As I have discussed previously, living in northern Europe does funny things to you. While one might feel as if he is living on an oil rig in the Arctic during the long winters in Estonia, the same person finds himself at the center of a very perverse sleep-deprivation experiment every time June rolls around.
This is because, as everyone knows, the sun rises earlier and earlier (and sets later and later) until the longest day arrives towards the end of June, and the sun sets at 10.38 pm only to rise at 4.02 am, making for 18 hours of light.
These extremely long days cause all kinds of bizarre behavior among the locals. It becomes completely appropriate for a neighbor to mow his lawn at 6 am on any given Sunday in June, as the sun has already been up a good two hours. It is also completely appropriate for the same neighbor to cut down dead tree branches with a chainsaw at 10 pm, as he has got a good half hour until the sun really sets. In summary, Estonians take advantage of the long days to work even more.
The term “sunset” is relative here. The sun does disappear from the sky, and so a state of “night” does exist somewhere between 11 pm and 4 am. At the same time, light is still lurking on the horizon, and so total night does not really ever arrive. What you get instead is an extended dusk that returns at dawn. The light at around 10 pm is also not like the afternoon sun. Instead a hazy dusk falls upon the land, akin to the grayish light that occurs right before a thunderstorm, lending a certain eerie quality to this time of day.
Going to sleep, especially when you have children, becomes more absurd as the June days wear on. It’s hard to convince a child that it’s “nighttime” when light is visible through the blinds. In this circumstance, the time one goes to sleep, and the length of the period of rest, become completely arbitrary. Feel free to nap during the day and work all night. Indeed, the other day in Setomaa, I started a painting job at 5 pm, knowing I would have plenty of time before “night” rolled around. I worked until nightfall, that is, about 11 pm, and went to sleep in a curtain-less room, only to be awakened by ecstatic birds at 4 am. I was back on the job, paintbrush in hand at 4.30 am. A new day had begun and I had gotten probably less than five hours of sleep the night before.
This is just one manifestation of the freakish quality of Estonian life. Another came yesterday, when a friend delivered bottles of organic astelpaju mahl to our house. We weren’t home at the time, so it was left at a neighbor’s apartment. I went to go pick it up later, unaware of the size of the order (my wife had placed it), and was surprised when he pulled a dozen bottles of the yellow stuff from his refrigerator, placed it back in the cooler it came in, and handed it to me.
I make it a point to always speak to my children in English, no matter how complicated the situation. And so I found myself sitting across from my youngest daughter who asked for a cup of astelpaju mahl, which in English translates as sea-buckthorn juice. This drink is popular in northern Europe but I have never encountered it anywhere else, so I had to look it up just to find the proper English translation.
“More astelpaju mahla, please,” my little daughter begged of me.
“Don’t you mean ‘more sea-buckthorn juice,’ honey?” I was forced to ask her.
“Yeah,” she responded. “That.”
It was 10.30 pm.