Growing up 12 degrees north of the equator, I was raised on a steady dose of about 12 hours of sunlight per day. It didn’t matter which month it was on the calendar, the day broke roughly between 5 and 6 and ended roughly between 6 and 7. The only exceptions were the days when it rained when clouds could make 11am appear like 6pm.
We read about solstice in school, about the long sunlit days in summers in the temperates and depressingly long dark nights in the winter. We studied all about it, but it wasn’t until I first travelled to Paris in July 2005 and looked outside my window at about 9pm and found the landscape still awash with sunlight and a bunch of people playing basketball just behind the building where I was, that I actually absorbed the implications of a long sunlit day.
I was hit with a kind of exhilaration. The same kind that I guess hits anyone with a tropical upbringing on travelling to more northerly or southerly latitudes. For me, daylight was productivity and nighttime was rest. Daytime was also more benevolent and protective whereas the night and darkness were to be weathered indoors safe from malevolent forces.
Now with so much more daylight, how much more could I squeeze into the day? Even after 13 years since that first exposure to the long summer day I’m still thrilled every time when on my travels I see the sun shining high in the sky at 9pm.
In terms of physical locations I have migrated northwards by about 13 degrees (from Chennai to Dubai). While it does cause a marked shortening of days in winter (the most obvious impact being my having to get to work in the mornings when it is still dark) it is still not enough to provoke that feeling of exhilaration, that “nuannarpoq” the Inuit term that Barry Lopez invokes in his book ‘Arctic Dreams’- that ‘feeling of taking extravagant pleasure in being alive’. That hope that while the sun still shines and there is still daylight, one still has the time to go and accomplish the day’s unfinished deeds- one more step towards achieving our goals.
On the 21st of June last year, I was sightseeing in Budapest. In honour of it being the longest days, all museums in the city remained open until midnight. Standing on Buda Hill watching the sun light fade away slowly and realising that I could still pack more into the day was an amazing feeling. My legs and my body were screaming with exhaustion by the time I made my way on foot from the hill, across the chain bridge and on to the tram stop at Szechenyi Istvan Ter but the music coming from one of those summer night concerts made up for it.
One of these years, I hope to make it much further north for the summer solstice. Somewhere like Reykjavik or even more north where the sunlight lingers the entire 24 hours (even if it is not as far as the north pole where on “this day the sun is making a flat 360* orbit exactly 23.5* above the horizon” Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams, Arktikos).
Meanwhile the slightly extra burst of sunlight these days in Dubai (as if we needed more sunlight here) has inspired me to do this. It is not entirely original but a copy of a design I saw elsewhere on the interweb.
What did you do this summer solstice?