Hello from the nether!
First thing I should probably get out of the way is my apologies for not writing in a very, very long time. I had various things happening very quickly, like getting married, getting a visa, and moving back across the Atlantic. (That’s the third time in five years, which is maybe a whole other post in itself.)
But the important thing is that I’m still alive and well, and currently based in Manchester, England with my new husband. (I really, really want to add, “… and our cuddly cat Behemoth,” to that last sentence but I’ve had no luck in convincing Ivan we need to move to a different flat just so we can get a cat.)
Being back in England has its personal share of ups and downs, which I’ll probably elaborate more on later, but there’s actually one larger issue currently on my mind, and it has nothing to do with cultural re-adaptation. It actually has to do with *science* and geography. Unfortunately it’s something I’ve complained about may times in the past, so apologies to those of you who have heard me complain at length about this before.
So what am I talking about? Specifically… the amount of daylight in Manchester.
If you haven’t been living under a rock for your entire life, you’ve probably heard of the stereotype that it rains a lot in England. While I can confirm to you culturally astute people that this is definitely true, I’m not just talking about the amount of sunny days, although there definitely is a lack of those. I’m talking about the lack of hours in which the sun is actually above the horizon.
As I’m writing this, I’ve come to the realization that I definitely seem like a wuss compared to those expats living in places like St. Petersburg, Reykjavik, or Tomsø, where polar night is either much closer to existing, or a reality for nearly a month. Manchester is not nearly so extreme. All the same, silly semi-noob expat though I may be, I still notice a definite change in my body and energy levels.
Here’s the thing. We don’t really think of Manchester as being particularly polar, in the sense of long nights and short days, but it is located at 53º north latitude, which cuts through countries such as Canada, Russia, and the United States around the Aleutian Islands. Maybe it’s just me, but my mind associates these places as cold and dark ones in the winter, and while Manchester has a pretty temperate climate, it still seems to get dark WAY too early.
How early am I talking? The official sunset time for today, November 15th, is 4:11 in the afternoon. By the time Christmas rolls around, that time will shift earlier, to about 3:50 PM or so. (By contrast, today’s sunset in Baltimore is almost an hour later.) This isn’t the time of twilight, it’s the time of the actual sun set. It’s about 2 hours less of sunlight per day that I’m used to back home (accounting for both later sunrises and earlier sunsets), which doesn’t seem like a lot, but really wreaks havoc on those who don’t expect it.
Fortunately I at least knew that the lack of daylight was coming. The first year I lived in London I really hadn’t thought about the latitude and was shocked to find how early the streetlights went on even back in October when the time first changed.
Mental preparedness only does so much good though. I’ve been through several winters in England and there’s still something strange to me about being out in the afternoon and already feeling the late-afternoon shadows start to appear around 2:00 or so. When it’s almost completely dark by 4:00 in the afternoon, no matter what you’re doing, your body automatically starts sending these little signals to your head that say, “Hello, sun is gone, time to go home, eat dinner, go to bed.” And of course, because Manchester is the land of clouds and rain, everything seems darker sooner.
It affects everyone differently. I can’t speak for other people, but I tend to get lethargic, I sleep much longer than I need to, I crave a lot of junk food, I sometimes feel unmotivated, my patience level goes down, and I can be a little more grumpy. I’m not all these things all the time of course, but they’re little changes I’ve noticed in myself from time to time.
There are a number of ways of dealing with the darkness, perfected by those Nordic folks who seem to spend half their lives in it. Most of them are fairly obvious, like getting regular exercise, eating well, and trying to stick to a regular sleep schedule. This is all well and good, but my absolute favorite idea Danish concept of hygge, a word without a direct translation in English. It means something close to “cosiness” or a warm atmosphere, often spent with friends or family. Think Scandinavia, think warm drinks, big blankets, dimmed lighting, think lots of candles or sitting in front of a fireplace with a book. In other words, bundle up, and be kind to yourself.
Who knows what this winter will hold for us. This year is the first Christmas season I will have ever spent away from home, which I’m a little apprehensive about, and Manchester is not only dark but has famously wet weather. Fortunately Ivan is Russian, and is already used to living in the darkness. As for me? I’ll be using hygge as an excuse to go out and buy more blankets…