31 July 2005

Tomorrow is August 1st, which means one week left in Longyearbyen, and after that 16 days in Sweden and then we'll be done.

I'm really looking forward to returning to Sweden for a few hours of darkness each night. Here the sun just circles around in the sky, the same steep angle at noon as at midnight. I go to bed at 11:00, about the same time that the sun comes around the edge of the mountains and on cloudless nights shines brilliantly into my room. Even a sleeping mask isn't enough to induce the feeling of night time. I've lost my ability to even imagine darkness.

We're staying at the Spitsbergen Gjesthuse, a fancy name for a hostal-style bunkhouse of converted coal miner dorms. There is a group of 13 bunkhouses at the top of the valley, huddled at the foot of two glaciers, about a mile from the main town. This little outpost was part of the reconstruction efforts after Germans bombed the main city and the coal mines in WWII.

The town seems caught in a struggle between Scandinavivan tidiness and the aquisition and sprawl of junk, common to all rural and arctic areas. The city center consists of a grocery store, several outfitting shops, a couple bars and as many souviner boutiques as daily cruise ships of French tourists can support. Two hotels and brightly colored vacation homes surround the center and sprawl up the mountain to the East. Further North is the University and beyond that the industrial area and harbor on the Fjord.

Everywhere you look there are snowmobiles. Some carefully parked on pallets next to houses and protected from the sun with sleek, stretchy sleeves. Others are left at random, along the side of the road and in the middle of empty lots in town, as though the snow melted suddenly and the owners, knowing how quickly winter returns, decided it wouldn't be all that long before they could be driven away.

I've met enough locals to learn that nobody is really local. Norwegians and other Europeans move here for a few years for adventure or escape, or both.

I think it would be an eerie place to live for long, being so constantly surrounded by such tragic history. All structures and artifacts, even piles of garbage, from before 1945, are protected as cultural relics. The town is surround by remains of an intensive mining industry that is no longer profitable, blown-up bits of buildings, piles of charred wood and an occasional cannon pointed towards the sea. Perhaps this contributes to the sense of place people get from living here. Nothing can be taken for granted since everything lies exposed. Even the town's entire infrastructure is visible, since water mains, electric wires and sewage pipes must be carried above ground since the permafrost prevents anything from being buried.

All in all, it has the feel of a small tourist town anywhere else in the world. People who overwinter have wan smiles for tourists and a silent wish for summer to end and darkness to bring some peace to their corner of the world, at least for a little while until the snowmobiling tourists show up with the light in March.

As a visiting scientist I'm no more than a tourist, worse even with heavy equipment and experiments that leave vegetation muddy and trampled. I'm more than happy to oblige the wishes of the overwinterers and go home.

19 July 2005

78 degrees north, and some odd minutes. On the globe I found we're the bit that's under the black plastic piece at the top.

Here are some webcams in and around Longyearbyen, one of 5 settlements on the archipelago. I hesistate to post them, because they aren't all that flattering. I guess in a place surrounded by wilderness webcams of dreary, industrial areas are a sight for sore eyes. They do, however, accurately reflect the weather, which is at all times cloudy, foggy, windy, misting rain, and spotted occasionally by snow.

I have lots of thoughts about the place and our work here, but overwhelming my thought process is dominated by this mantra: "Is it over yet?" It's always the same for me, starting halfway through every field job I've ever had, and continuing to increase in intensity until it's finally over. And still I look through my USA Jobs agents and get excited about jobs like one in the Laysan islands, Hawaii, protecting endangered endemic plant species. The following was listed in the job description:

SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS: Applicants should seriously consider their ability to work independently, under extremely remote and harsh field conditions for periods of up to several months in succession. Contact to the outside world is possible only through short-wave radio and occasional aircraft and ship deliveries. Since travel to the islands is by small boat, and at times in high surf conditions, the possibility of capsize exists. These factors are strict requirements for this position.

It's still open if anyone's interested in applying. I think I'm going to pass this time.

Not much time at this internet conection. I'll save more thoughts for when I'm back in Sweden in August. Right now I'm late for dinner and a swim, the world's northernmost pool(indoor of course!)

P.S. No polar bears yet, but we're ready with our signal pens, flare gun, and rifle should one turn up.

03 July 2005

Learning Swedish. An altogether needless effort, since every Swede speaks English almost as fluently as if it were their native language. But an effort at it is courteous at the least, and is proving quite fun, as often language games are.

We have put up a large white paper in our dining hall with translations of certain phrases into all representative languages: Swedish, English, Polish, Italian, French, and Dutch.

The easiest to master has been the Swedish greeting 'Hej!' pronounced 'hey,' just like the English greeting. In order to show off my new language skills I walk around the station, 'hej'-ing everyone in sight, being mindful to look in enough of a hurry so as to not get into a conversation that would ruin the ruse.

If further conversation were to ensue, any of the other useful phrases I have learned from our dining room poster might come in handy, such as, "Do you charge for the baby?" or perhaps, "The circus has come to town," but I would have to be careful with my usage of, "Please undress down to the waist," and the innocent request, "Would you blow-dry my hair please?" could be problematic if my pronunciation of "hair" was slightly off, in which case "hair" could be heard as "whore."

But on the whole, the Swedes are not a modest bunch, and have a tolerance for questions that might make other nationalities blush. For examples, in Swedish, it would be perfectly acceptable if I had laundry that needed washing to ask the person removing their clothes from the washing machine, "Are you a slut?" And it would not be at all offensive to be discussing trade unions and ask someone, "Are you happy with the fack?" (pronounced like the English swear word of close spelling).

If all else fails I'm quite confident in my ability to impress by simply beginning to list objects that I might be bringing through customs with me, such as "a few ping-pong bats and a pair of knitted gloves."

And for all that, we leave for Norway and the polar bears in less than a week and I'll have to start all over again. Hopefully I'll be able to arm myself with a similar arsenal of useful phrases. It shouldn't be too difficult, a relative said that she'd once found the phrase, "I'm sorry, I'd love to dance with you but I have only one leg," in a Norwegian/English phrase book.

If the conversation were to continue from that, perhaps I could learn how to say, "A polar bear ate it on my way home from the circus."