Thursday June 21, 2012

Traditionally, darkness is seen as an impediment, something that gets in your way, kills the buzz, harshes your vibe, wrecks your mellow, comes first and follows after, and generally prevents you from having a good time with its stubborn insistence on being dark.

How wonderful it would be if the sun would just stay up and let us hang out a little longer.

As it turns out, a regular night cycle is a good thing because it's the world's way of telling you that it's time to slow down and relax.

I learned this recently on my trip to Iceland, land of the midnight sun, where the hot springs grow. In the summer months the darkest Iceland ever gets would here be considered a partly cloudy midmorning.

Those long summer evenings we get in the Berkshires, where the sun sets but the sky remains light, last until dawn in Iceland, three hours later.

One might then expect that summertime Iceland would be a land of constant activity, and it is, to a point.

The bars and clubs are open late, the streets stay active in the capital, and there are plenty of people about at all hours.

However, one has to keep in mind that a great many of the activities preformed at night -- "nightlife" as it were -- are actually dependent on the lack of light.

Going to a nightclub is somewhat awkward when it appears to be early evening outside.


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The club hopping set of Reykjavik is known to be particularly fashion-conscious and I believe that stems from the fact that they can actually see each other's outfits as in the harsh light of day, and thus have to maintain a higher standard than we who are typically at least partly shrouded by the cloak of night.

Additionally, much of the enjoyment of such late-night merry-making comes from the romance and illicitness of being up so late, something completely undercut when you look outside and it appears to be, at most, 6 p.m.

Also awkward was that the bars and other locations of midnight revelry were the darkest places around, so I instantly became tired upon entering one, as my body reacted to what it had to assume passed for night.

Hence upon entering an establishment of libation I would immediately begin to yawn, and upon exiting for a homeward destination I would feel more awake from the sunlight that tells me I don't need to sleep yet, it doesn't seem to be past dinnertime.

Perhaps this is how barhopping got started as sleepy revelers realized they felt up for just one more each time they left the last one.

More importantly, the human body simply isn't set up for this kind of light cycle. The sunlight tells the body its fine to keep going long beyond the actual limit of what is healthy. Torn free of my usual diurnal cycle I was tired at odd hours in the day and confused as to why.

Getting out of bed each morning was a struggle worthy of an epic saga as my body fought over whether it should listen to the part that was saying it was clearly midmorning and I should be up and about, or the part that said I had only slept for four hours and should stay in.

Going abroad, even briefly, always makes me look at my home in new ways. First comes the basic sensory revelations, for this latest return to the States it's things like the disorienting period of darkness that sets in every evening or being glad that the hot water doesn't smell like sulfur yet being somewhat disappointed because it isn't as hot.

Next up, I start to notice differences in scale, such as realizing how expansive my apartment seems after a week in Icelandic guesthouses, or that our supermarkets are staggeringly, unnecessarily huge. The last stage is overlaying one country on top of another and realizing where there's room to learn from one another.

The idea of replacing all stop signs and traffic lights out side of city centers with small rotaries, as they do in Iceland, seemed odd at first but now feels amazingly practical.

Similarly, why do bars have to be dingy beer joints instead of after-hours cafés? I might go out more here if that were the case. The Icelanders could learn a thing or two from us as well. A regular period of darkness once a day would be a good start.

Write to Sean McHugh at readers@berkshireeagle.com.