchess of Cornwall, that also comes from Charles and so Camilla's heirs don't get it.
    I wouldn't be surprised however, if something sifferent was done with Camilla (like being sent to the Tower - kidding!) just because she was divorced. Probably not, but when Charles and Diana divorced, she was stripped of the HRH (Her Royal Highness) part of her title, which was quite the insult.

  28. I'd just like to announce that a snow shovel (thanks for the link, Elizabeth!) has been duly ordered for the Baum household. Luckily one of my parents' neighbours owns a hardware company and has started selling them, otherwise I wouldn't have had a clue where to get one, never having seen one here. (I'm sure they must exist, but they're not common).

    I feel so organised! Now all I have to do to keep up with the Americans is to visit the loft and get the decorations down. Am NOT having Christmas bedlinen and jumpers though!

  29. Thank you for the royal info ;)
    Happy New Year, PP! To another good year of blogging and interesting convo.


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