Life at Concordia is not always perfect.
That much you can picture by reading any book about life in extreme conditions, isolation and confinement in particular. After nine months surrounded by ice, I can tell you that there is a difference between reading about it and living it. The highs and the lows have jumped out of the pages of scientific magazines and adventures stories and become personal experiences.
If you live in the same few square meters for a year, even with your best friends, you are bound to feel some friction at times. We do our best to avoid that and respect each other’s personal habits, space and individuality. Still, sometimes this becomes increasingly difficult if ones considers the other adverse effects of Concordia’s environment.
The continuous night does not seem to have such a significant direct effect on us, but then again there are days that you wake up in a grim mood. More important probably is the influence that lack of sleep has on our everyday life. Due to the severe lack of humidity, low pressure and circadian desynchronization, we all experience some varying difficulty in falling asleep or maintaining sleep for a normal duration. For a period of a few weeks it was common for some crew members to wake up multiple times during what should be night or be completely unable to rest. If this form of insomnia is sustained for a few days you’re certainly more irritable than usual.
Another effect one might notice is that around the middle of the 3-month long night it is generally more difficult – mentally – to complete tasks or take initiatives. Perhaps this is because external stimulation is minimal. A simple walk to the park at this point could seem like an oasis of sensations that we miss (smell, colours, natural sounds, scenery). We are certain such an activity could easily rekindle our interest in small or greater tasks. Unfortunately, for the time being, we cannot entertain this possibility.
Naturally, we try to develop “countermeasures” to deal with these circumstances. Talking problems through usually proves effective. To counter the lack of external stimuli, we try to celebrate every occasion, such as birthdays or national holidays. Midwinter (21st of June, winter solstice) was a monumental occasion on which all Antarctic Stations go on vacation to enjoy what marks the middle of our stay in isolation. Bases exchange international wishes for a happy second half and organize a few events and happenings. If you endure half, the other half is just counting backwards…
Yet it would be wrong to depict our current situation as a miserable one. Life in isolation gives you the time and space to come to a deep understanding about the challenges in your daily life, and life as a whole. What it also offers is an opportunity to familiarize yourself with techniques to endure and cope with the very same challenges. You learn to build a deep and lasting resilience. On top of that, there are always very pleasant surprises and small, unique things to enjoy.
For example, static electricity due to extreme dryness is a constant annoyance here. But one funny thing that always beguiles me is sparkles in the night. It is extremely irritating to feel a little burn every time you touch a surface around you (especially if you wear a lot of clothing). But it is equally amusing to spot the sparkles of static electricity on your blanket as you switch off the lights and get in bed every night: you cover yourself and the simple touch of the blanket as you pull it over you creates little lights, strong enough to illuminate the space around you for a portion of a second. It is almost like fireflies playing around your room– a good substitute, since we haven’t seen an insect of any kind for the better part of a year!
When I find it impossible to sleep in the night, I love to go on night raids! Two or three of us creep in the kitchen and enjoy an after-midnight snack or drink. It is a funny activity and a relaxing one. Our midnight company was particularly active during the football World Cup (which we could not really view due to internet limitations, but watching the scores was always fun).
We talk about sleep almost every day. It’s almost like asking “how are you”? Other than that we do occasionally speak about events in the outside world, like the results of the European elections, or about more personal matters.
Birthdays are important occasion to refresh us. Our chef, Giorgio, meticulously prepares a special dish and members of the technical team always come up with an interesting, handmade gift.
Life in the base might generally appear to be very monotonous to outsiders – and at times it can be. Originally life is pleasant because you find some time to do all the things that you always had in mind but never dedicated an evening to. You will read that book that was collecting dust in your shelf and complete tasks that the hustle and bustle of city life never allowed you to. But, after a few months, the excitement that you drew from these activities is depleted. At this point an entirely new activity might be required to help you carry on smoothly.
In the same books that describe isolation psychology, you read also about the phenomenon of salutogenesis. It is the positive effects that a special experience can have on the human body and mind, even on health. For example, astronauts go through this when they view the Earth – the entirety of our world – from space. For us here photography – and especially of the skies – seems to have a similar result.
With the excuse of having to adjust the camera box and tripod usually placed at the roof of the Station, I was motivated to go outside of the base many more times than I used to, especially at night. This invigorated me. It’s amusing to see Orion “upside down” time and again. When you go out, the psychedelic embrace of the Night is always unique. You never grow tired of that as you exit the hatch at the roof of Concordia to position the specially-modified frost-resistant camera and capture a portion of the celestial orb’s magnificence.
You can only hear your respiration through the little breathing mask that partially prevents your visor from fogging up. Then you look around after closing the hatch… There is nothing. Only total darkness that devours you. For 1 or 2 seconds you feel alone and threatened. Perhaps some primordial response to darkness…
Then you raise your eyes and look up and you pinpoint three thousand little stitches in the sky. The Milky Way is very visible. Gradually your eyes adjust to the dark. You start to feel the freezing winds creep inside your polar suit through the tiniest holes to burn your skin. But you feel content. Starlight is all that illuminates the infinite white of the plains around you. After all, let’s not forget that we live under the darkest, most pristine skies of our planet. Concordia could easily qualify as the Capital of Night.
As the days go by, slowly the Night recesses, giving more and more ground to the illuminating powers of the advancing Day. Actually today was the first time in four months that I woke up by the touch of morning light on my face.
Looking at the orange glow painting the horizon with colours again at midday generates a heart-lifting feeling. Still in the case of a few of us here, the day seems to be approaching too fast, gradually marking the end of our southernmost adventure. The feeling is bitter-sweet.
See you all soon and – for as long as it lasts – good night from Night Capital.