Cultural implications of seasonal change
For the past few weeks, my kids have been tired and crankier than usual. Their less-than-sunny dispositions have struck me as odd, now that the weather has turned beautiful, mild, and sunny. In celebration of spring, we’ve been out biking and walking through the woods. Even on trips to the city center, it’s hard to miss signs of Prague coming to life after the long winter. Unfortunately, instead of enjoying such outings, the kids have complained of tired legs and sore feet. Although I prod them to shake off their tiredness, smell the flowers and soak up the sunshine, I must admit it’s been just as hard to motive myself, both mentally and physically. Even watching the tulip bulbs I planted last September open their delicate petals a bit wider each day hasn’t helped me fully shake my own lethargy.
Although I initially attributed the children’s tiredness to being run-down from winter, it wasn’t until I chatted with a Czech friend that I realized this malady has a real name, at least in the Czech Republic: jarní únava (spring fatigue). My friend explained that Czechs believe that by the end of winter, the body has exhausted all its stored energy, including vitamins and minerals from foods and sunlight. Before the body gets recharged with new stores of vitamins, minerals and sunlight, it goes through a cleansing process, which shows itself as a period of fatigue. Articles about jarní unava in fitness and women’s magazines are typical this time of year.
In children, the symptoms of spring fatigue are accentuated by their sudden increase in activity level and their abandonment of winter coats in favor of shirt sleeves and bare heads. Another Czech babička pointed out that previously fresh fruits and vegetables weren’t widely available in the country during the winter months and by the time spring rolled in, the body was at its weakest point, the children were thinnest and had bouts of illness. It was interesting to learn that all the Czechs I spoke with pretty much upheld this cultural belief, even though now Czech supermarkets offer a wider variety of produce during the winter months and many cereals and bread products are fortified with vitamins and minerals.
I had to admit when I looked at my two older children, you could see the signs of a long winter. They were thinner than ever, and even though I thought we’d spent a good deal of time outdoors either skiing or playing in the snow, once the time change extended daylight hours, I realized how many more hours there were for after-school outdoor play. Our neighborhood came alive with children running up and down the dead-end lane. The biggest challenge became how to balance all of the outdoor play with enough rest time so that getting up for school wasn’t a daily battle.
While I’m familiar with the term “spring fever” from my school days, as the time of year when teachers go mad because children can’t bear to sit still at their desks, I’d never run across the Czech term “spring fatigue” before. Thinking it over, I’m not sure the two ideas are as contradictory as they initially appear. The kids are in constant motion outdoors these days, yet their bodies seem unable to keep up with the energy levels they imagine they are capable of. Anna’s “spring fever” actually manifested itself in a genuine fever one afternoon after a full day of playing at school and running through the yard. For three days she was energetic, but feverish and keeping her at home and relatively calm was a chore, especially since my mother was visiting and we all wanted to be out sight-seeing instead.
When I mentioned the concept of spring fatigue to one Australian friend, she laughed and said, “We don’t really have that back home, just hot weather and cold weather, not much in between.” It was interesting to think about growing up in a place without four distinct seasons and to realize how a simple cultural habit was dictated by the weather. Living in Prague, I’ve begun to adapt to the harsher winters. The darkest times of the year tend to be the most emotionally trying for me. This year, in hopes of warding off the mental freeze of winter, I gave myself the goal of training for the Prague half-marathon, which took place last weekend. Although training out in the snow and freezing temperature wasn’t easy, I got a burst of positive energy from being out in the elements. When it came time to actually run the race, I was surprised to find that temperatures had jumped even higher than what was ideal for a race. During the race, ambulances and rescue workers had to assist more runners than they had in the previous half-marathon I’d run when the temperature was cooler.
In regards to health and weather, Czechs tend to err on the conservative side, particularly when children’s health is concerned. A Czech children’s song describes a different hat for every month of the year and the seasons. While the “hat” reference is symbolic, it is, in fact, common to find Czech children wearing hats (and socks) at all times of the year. Although some of my Czech friends believe that the caution level of parents and grandparents goes beyond necessary, it is true that my children are usually dressed more lightly than their Czech contemporaries on the playground. Yet my friends from Australia win the prize, dressing their children in the lightest clothes and going jacketless and sockless as soon as the weather turns moderate. I remember once having a coffee on a hot summer day with an Australian friend and her daughter, as soon as I turned my head both her daughter and mine had gotten down to their underwear, with my friend smiling on in encouragement.
Despite the tough transition at times from one season to the next, I feel lucky to live in a climate where I can experience a bit of everything. Although I could do with a longer summer than is typical in Prague, I wouldn’t want to trade away ice skating on the local pond or watching the snow pile up on a winter day. Yet when our friends told us they were heading to Austria next weekend for one last skiing weekend, I was happy to declare that winter, at least for our family, was finished for the year. The furthest I planned to go on the weekend was a walk to the garden center for some spring plants. Even with spring fatigue, I think we can handle at least that.