02 December 2007

What's the matter?

I've been back in Saint-Aignan for just less than two weeks now, and I'm starting to realize that I've been kind of depressed. Now I'm trying to figure out why. The symptoms: sleeping 10 or even 11 hours a night, having little interest for things that interested me before, feeling tired most of the time, and — worst of all — being slightly off my food.

Out in the vineyard under a pale sun

Okay, I know that a lot of it has been jet lag. But this time it fooled me. After other trips to the U.S., the main symptoms of jet lag have always been the inability to go to sleep at night (bedtime in France being afternoon or early evening on the East Coast), and waking up at 4:00 a.m. for several days, without being able to go back to sleep.

The vines on a bright day in winter

This time, I went to bed at my normal time every night, and then I proceeded to sleep like a log for 10 or 11 hours, waking up at 8:00 or 8:30 a.m. I've never been one to sleep such long hours.

The fact is, the sun goes down so early in Saint-Aignan this time of year, and rises so late in the morning, that it's easy to fall into a kind of hibernation. A recent opinion article in the New York Times (you have to log in to read it, but it's free), which talked about President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to get French people to work longer hours, and maybe do away with the 35-hour workweek altogether, said about the rhythm of life in France 200 years ago:
Economists and bureaucrats who ventured out into the [French] countryside after the Revolution were horrified to find that the work force disappeared between fall and spring. The fields were deserted from Flanders to Provence. Villages and even small towns were silent, with barely a column of smoke to reveal a human presence. As soon as the weather turned cold, people all over France shut themselves away and practiced the forgotten art of doing nothing at all for months on end.
In my case, I think it was the sudden contrast that affected me most. On the coast of North Carolina, which is as far south as Morocco and just about as sunny, the days had been longer, and my body and mind had gotten used to that rhythm.

Reflections off our little pond out back — compare
this to the blue-water photos I took in N.C. last month

And it's not just the length of the daylight hours, I think. It's the quality of the light. On the N.C. coast, which is effectively subtropical because of the proximity of the Gulf Stream, there is at least as much water as land everywhere you go. The sun shines brightly, the sky is blue, and the blue water of the wide rivers, the expansive sounds, and the endless ocean constitutes a second sky. All that sunlight is reflected back on itself and the effect is almost blinding.

Callie catching a ray wherever she can

In Saint-Aignan, the only significant body of water is the Cher River, and it is never more than 100 meters wide. It is shaded by big trees in many places. It can't reflect much, especially since the wintertime sky runs the full gamut of colors from dark gray to light gray to white to just the palest of blues. It's dark here in November and December.

I think it was Thursday evening when I realized how much the light had been affecting me. We were having friends over, so we cleaned and straightened up the house and turned on most of our lamps to make the place inviting. Usually, we live in relative darkness during the winter. I suddenly felt more cheerful. And then the next day the sun came out. Not like in the tropics, that's for sure, but there were actually shadows when I took the dog out for a walk in the afternoon.

Old vines

Jet lag also explains my long-lasting fatigue and general listlessness, I think. What I can't figure out is why I've been off the food. You know I love to cook and eat. Walt said a couple of days ago, when I pointed out that my appetite has been feeble, that he has really been enjoying the food: vegetable soup, leg of lamb, cabbage with smoked meats, oven-fried chicken with a parmesan crust, and beef tacos. I guess I'll just have to keep cooking and try to coax my body and mind into enjoying good food again.


  1. A lot of people suffer from that sort of light-related depression, including myself. Luckily we're so busy in the winter that I hardly have time to notice it, but when longer days come back, I realize how much it peps me up.

    I think it can also be difficult to come back from the USA. It is our home, no matter what.

    Take care Ken.

  2. I love the photo of Callie soaking up sun rays. You may have seasonal affectic disorder which is not uncommon. I have a full spectrum light that I use in the winter which seems to help.

    The appetite loss is puzzling since people with SAD crave carbohydrates. Maybe something else is going on with you.

    My SAD starts going away in January with longer days and more sunlight in my house which as you know, is surrounded by trees. We get much more sunlight when the trees are leafless.

    Just be glad you don't live in Sweden, except the snow might help. There is a lot of bright light when the sun hits snow...

    Bon courage

  3. it's a big deal, but it's human. going out and facing the sun five minutes a day (as clever miss callie is doing) really, really helps. also, full spectrum bulbs in the lamps at home really saved my bacon one winter i had to spend in a basement kitchen.
    i've been reading accounts of the olden days in france recommended by at least one of your readers (Celestine, and Emilie Carles' memoir). both mention that in winter veillees were what the people did, all night long, telling stories of the forest spirits, earth spirits, as they winkled walnuts out of their shells, carded wool, wove, mended tackle and harness, etc., trad indoor winter work. oh, and drank three liters of wine a day -- rose with the bacon and eggs. mmmm MMMM!!!!

  4. p.s. your photography shows no loss of juice (!), i have to say. i'm still thinking about the apples in the frost and this old vines one is also incredibly beautiful. thank you.

  5. spamming you, so sorry. this post also inspired me to think of painters like van gogh and anselm kiefer who once they got out of the watery grey north atlantic light of the Looooooooooooooow Countries, and into the light of the south of france, were changed men.

  6. Full-spectrum light bulbs, as others have suggested, help a great deal. Even one or two--in a bedside lamp, and one for your desk--will give you more "sun." I put mine away in the spring, when I don't need them any more, and bring them out in the fall.

  7. Thanks for the comments and advice. I'm beginning to think I might have the flu. I'm running a fever and feeling lousy. Time will tell.

  8. To me the end of November and December are the most hateful months. Lack of light, even when it's sunny, around three o'clock it gets sort of chilly, humid and unpleasant.
    Hope you feel better soon

  9. Merci, Claude, I do feel better, I just had a few bad days. BTW, I'll give you a nickname/pseudonyme -- Claude! It's a good one. I agree about late November/December. In January the hours of daylight start to increase, the fog lifts, and optimism returns.


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