Advice for newcomers to Svalbard

Recently, a new group of Americans arrived in town, comprised of 6 undergraduates from various universities, accompanied by a middle school teacher from Idaho, and two directors of the program. The first time I heard them in the dining hall, I thought I was going crazy because the American accent didn’t sound familiar. You get so used to hearing Norwegian, Italian, German, Chinese, etc, that it’s unnatural to hear your own mother tongue. As with any new arrivals, you try to impart some advice about this unique place:

  • Remember to squeegee the bathroom floor after a shower, and don’t get too close to the hot water pipe on the side of the wall, otherwise you’ll burn your back or bum when picking up dropped soap.
  • Beware of the terns, beautiful but vicious birds who will dive-bomb your head with their sharp red beaks if you get too close to their nests (which just happen to be located by the dorms, dog kennels, intersection, and pretty much any popular place in town). So, walk with a stick or arm raised above your head. That makes for great photo opportunities.
  • A rifle held high will also do, and since you’ll be carrying one of those around everywhere you go to protect yourself from the polar bears (we’re starting to think they’re just a tourist attraction), you’ll always be prepared.
  • All of your shoes will become slippers, including those heavy-duty, up-to-your-knees all-weather boots. By the end of the first day, you’ll get so tired of untying and tying your laces, that you’re willing to sacrifice your feet for flip-flops. You’ll also be able to tell who’s at lunch and who’s missing just by scanning the footwear outside the messa.
  • Don’t bother asking, “What’s that? And how do I eat it?” at lunch and dinner. Just watch a local and follow his lead. Think of it as another cultural experience.
  • And forget about fruits and vegetables. We only get them canned, pickled, or frozen around these parts. I do hear we’re getting a shipment of “fresh” veggies on Thursday, but that may just be a rumor spread in order to quell an uprising.
  • Speaking of food, plan on skipping meals on weekdays when the meals are spaced 3 hours apart, but don’t forget to pack a sandwich or two for weekends, when you have an 8-hour food break between brunch and dinner.
  • We dress up for dinner on Saturday in appreciation of the kitchen staff giving us tablecloths and setting the tables. “Dress up” is one of those relative terms around here (kind of like “mild weather”), so taking a shower and putting on a clean shirt will do.
  • For these special occasions, BYOW (Bring Your Own Wine). You can buy as much as you want at the store, but anything harder (port or liquor) or weaker (beer or cider) is heavily regulated. And don’t forget to bring your plane ticket to the shop in order to prove that you are indeed leaving this island; otherwise they won’t sell you any. Unless you smile pretty.
  • The shop only sells alcohol on Monday and Thursday nights, unless a cruise ship is in town, then the hours change. But you won’t know that until you go over to the store and find it closed.
  • Regardless, we welcome the cruise ship passengers here, even if they triple the town population simply by stepping off the boat. If you happen to be carrying a rifle through town, or are protecting yourself from the terns, don’t be surprised to get your photo taken by tourist paparazzi.
  • If you’ve finished your ration (2 liters of hard alcohol, 1 liter of port, 24 cans of beer), you can always head to the drinking hole on Wednesday and Saturday nights, where “half of a gin and tonic” means half gin, half tonic, and drinks range from Ny-Ålesund coffee with glacier ice (Ivar’s secret recipe) to boxed wine (the only kind to be had) to vodka with Fanta Orange (Svalbard’s version of a Screwdriver).
  • If you know the bartender, which you should since everyone in town gets bar duty at one point or another (including our very own Ric Kolyer), you can request a song for the Saturday dance party. But don’t get too rowdy because you’re bound to run into the man (or men) who proposed marriage to you the night before, at least once the next day. He may even be the captain of your next boat trip. It’s a small world over here.
  • And last but not least, venture out of town on a day off. Spend the night in an old trapper’s hut, kayak around glaciers and icebergs, or if it’s particularly “warm”, grab a survival suit and hit the water for some waterskiing.

After all, this is an Arctic researcher’s paradise!

– Posted by Kasia Wegrzyn, CASIE Scientist

2 thoughts on “Advice for newcomers to Svalbard”

  1. This is quite fun to read since I was one of those cruise-ship passengers visiting Longyearbyen just two weeks ago. Thus, I get the reference to the slippers and I can picture the dog kennels and other things you mention. I didn’t get to photograph any gun-bearing students, though.

  2. Hi Matthew. Just read your blog, I found it very remenisent of my first visit to northern norway. When you go to the shops on saturday afternoon and find out they closed at 12 noon, damm no beer on a saturday night? So you just have to crash someone else’s party. But Im sure your enjoying the midnight sun and those warm tempretures. As you might see from my E Mail address Andoya is 69 degs north where my wife comes from, Im English but we visit Norway about once a year. One of our friends is also related to the sort of work your doing.He is Arne Hjalmar Hanson director of the Andenes Rocket Range, or NOROM. Ive just visited Florida in june and was hoping to see the launch of STS127 but the thunder storms put paid to that, so now im back in Englan in the rain, so if your team can do anything about global warming please send some this way. How long is your stay at Svalbard? maybe you could give me an update on your work if its not classified or just let me know if polar bears are in town.
    Cheers for now, or in Norwiegian Harde bra.

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