by Guillaume Dargaud
“The church is near, but the road is icy. The bar is far, but we will walk
Alcohol is known for its antifreeze properties. Add some to your washer fluid and you can drive across Montana in winter without fear. This is the property mainly used by winterovers to justify their intake. Other alcohol properties, like ‘facilitating socialization’, are just bullshit; who would want to socialize with a bunch of people insane enough to spend a winter cut-off from the world anyway?
The first time I took notice of alcohol in Antarctica, or lack thereof, was the first time I ate in the McMurdo galley. Innocently, I asked one of the attendants where the wine was. He looked at me like I was a bowl of mayonnaise crashed on the floor, and ran back to hide in his kitchen without offering an answer. The second person I asked was a little more informative: “No wine” he said. “Beer is okay,” I suggested as a middle ground, “but I can’t find any of that either.” After shaking his head sadly, he told me that I had to go to the bar to get any, on the other side of town. Like they say: “A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine, except that on a day without sunshine you can still get drunk”, and it applies particularly well to the long winterover sunless nights. Well, it was summer at the time, but still…
So after dinner I hiked to the bar with a New Zealand chopper pilot who was also in transit, and also astounded to discover this strange bit of Utah regulation in the middle of Antarctica (restaurants without wine or beer, hah!). We wouldn’t be refused our medical rationing of antifreeze today, oh no. “Two beers please”, pschiiit, pschiit, “that will be two dollars…” We looked at each other in shock: there are places in Antarctica where you actually have to use money?!? And above all to pay for a life-saving liquid like beer, which should be dispensed at every water fountain around town!?! “Okay, just a minute” while we left our beers on the counters to go flat while we ran back to Hotel California to see if by any chance we had any greenbacks with us. We managed to exchange some NZ$ at a ripoff rate before heading back to the bar and enjoying our now stale beers.
The enjoyment didn’t last long, as a large specimen of Americanus Obesus walked to the stage, plugged in a microphone, launched a horrible piece of country western music and started a painful attempt at karaoke. If the price of drinking beer is karaoke on top of money, we decided our safety was more important. We fled with bleeding ears, abandoning our bottles half empty in the confusion, never to return.
Other places, other traditions: Dumont d’Urville is a station with a rich history of wine drinking. In the old days there was this wine concentrate, rated a hefty 24%. The reason was that it was cheaper to carry half the volume of normal wine and it was also a better antifreeze, although it dissolved just about anything it touched. Nowadays they have normal wine. Wine itself is actually an important part of restaurant table design: cardboard cubes with 2 gallons of wine are placed at the end of every table; you pass your glass to the person in charge (the one nearest to the cube) for a refill every few minutes, barely giving him time to eat. This leads to the dreaded ‘wine rings’ on the floor as the obligatory last drops stain the floor which need to be redone entirely every few years.
But what most impresses passing Americans at DdU is the bar. Large, well in sight in the middle of the common room, and always stocked with a wide range of liquors. Upon discovering the price of said liquors ($0), said Americans usually spend a very bad first night, adding a layer of filth on the poor penguins trying to sleep right outside the door. Sure, they feed their chicks with pre-digested food, but they don’t seem to accept offers from strangers.
Closer to McMurdo, Terra Nova Bay, also known as the ‘sunny vacation spot’ has less choice at the bar, and the manager may be watching, but it’s easy to hide a strong shot of Cognac inside the obligatory espresso…
As for Dome C, on the high Antarctic Plateau: Apparently the wine arrives there in either of two shapes, frozen cubes or frozen bottles. The natural antifreeze properties of the wine are not potent enough, so the chef has developed excellent wine and beer ice cream. The other solution is to revert to distilled liquors whose higher alcohol index keep them from freezing below -60. The problem is that with the high altitude a very poor night is guaranteed after no more than a few bottles. Although the ‘blood fluidification’ properties of alcohol come as good an excuse as any with the higher altitude. It prevents blood clots, you understand.
The story goes that when drilling the ice under Vostok, the Russians ran out of drilling fluid to pour in the hole for the end of the summer. Not to be outdone, they poured a couple drums of the similarly dense vodka in the hole to maintain a proper pressure until next drilling season. Surely there was plenty left for the team to survive the winter.
What the drinking traditions are at other stations I don’t know, but I’m certainly willing to apply for a NSF grant to study the matter.
Guillaume is presently spending the winter (2005) at Concordia, a joint French/Italian base in East Antarctica. For winterovers who presently hate Antarctica with all your heart or might otherwise not be bothered to do anything but wonder when was the last time you clipped your toenails, Guillaume’s website also features photos of Jennifer, his stunning wife.