Dr. Carmen Possnig is the ESA-sponsored medical doctor spending 12 months at Concordia research station in Antarctica. She facilitates a number of experiments on the effects of isolation, light deprivation, and extreme temperatures on the human body and mind. In the following post, Carmen discusses life in Antarctica.
A Belgian expedition started the first (involuntary) hibernation in Antarctica in 1898-1899, but I doubt that they celebrated it. They experienced the winter as “dreary, cheerless days” and midwinter as “the darkest day of the night; a more dismal sky and a more depressing scene could not be imagined.” On top of that Nansen, the ship’s cat, died at that time.
However, it is known that during Scott’s first Antarctic expedition, probably initiated by Shackelton in 1902, midwinter was celebrated. Since then, it has been an Antarctic tradition to celebrate June 21, and in most stations this is done with enthusiasm.
While the longest day is celebrated in Europe, we do not have the longest night – which has been going on since May anyway – but the darkest hours, and at the same time the moment when the sun approaches us again.
It is a way to break out of routine, relax and grow closer together as a team. The duration of the festivities varies; we have decided for four days, 20-23 June. The preparations start weeks before and the excitement increases noticeably the closer we get to the date. Each of the four days has a different theme, so we need decorations, costumes, matching menus, music, games and entertainment.
Since we can’t just go to the next shop, we make everything ourselves. Late in the evening, lights are on, clothes are sewn, countless leaves are cut out and painted green, origami and flowers are folded, helmets and armours are forged, the storage rooms are searched for lychees and rice noodles. It is a wonderful time and really good for our team spirit: we spend more time together, learn or teach new skills and everyone is busy.
On the day of the first celebration, as I am balancing on an armchair conjuring tropical birds and fishing nets on the ceiling of the video room, one of my crewmates shines happily: “It feels like Christmas”. And he is right, that is how it feels: 13 children waiting excitedly for the Christmas tree.
Everyone is interested in making this week a success. We begin the festivities with the decoration of the living room: it is transformed into a jungle, including exotic animals, lianas and hundreds of sheets of paper and cardboard. We like the whole thing so much that we don’t dismantle it again.
On Wednesday we start with a tropical island evening. Our video room will be redecorated accordingly: A fishing net (formerly a badminton net) covers a wall, including a beach bar with fruity cocktails, we project videos of the beach and the sea onto another wall, two fountains splash, you can lie on mattresses under palm trees, a chocolate fondue provides physical well-being and Cuban music plays in the background. There is a balloon-volleyball tournament, sunset lamps provide a pleasant atmosphere and we heat the room to wear bikinis and swimming trunks. Finally, late in the evening, we sit around a (fake) campfire, tell stories and then slowly fall asleep under the palm trees, the sound of the waves still in our ears.
Thursday starts with a brunch, and then there is a (already traditional) Miss Concordia contest. The men dress up as elegant ladies and fight for the title, the women play the jury dressed as elegant men. There are various tests to test motor and language skills.
On Friday, we have a Skype meeting with the French crew in Durmont d’Urville. In the evening the traditional Gauls vs. Romans evening takes place. Alberto gives a speech in Latin, there are various games for the wild boar feast and finally an Asterix film.
Saturday is our last day, and we close it with a cabaret spectacle evening. There will be a candlelight dinner and entertainment, planned by the individual crew members – music, quizzes, singing and various games between the courses. There is also a special dress code: Chic et choc, an elegant outfit with a shocking detail.
It is also a tradition that Antarctic stations send each other electronic postcards. So we receive dozens of postcards throughout the week, mostly with group photos, and for the first time we see who else is out there enduring the winter.
To read Carmen’s adventures at Concordia in German, see her personal blog.