View from Rue Saint-Georges

Let There Be Light

Europe in the record-breaking darkness of winter

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | January 24, 2018

Living in northern Europe accustoms you to a soul-crushing scrutiny of low, heavy skies, as you search (frequently in vain) for gradations of light and gray. The seemingly permanent dampness and gloom have led me to recall fondly the blistering cold but wide open and bright winters of my childhood on the Eastern seaboard of the United States.

On New Year’s Day, I arrived back in Paris after two weeks in New York, and though I am aware that the sun has shone in minuscule fits, I have not felt it directly on my skin even once. It is only in recent days, in speaking with friends, that I’ve become aware of the degree to which this lack of light can exact a mental and even a spiritual price. The clinical name is seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. In normal years—and normal, when it comes to the weather, may be a thing of the past—Paris averages 62.5 hours of sunlight in January. So far this year, there have been 10. I can’t even find a place to position my wilting plants.

When I complain to my buddy Josh in Moscow, the Panglossian in me is pleased to note it could always be worse. December 2017 was the darkest period ever recorded in that very dark land, with just six minutes of sunshine for the month (easily beating the previous low of three hours). At least here it’s warm, I say to myself, though that too is a false comfort—it’s exceedingly warm, more than four degrees above the average for this time of year.

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