Cold in a Warm Climate
Feeling cold indoors in a place where flowers bloom in January came as a shock to Northern Soul’s US correspondent Lynne Bateson.
I grew up in a cold Yorkshire house with no heating, apart from an open fire in the kitchen.
When I was little, the volcanic rumbling of coal being poured down the outside chute into our cellar made me jittery.
But I got so accustomed to the din that my mother tried to soothe my fear of thunder by saying it was just the clatter of the coal delivery.
Eventually we put a two-bar electric fire in front of the fireplace – far less messy, and producing instant comfort. We even toasted bread in front of it.
In winter I watched television sitting on the hearth, reluctant to move into the frozen zone, inches out of the semi-circle of comfort. We dressed and undressed by that fire, warming garments before putting them on.
I’m reminded of all that in the gentle winters of Pasadena as I switch on a portable convector fan for a blast of warmth while I shimmy in and out of clothes. I sometimes give myself a treat by putting them on straight out of the drier. I’ve never been as routinely cold inside a house since childhood.
That I could be so cold indoors in a place where flowers bloom in January came as a shock. We ‘do’ glorious sunshine, bright blue skies, drought, torrential rain, floods, mudslides, forest fires, fogs, ferocious winds that send palm fronds crashing about the streets, and, oh yes, earthquakes, but we rarely ‘do’ cold here. The last time there was heavy snowfall in Pasadena was 1949 and the LA Times reported that the snow melted as it fell.
Many houses, particularly older ones, were built to be cool in summer, rather than warm in winter, and are so badly insulated that when you switch off the heating, they cool fast. Both homes we’ve lived in here are elderly by US standards – built in the 1920s. And the forced air heating systems – hot water radiators are practically unheard of – are noisy and can produce warmth unevenly, spoiling a suspenseful moment on telly.
Unless you keep the heating on, nights can be bitter. In our first December we piled heavy coats high on the bed. The following winter we started putting on two duvets. I ordered the second one from the East coast, where they know a thing or two about the cold. Then blankets were added. Bed-making is exhausting.
My partner Bill, who rises in the nippy wee hours to write for British newspapers, laments that he can’t type wearing gloves, but he does wear a woolly hat. Overnight visitors glimpsing him in his thick dressing gown typing furiously can be quite startled.
A friend confessed that on winter mornings he has occasionally jumped into his car, put the heat full up, and driven around until his home system kicks in. My friend Renee, a glamorous lady, sleeps in bed socks, sweatpants, and a hoodie. An acquaintance wears a fur jacket indoors.
I’ve taken to thinking of winter as the season of damp towels. The only way to get them properly dry after use is to pop them in the drier.
Many Southern Californians eschew serious warm clothing. Maybe they don’t want to spend money on stuff they won’t wear much, maybe they prefer risking being cold than hot, or maybe they’re are in denial about having any kind of winter. Some wear summer clothes year round, incorporating the odd winter garment, almost as a fashion statement. I see incongruous pairings of heavy scarves with shorts at my local Starbucks.
The long British coats I wear on chilly days attract compliments. At first I didn’t get it. My coats were not that special. Then I realised that people who rarely wear long coats were envying my warmth. Go to a restaurant in a long coat and you have to drape it dangerously over your chair – even the fanciest places lack cloakrooms or even coat stands. Dashing to and from cars without a coat is standard.
We have big daytime variations in temperature in every season. It can be sweater weather in the morning, T-shirts at lunchtime, then back to sweaters. Travel to and away from the coast and conditions change rapidly. And that of course is just outside.
Inside, air conditioning can be fierce – many natural-born Americans seem to live, work, and play in fridges.
I seldom used to worry about what to wear. Now it’s a constant conundrum. I’ve become like a Downton Abbey aristocrat who changes clothes several times a day. But I don’t have servants to help me make a good job of it. I trail jackets, cardigans, scarves, and shawls around with me, dropping them on floors, forever anxious about leaving them behind.
The words of a fellow Brit we met just after we arrived still ring in my ears: “I never know what to put on”. And she had plenty of practice. She came to Southern California in the 70s.
Many cars are travelling wardrobes. My friend Edgar remembers doing two jobs while at college and having to drive across LA County between them. As well as fresh shirts – essential if he wanted to be nice to know in summer – he kept heavier and lighter clothes in his car, just in case.
Now Spring is here. Ahead are days of typing over a hot keyboard damp with perspiration. One of the two duvets has been consigned to the cupboard. Next will go the blankets. We will fall asleep with the sound of air conditioners sucking out heat from neighbours’ homes. And soon we will all be complaining about being hot.
By Lynne Bateson, US Correspondent
Main image by Chris Payne
As a child growing up in a Yorkshire village, journalist Lynne Bateson rarely went to the city of Leeds just a few miles away, but she dreamed of living in the US. She made it. Here she recounts her adventures, taking a down-to-earth look at life Stateside.
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