On Pretending to be a Morning Person

After I returned from my trip to Guangzhou, one of my coworkers asked me whether it was harder to beat jet lag after traveling to my destination or after returning home. Six hours fresh from my landing at JFK, I told him that in this case going was more difficult than coming back. After all, I had a conveniently timed flight. I boarded my plane in the wee hours of Tuesday morning in China, which would give me plenty of time to sleep and be ready to hit the ground running at 5:00 am on Tuesday morning when I emerged in New York.

Reader, I was terribly wrong.

I did not have a restful flight. Because I’m a kind person (read: pushover who fears passive aggressive glowering from the elderly), I gave up my coveted window seat in the emergency row aisle to an old woman who wanted to sit with her traveling companions for a seat between other two elderly ladies, both of whom were extremely chatty and interrupted my attempts to watch Argo without interruption.

These past days spent in Eastern Standard Time have been a confusing time.* On Tuesday, I only made it until 11:00 am before I felt a sleepiness so overwhelming that it felt like someone had wrapped a heavy blanket around my brain. On Wednesday, I walked out the door and made it downstairs before realizing that I’d forgotten to wear my glasses and that was why I couldn’t see. On Thursday, I was wide awake by 4, despite having successfully stayed up until 10:30 the night before. I’ve temporarily resorted to writing everything down on old receipts because my memory has become sieve-like, thoughts breezily passing through and then vanishing without a trace. The “20-minute naps” that I’ve begun taking before dinner have left me awfully confused about why it’s suddenly 5:00 am the next morning instead of 8:00 pm yesterday evening.

A more interesting and less miserable side effect of being jetlagged is the chance to masquerade as a morning person. Prior to this trip, my mornings were a frenzied affair in which I would wake up, make myself presentable, and remember to bring my lunch under 20 minutes in order to arrive at the office barely on time. When you’re awake at 5, there is time to watch an episode of Broad City in between brushing your teeth and getting dressed. While I didn’t want to spend more mental energy than I usually did with my clothes, I liked having the option of carefully crafting an outfit. There was time to eat breakfast in the comfort of my own home. There was even time to decide whether to make scrambled eggs or walk three blocks to buy a bagel or in my case, do both. This past week has been filled with bagels, and I’m beginning to suspect that I’m really using bagels as an excuse to eat an otherwise socially unacceptable amount of cream cheese. (Side note: I got distracted by this Serious Eats article, which tells me that I can save money by slathering my bagels with cream cheese myself.)

Because I live in New York, there is no such thing as a completely quiet morning. When I took the subway from the airport back to my apartment, there were already enough people on the E train to fill the seats in my car. That being said, the trains are less crowded. It is easier to maintain the illusion of personal space. There are also more school children, whose existence I was skeptical of but I guess I was just never awake early enough to notice them. I also found out that arriving to work at 8:30 isn’t too bad. While I’m never the first one there (thanks to a boss who is truly a morning person), I like how the rooms are half-dark and that the desks are unoccupied and that the normal soundtrack of Pandora playlist and furious typing is absent. When I’m not running late to the office, brewing myself a cup of tea is something I can dwell on rather than something to do as quickly as possible so I don’t feel like I’m behind with my day.

But there are costs to suddenly become a morning lark. My leisurely mornings come at the expense of a misallocated day. The time I spend doing things slowly at the beginning of the day mean that there is less time and alertness for the personally productive things that otherwise fill my time. I’ve found myself devoting my shortened evenings to getting ready to sleep rather than reading, journaling, browsing social media, or thinking about the next hobby I should try. The solution to this problem is that I should start doing some of these things before I head to work and when I’m still attentive and still actually awake.

It was this mini-dilemma that made me realize what the hardest thing about being a morning person. And it has nothing to do with waking up early. What I dislike most about my hopefully short-lived tenure as a morning person is knowing that there is a time later in the day when I will not be at my peak. At work, I felt that I was racing the clock, knowing if I didn’t complete tasks A, B, and C before the early afternoon, the likelihood that they’d be done with same amount of attention and speed would plummet. The option of doing something later wasn’t truly available anymore, and as a person who is used to being more alert as the day grew on, I had trouble organizing my day. One of my coworkers, who also used this week to experiment with being a morning person, described how there was an intensity to starting your day much earlier. And intensity is an excellent way to describe it. Instead of settling into my day, I needed to start it at my best and knowing that it was as good as it was going to get. I’m sure it’s a system that works well with a lot of people, but as someone who is used to being most alert at night, it was something that was difficult to get used to. (I’m also sure that being jet lagged has a lot to do with it too. My anecdotal evidence and sample size of four days are not very impressive or very statistically rigorous.)

Luckily, I don’t have to get used to being a morning person. With any luck, I’ll be back to my normal sleeping schedule in no time, and while being a night owl is not conducive to a society organized by a 9-to-5, it’ll be a state of being that I’ll know how to navigate.

* I’ve spent some time thinking about why I’ve been having much more trouble with jet lag than I remember ever experiencing. My first thought was that I’m just getting old, but if that were the case, I would have had a much miserable time during the beginning of my trip. My current theory is revolves around the fact that I had to go to work right after returning from my travels. With previous run-ins with jet lag, I generally didn’t have any real responsibilities besides staying awake until a reasonable hour whereas I’m obligated to use my brain for 8 straight hours, regardless of how much sleep I did or didn’t get.

Nuclear Orange Soda

If you want to be technical about it, I’m already back in the U.S. My European adventures have ended, but I’m going to talk about them anyway because now I’m home and I truly have no more obligations anymore for the next couple of weeks of my break. I don’t even have to leave the house and that’s partly true because my driver’s license and the other contents of my wallet are lying in a random street in Istanbul.

On my flight back to JFK, I was particularly excited to receive my complimentary cup of soda because I had caught a glimpse of a bottle of Fanta standing happily next to the typical offerrings of Coke, Sprite, and juice. European Fanta is delicious. With 12% orange juice and real sugar, it’s refreshing and sweet enough to let you know that yes, you are still drinking soda, but not sweet enough to make you slightly nauseous. From afar, I could see the sunny orange liquid being poured into plastic cups. One last sip of fantastic soda before I landed in the States. That sounded good to me.

When the flight attendant asked for my order, I asked for no ice. Perhaps I should have because in the guise of doing me a favor, she gave me a refrigerated can and went merrily on her way. I opened the can and poured the contents out into the cup she handed me and the liquid that poured out was the bright, unnatural neon orange that could only mean one thing: American Fanta, which has no juice whatsoever, high-fructose corn syrup as its second ingredient, and scary ingredients like “brominated vegetable oil.” My spell-check has underlined “brominated” in red, so it shouldn’t even be a word! It’s banned in the EU, probably for good reason. And think about it: why would you want vegetable oil in your fruity soft drink?

I drank the soda because I was thirsty, but it was one of the more disappointing soda consumption experiences in my life. In general, I felt a little sad to be leaving grocery stores and supermarkets in Europe, which are smaller in scale and sells excellent produce. Perhaps I need to pick better stores at home, but the produce sections of Franxprix or Monorprix were always my favorite places to browse. They were small, only two displays of produce organized in baskets and boxes, but all the vegetables and fruits were bright greens and reds. The carrots had bright orange skins, and the top green parts had been kept to make them look extra idyllic. My benchmark for determining great produce sections were tomatoes. Tomatoes spoil quickly once they’re ripe. The tomatoes in Paris always look as if they’ve been picked at the peak of perfection. Sometimes, there are squishy ones in the pile. Of course, you don’t buy squishy vegetables to take home, but their existence seemed to reassure me that the tomatoes had been picked when they were more or less ripe and transported quickly to the store and then to my kitchen. It’s probably an idealistic view, seeing as I know nothing about agricultural distribution in France, but in comparison to how tomatoes are sold at my local Shoprite, it was a marked improvement. At home, tomatoes are kept in a giant bin that a small toddler could use as a bathtub. The tomatoes are larger but they’re a pale, anemic red that comes from being ripened after being picked rather than ripened and then picked. Tomatoes in Paris looked like jewels in comparison. And best of all, they tasted like tomatoes! Even in the autumn when they weren’t in season, they were still red with a distinctive tomato taste. Shoprite tomatoes in the winter kind of taste like nothing. You just get the tomato texture with none of the tomato taste, which is vaguely unpleasant if you want to eat it raw.

Because so many artificial ingredients and preservatives are banned in the EU, especially in comparison to the United States, and the only corn product that is popularly available in a European store is corn, everything seems to taste better, even your cheap, store-brand packaged snacks. I’m going to miss food shopping in Paris, not only because they package their eggs in six instead of twelve and sell UHT milk in convenient cartons that do not need to be refrigerated for months if unopened, but also because the stuff you’re eating is not as processed.

Case in point: Fanta. If you tried to sell American Fanta, people in Europe would revolt. In Germany, birthplace of Fanta, the bottle proudly displayed that there was real orange juice. The American product proudly proclaims that it contains only “natural flavors” and no caffeine, as if that’s all you need to have a great product. While on the plane, I stared at the softly glowing orange liquid in my cup that claimed to be Fanta and then took a perfunctory sip to be polite. If only that were true.