There are many things one envisions about Antarctica.
A pub is not one of them.
I thought it was going to be cold and it was. I thought I might see the whales, the seals and the penguins and I did. I thought sailing might be tough and it was going to be. But, it never, ever crossed my mind that I could spend an evening in Antarctica drinking vodka and playing billiard, translating small-talk from Russian to Spanish to German to English to Russian, all while listening to The Sundowners’ Colonial Classics.
Yet, there I was.
It was British observation station first, but the Brits did wise up. I mean, yeah, they wrote history down there, as it was them who first noticed holes in ozone layer, in the observatory right next to where I was standing now. But, being the measurement kind of people, they also must have realized that Antarctica was cold. Very cold. And, I guess, once you discover something, even something as epic as ozone layer holes, the added value of writing “Yes. It’s still there” into your notebook every four hours diminishes over time.
So they reached out and asked if someone might want to take over for them. Ukrainians came, checked it out, compared it to Siberia, and said “hell yeah”.
In difficult negotiations that ensued, the rental price was set at one British pound for the next hundred years. The coin used to pay the rent is still in the now Ukrainian observation station, carved into the old wooden bar, in the most renowned area of the station – the southernmost pub of the world.
* * *
They live just fine, they kept telling me. Yes, it is a bit cold, but some of them really did live in Siberia before. Money is great, $250 they make a month and can not spend anywhere will go a long way when they return home after a year-long tour of duty. There is plenty to eat they assured me, and indeed, the storage room had canned goods to last them for a decade.
It does get a bit lonely, especially in the winter months. They are men-only staff, after all. But, they manage.
The bigger tourist ships don’t visit them, as they are not suited for navigation through tricky straights and most of them don’t venture that far south anyway. So, we brought them fresh fruit — oranges and pineapples — and in a traditional display of Slavic hospitality, they served it right away and shared with us. And then, there was vodka. The kind without any label, one that you store in white plastic canisters and pour freely. The kind that fraternizes you with your next after a shot. The kind that makes you talk about anything after a second shot. The kind that makes you learn a foreign language after the third one.
So, we talked.
And we hugged a lot, or at least they hugged me a lot. As it happens, Croatia beat England on Wembley that fall, thus opening a spot for Russia in soccer World Cup and it seems they thought I had a lot to do with that. Russians and Ukrainians do get along after all, I learned.
We talked about life, about love and about death. That’s what vodka will do to you.
And then, every now and then, I would raise my head, look through the window and see – glaciers. And I remembered just where I was. And I smiled.
* * *
1. The mazut tower at Ukrainian observation station Vernadsky. It gets so cold in the winter that mazut in the tubes leading to the generators freezes. No problem. They just use open flamethrowers to warm up the tubes filled with mazut.
2. Vasily. The major, the barkeeper, the illusionist, the researcher, the billiard player, the singer. The man, the legend.
3. Vasily. The bra collector.
4. See, by bringing some fresh fruits, we only fulfilled a half of the tradition. Crews with women donate bras. Think six months in -40 with no sunlight and only Yevgeniys and Wladimirs around. You’d fancy a bra, too.
5. A Spaniard, an American and a Ukrainian. Speaking fluent vodkanese.
6. You thought I was kidding about the Colonial Classics, didn’t you?
7. Speaking of spending a year apart from female population – this is Vernadsky gym. Remember that fancy module Spanish had? Yeah, this one is not like that at all.
8. Normal way to refresh water supplies on a sailing boat in Antarctica is to melt snow. But, our hosts would have none of that, insisting we use their supplies. Engineers of the world, unite.
9. Coming home from parties normally has some more coziness about it
10. But then again, you normally don’t party in polar circle
11. Nobody else had any flags, but boy – did my Spaniards make up for it. I was also the only person who shaved every day.
12. Warm summers of Antarctica
13. Long way from home. Long, long way from home.