It is the darkness that terrifies us most. The darkness that falls at five pm and lifts at eight am, that seems to clip the edges of even sunny days, making them flimsy and temporary. More than incessant rain and deepening cold, December evenings do us in every year, like clockwork.
“If we start to get depressed now,” says my husband Florent. “We’ll be catatonic by January. We have to try to hold it together.”
Much is made of Parisian beauty—architectural, intellectual, gastronomic—but the sad fact is that the city of light lingers in semi-darkness for three months of the year. It is as far north as Sakhalin island in Russia and Newfoundland in Canada and has more in common geographically with Stockholm than with any southern city; in winter the sun only crosses the horizon to hit the Eiffel tower eight hours a day.
American expats in Paris have recognized for a hundred years how miserable Paris can be when the weather turns, but somehow word never gets out. American novelist Irwin Shaw, who lived here in the 1950s, noted that the season brought out the saddest souls: “lovers soon to be parted, merchants on the edge of bankruptcy…women whose husbands have left them for younger, prettier, smarter, richer, and all round better girls.”
The Parisian winter draws life out of you not because it is particularly brutal, however. I never am assaulted by the weather as I would be in New England. I simply am trapped by it. Low neurotic clouds race above roof tops, blocking a weak sun and reflecting shades of grey. The temperature rarely rises above fifty degrees and never falls below forty but somehow I am always freezing. No bright blue skies with Arctic winds break the monotony. No crystal snow reflects light and plays on color. No sudden warm spells bring people into the street in their shirt sleeves. The clouds and perfectly symmetrical Haussmanian buildings collude to create a cell of muted sound and color. Nature’s tendency toward extremity is eliminated. The lid is on.
Parisians fight the winter by leaving for the Alps (if they can), but those who stay become melancholic. They drink too much coffee, smoke too many cigarettes and watch bad French TV late into the night, waiting for something to change. Many end up in the doctors office, with vague untreatable aches or wander the pharmacies looking for salvation.
Yet on top the lethargy, stretched like thin skin on scalded milk, is a kind of seasonal productivity. Christmas lights go up. The fonctionnaires in the state ministries (for never forget that Paris, like Washington DC, is company town) rush to finish their reports. Contracts are signed. Houses are bought. Traffic becomes absurd; the cafes are crowded to bursting point.
As the month wears on the productivity becomes more and more frantic and then a restlessness sets in. The balanced French — never too much food or wine, always eight hours of sleep — begin to tip into exhausted excess. There are Christmas parties and shopping outings and the looming prospect of holiday vacations. Flower shops and clothing stores stay open on Sunday; the butcher warns darkly that if you do not order it now there may be not enough capon by December 24. The pressure isn’t intense but it is there and suddenly the beauty that people carry here so offhandedly begins to look worn and fragile.
Florent and I are not immune to this. I am alone for much of November and December and always have been in the context of my marriage. My husband, who runs a small software firm, works hard up until Christmas day trying to close out the year well. He is tense and distant throughout, inaccessible except for the darkest emergency. When we were first married seven years ago, we argued during this period–I, needy, tearful and angry; he, harsh and inconsistent–but now we give each other a wide berth, knowing the season distorts the essential harmony of our relationship.
Still, when the darkness comes in late November there is a moment of panic.
“You look tired,” says Florent. “You aren’t sleeping well, I can see it in your face.”
“You should travel.”
“I’m ok,” I say again.
It is now, in this time, that we come to value most the unspoken pact of our marriage–to protect, even to financial ruin, each others right to solitude. This pact is how we have come to understand our union and it has, on occasion, trumped the requirements of raising children. Thus, Florent goes off to the mountains alone to ski for three days, while I stay at home, plotting my own January escape. I try to morph the melancholy into something that has weight and meaning–aloneness that breeds reflection rather than fear, but it is very hard. In the afternoons, I wander the city looking for reprieve. Sometimes I find it–lunch alone at the bar of a modest restaurant with a truffle-infused bowl of cauliflower soup that is surprisingly good. Sometimes I don’t and I find myself cold and wet, staring up at some worshiped Parisian landmark and wondering how I came to be in such a dark place.
Fighting the depression, Paris-style
Go to the pharmacy. I think the pharmacists are the nicest shop people in Paris. If you are blue they will recommend you take Berocca, a hit of B vitamins and magnesium. When you dissolve the pill in water it tastes like Fanta.
Go to the café. Beaujolais nouveau arrives in mid-November. It is a cheap, fruity never-totally-ready wine that is fun to drink. You can sit alone and have three glasses before the waiter starts to look at you funny.
Go to lunch. I sit alone at the bar of Laterie Saint Clothilde on Rue Bellechasse and eat their 24 euro prix fixe. They are nice to me.
Go to a museum. It’s the season for art. I go and usually get more depressed after seeing something but the depression feels more meaningful because art is involved. Edward Hopper is on exhibit at the Grand Palais and his Cape cod seascapes reminded me of home.
Go to a hotel. I do this but I doubt French people do. Go to a hotel, watch a movie, sleep until 8.30 am. Pretend you are all alone in the world. Hotel Verneuil is lovely at 150 euros a night.
Read a depressing book. I just finished Mao, the untold story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. Mao killed 70 million in peacetime through starvation, execution and torture. It put things in perspective.