Monday, December 3, 2007

Hibernation à la française

Last week I read a strange op-ed piece from the NYTimes. It begins by discussing how French President Nicolas Sarkozy removed tax penalties which limited workers to a 35-hour work week. The 35-hour work week had been established by Lionel Jospin's socialist party in 2000: the socialists believed this shorter work week would create more jobs while also allowing -- or, indeed, forcing -- French workers to spend more time at home with their families. Sarkozy, however, attacked this institution, claiming that it kept workers from earning more wealth and that it kept the nation from being economically competitive.

But the article's author, Graham Robb, points out that, if Sarkozy thinks that working 35 hours a week is inefficient, that's nothing compared with French habits from centuries past. He reports how, in the 1800s, economists and government officials lamented the fact that, in the countryside, almost all economic activity was suspended for the entirety of the winter.

They weren't alone. In 1900, the British medical journal reported how peasants in the Pskov region of northwestern Russia (close to the modern-day Estonian border) would spend half the year in pseudo-hibernation. With the first snowfall families would gather by the stove and settle down to sleep, and they wouldn't emerge from their homes until spring had sprung. Family members would take turns overseeing the fire while the rest of their family would sleep almost all day long, waking up to have a piece of black bread. This extremely sedentary existance would effectively slow a person's metabolism to a crawl so that he would require very little food for energy.

A similar custom was followed by Frenchmen, not only in frigid mountainous areas but also in more temperate regions such as Burgundy. Yes, the French have always known how to live.

When I first read this article I was kind of stupefied about the idea of people staying inside all winter, doing little but sleeping for months at a time. But, upon more reflection, I can see how this was probably very common, especially in places with harsh winters. Farmers who planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, would have few responsibilites during the winter and would want to conserve the food and fuel that they had managed to horde. Moreover, this was before the advent of central heating; and don't we all sometimes have trouble leaving our warm beds during colder months even today? So I could totally see sleeping in, and spending waking hours chilling around the house maybe wrapped in a blanket.

Sadly, doing nothing for months on end is not an option for modern man who needs to earn money to pay for things like rent, utilities, drugs. Yet, Robb suggets that society might want to enact initatives to once again encourage citizens to scale back on activities during winter months: yes, there would be a decrease in economic output, but there would also be a decrease in consumption and pollution. I would definitely volunteer to do fuck all for a couple of months if it was good for the enviroment. Hey, we all need to make sacrifies.



nola32 said...

i knew i loved the french for a reason. and can we give a shout out to me for making you purchase said kombucha? thanks!

Meeg said...