Technically, winter is still three weeks away. But it is already cold and gray as all get-out here in Warsaw. The first few flakes of snow have fallen. Sure looks like winter to me. By the time winter is actually chronologically, here, it’s going to be colder still, with an average high temperature of 31 degrees Fahrenheit in January. Gack.
You might say, well, you moved to Warsaw, what did you expect? And the answer would be: I expected it to be cold and dark! And we bid on Warsaw despite that fact, not because of it. In the Foreign Service, we call this “choosing your hardship.” I get to live in a safe, modern country and travel in Europe. But I have to put up with a whole lot of winter in order to do that. Fair enough.
I have never liked winter. I’ve read up on Seasonal Affective Disorder and I don’t actually meet all the criteria for it, but I am sure I fall somewhere on the spectrum. That said, I remain unconvinced that it is actually a “disorder” to dislike winter. I know lots of people who complain endlessly about hot weather, but no one says they have a disorder. Just call me a summer person, OK?
Here’s one diagnosis that does apply: auto-immune hypothyroiditis. Hypothyroid people actually feel the cold more than thyroid-normal people do. We have low blood pressure and slower circulation. Cold hands and feet are typically one of the first signs of the disorder, as a matter of fact. I definitely experience this, and I also seem to have much more trouble warming up after being cold than most people do. It’s really no wonder I’m not fond of the cold months.
That said, I have learned how to stay warm. As a southern girl, I had no idea how to dress for winter when we first moved to Europe 15 years ago. But now I have an impressive wardrobe of coats, hats, scarves, and gloves for every possible gradation in temperature. Also long underwear, smart wool socks, and several pairs of really cute boots. (Cute boots are key, I find.)
So, I’ve pretty much got the cold licked. The dark, on the other hand, is a problem. Right after Daylight Savings Time started here, making it pitch-dark by 4 p.m., I started feeling that weird out-of-phase jet lag that I always experience in winter. Fighting to stay awake until 10 p.m., then waking up fully alert at 4 or 5 in the morning. Super annoying, and worse than ever here in Warsaw. I mean, this city is dark in winter. Even when the sun is out, it’s so low in the sky that it casts long shadows shortly after lunch. Crazy.
So, meet my new BFF, the Happy Light.
I had tried one of these lights in Vienna. The Embassy health unit there had some that they let us sign out. It was a small, portable model, with a lens about the size of a softball. I didn’t find that it helped at all, so I quit using it after a few weeks. But I could tell early on that winter at this post was going to be especially trying. So, I did a little research, settled on this model, and ordered it, stat.
After two weeks, I think it’s actually working. I use it for about 45 minutes every morning while reading email, Facebook, etc. with my coffee. It’s very cheerful! I definitely feel more awake during the day, and it’s not such a struggle to stay awake in the evening. I am still waking up in the wee hours, but I’m not so alert when I do. I can get back to sleep. It feels exactly like I am slowly getting over jet lag.
In short, I wouldn’t call the light a miracle cure, but every little bit helps. Here’s the rest of my “recipe” for getting through winter:
Exercise and fresh air. I try to at least get in a walk every single day. I just bundle up, slap on some headphones and get out there before I can wimp out. I don’t always succeed, but at the very least, I squeeze in some yoga. If the weather is really bad, I go to the gym and use the treadmill and weights. Or since I don’t have a cleaning service, I turn up the music and clean all the floors!
Eat healthy. It’s normal to crave carbohydrates in the winter, and I am no exception. I try to keep other good foods around to fill up on. Latest project is learning how to cook (and like) more winter vegetables. I even tackled celeriac last week with some success. (Tip: dump cheese on it.) I find it helps to cut up veggies, toss them with olive oil, and roast the heck out of them at the beginning of the week. Then I can just warm them up later for lunch or dinner.
Vitamin D. I added this only recently. I don’t know if it helps or not, but I figured if I were ever going to have a Vitamin D deficit, it would be in Warsaw! So, I take it. Can’t hurt, might help.
Maximizing light at home. When we filled out our housing survey for Warsaw, we asked for a place with a lot of light. We got an apartment with big windows all across the living/dining/kitchen area. I took down the heavy drapes provided by the embassy to let in as much light as possible. I have my desk in the dining area by the front windows, even though it’s a bit messy to have it there. I also bought a few local lamps to brighten up dark corners.
Finally, I am profligate with electricity, turning on all the lights in the main living areas first thing in the morning and leaving them on until bedtime. Because I am not a bear, and this is not a cave!
Get busy—and stay that way. Some people are into this “hygge” thing, loosely defined as “winter coziness.” Whatever. I will never be the kind of person who is happy lounging on the sofa with hot chocolate and a book all day. I have a lot of mental and physical energy to burn. Exercise helps a lot. An interesting job would probably help as well. But until I can figure that one out, I line up goals and “winter projects” for myself. I join groups. I take classes. I fill the days so that I don’t notice the dark so much. It really helps.
Get out of Dodge. Because the long winter is a genuine hardship for me, I stipulated when we bid on Warsaw that I would get “R&R.” I just booked tickets for a January trip to Spain, and am planning a trip to California and Tennessee in February. I am thankful that now we are freed from school schedules we can grab those cheap off-peak fares. No, we won’t save as much money as we might otherwise, but it’s simply the cost of doing business at this type of post.
Will I ever learn to love winter? Nope. Getting through winter will always be work for me. I accept that the best I can do is make it manageable. But you know, I’m rather proud of how far I’ve come since our first year in Europe. DC winters will be a snap after Warsaw, that’s for sure.