Every time I travel from Boston to Budapest, I have terrible jetlag. It’s only Boston to Budapest — traveling the other way around, with the sun, I may be a bit tired and dehydrated from the long journey, but I don’t have the same symptoms.
The first symptom is a sense of absolute exhaustion. I can sleep twelve hours a day and still be tired. It’s not just that my sense of time has been disrupted and I need to catch up. My tiredness is unpredictable, and I am off schedule not only in Budapest but also in Boston. It’s as though my time sense has shifted to someplace other than where I was, where I am — I don’t know, some alien planet? I often wake up at 3 a.m., no matter what time I went to sleep, even though 3 a.m. is not a time to wake up, either in Budapest or Boston. It’s not that I’m lagging — it’s that I’m spinning wildly out of control, like a carousel in space.
The second is a sense that gravity has increased by 100%, so that I have become incredibly heavy. It takes so much more energy simply to move. Walking up stairs is a chore. Even getting out of bed is a chore. It feels as though I have turned into a metal statue of myself.
The third is disorientation. What day is it? Monday? Oh, you say it’s Wednesday? Wait, you said Saturday? All right, if you insist. As I was saying, since this is Saturday . . . But no, I don’t remember. I had a thought, but it’s gone, whirling away behind me as I turn on this interplanetary carousel. When I’m jetlagged, I can’t think properly. There is also, sometimes, a sense of nausea and general unease, as though my body knows something is wrong, that it’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which, in a sense, it is.
The flight from Boston to Budapest takes about ten hours in two airplanes. That’s the quickest flight through Zurich, with only an hour between flights — it’s the easiest and most comfortable, and the Swissair flight attendants give you chocolate (one per flight, so I end up with two chocolate bars, which is not a minor consideration). In those ten hours, I cross six time zones: 3 a.m. in Budapest is 10 p.m. in Boston. For most of those ten hours, I am in a particularly dry environment, doing something profoundly unnatural: sitting, or sleeping almost upright in an airplane, or watching a movie on the tiny screen in front of me (only at the start of the flight — then I always try to sleep), eating something or other out of an aluminum box. Last time it was couscous and vegetables. These are things I would never do under any other circumstance. I don’t mind them — they are part of the ritual of flying. But all those things, and the pressure in the cabin, take their toll. Predictably, not the day I arrive but usually the day after, the jetlag starts.
I’m not writing this asking for remedies. I do what I can, drinking water throughout the flight, getting sunlight and fresh air once I arrive, trying to adjust. I haven’t tried melatonin or other medications because despite the misery of jetlag, my body adjusts naturally, exactly as the medical websites describe: one day per time zone traveled. My body does what it’s supposed to, and I’m grateful to it for being as healthy and accommodating as it is. Considering what I put it through, it’s remarkably kind to me.
Because, and this is my point, flying against the sun like that is profoundly unnatural. It’s time travel, really — it’s something science fictional, as though I traveled somewhere by spaceship. Jetlag is a reminder that we are profoundly affected by our place on this earth, that we are earthly, earthy, creatures of the ground from which we came. The experience of jetlag is the experience of being ungrounded. I have, for ten hours, lost my connection to the planet, and I need to reconnect. Jetlag is a tiny warning that this planet is, after all, our parent — a great green and blue mother floating in space, turning like a carousel, the most wonderful you can imagine, with the best animals — and that we are bound to her cycles, her rhythms. Her movements from light to dark, her temperatures and tides. When we get too far away from her, we lose something. Perhaps that is the true lesson of Icarus. As a species, we are not particularly meant to fly — we are the wrong shape, the wrong size. When we do, it’s glorious: we slip the surly bonds of earth, as the television used to say when the daily broadcast ended, back in the days when there were only four channels, fading to black and white static around two in the morning. Right around the jetlag hour.
It is the same, it seems to me, with many of our unnatural endeavors as a species. They take us away from our natural selves, in the direction of cities, papyrus scrolls and then libraries filled with books and then the Internet, cultivated grain and then restaurants and finally little aluminum boxes of pre-cooked couscous and vegetables. From leather wrappings to linen tunics to ripped jeans and a t-shirt. They give us magnificent art, soaring architecture, and of course pollution. We create wonderful things but we also lose connection. We are all Icarus, soaring and falling, not just once but all the time. Trying to be birds, brought down to earth.
Perhaps another effect of jetlag is middle of the night speculation on the meaning of existence and the fate of humanity? Or maybe we all think about these things in the late anthropocene. In the 3 a.m. of our human timeline.
I have no solutions. Melatonin is not going to get us out of this mess. My one thought is that even relatively unimportant things, like the discomfort of jetlag, which after all passes (soon, I hope — it’s been five days), can be significant, can mean something, teach us something. In this case, that we are children of a wonderful mother, this beautiful planet of ours. We are more closely attuned to her than we often realize. We are not simply on her, walking around on her surface, restrained by her gravity so we don’t float up into the sky — she is inside us, regulating our sense of time, our sleeping and waking. We need to pay more attention, both to her and to our relationship with her. It is only by understanding that relationship, by working with her, that we will remain healthy, individually and as a species.
Such are the insights of jetlag at 3 a.m. in Budapest.
(The image is The Lament for Icarus by Herbert James Draper. This is a pretty accurate representation of what jetlag feels like . . . I hope the nymphs are bringing him water and saltines.)