Text and pictures © 2005-2017 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2013/02/24
"— I had 5cm for the past week but now I have 30cm...
— Too bad your wife isn't here" — K. talking about his turbulence measurements, and my reply.
Let me preface this page by saying that if you think we come to Antarctica only in the name of science and spend the year slaving away at our jobs building the station and keeping data acquisitions running, then you might want to look at another page off my site...
Right: Special midwinter edition of the map of Antarctica (done by Michel and Claire). Savvy people won't have any trouble guessing the inspiration for this map...
I don't really know where the midwinter tradition comes from, but it's definitely the main Antarctic celebration. I guess it's the same old pagan winter solstice ceremony, which was later taken over by Christians and renamed Christmas after some obscure prophet, and the same as the western marketer celebration of Giftmas, which we here also use as an excuse to party and booze. Of course, being in the southern hemisphere the date is moved 6 months in time. The midwinter marks the middle of the long period of darkness when the days are getting longer again, it also marks the halfway point of our long stay here. Reading books about early polar explorers, we see that they've always celebrated the midwinter even when in dire circumstances. A few odd things stand out about those celebrations besides the good food and abundance of booze, like the traditional 'Miss' contests, but let's not get carried away and start the story at the beginning.
This year the midwinter falls on June 21st and we've decided to party from that day (a tuesday) till friday. A week before there's already plenty of activity, people preparing their costumes, creation of the decorations for the main room, and Jean-Louis writing down his menu. I'm lucky to be the only one made aware of the content of the menu well in advance: my job is to translate it in italian and print it. I design an 8 pages booklet which he keeps stashed away till the big day.
Left: Stef, Jeff, Jean and Christophe forming a human slug to carry the heavy security net which will be the main decorative element of the room.
Left: Emanuele carrying some of the 13 blocks of ice destined to be sculpted upon during the Concordialympics.
Right: Christophe, Jean and Stef spreading the net.
Right: Christophe, Stef, Jean and Jeff tying the net to the ceiling and the walls of the room.
Midwinter day — In the morning the library room as well as the kitchen are locked away. Fortunately it's my service day and I'm the only one who can wander at will in those two rooms. In the kitchen Jean-Louis has been sweating away at his menu for a few days already. He's hung a sign on the kitchen door promising the worst tortures to whoever dares enter. In the library the technical team is busy decorating away. They've brought a large heavy security net from outside, hung it from the ceiling and down the walls, plugged a few colored lamps in the corners to replace the ugly neon tubes, added pretty nice elements of decoration such as shields on the walls, a fountain running in the corner, a raised platform, a fake wooden door on the bar fridge, and a nostalgic fireplace around the network switch. The overall effect is green and soothing. Around 18:00 everything seems about ready and a few of us head off to prepare the costumes for the evening
Above: And here is the result, a 360° panorama of the room decorated for the midwinter, before the party starts. From left to right, starting from the door: the bar 'A la cervoise tiède', the stage, the fountain in the corner, the points checklist, the set table, the stereo and the fireplace.
Right: Our doctor administering a dose of vaccine to Stef, who we thought was contaminated.
Left: The midwinter dinner table, with everyone deep in the menu trying to decide what to order.
Every day has a costume theme and today is the 'Election of Miss Concordia'. The only problem is that there's only one real woman here and she's not a contender... There are actually 5 candidates, some of whom are pretty seriously involved, having shaved their legs and designed sexy clothing and high heel shoes ! In '93 in DdU I didn't participate but this time my wife has a good laugh hearing about the contest via email and pushes me to participate. In the morning I still haven't prepared anything when I read in the news about the autobiography of a bearded woman who lived in the early 20th century. Ok, my decision is taken, I can be a miss too, without sacrificing undue hair. I steal an idea from my past winterover to make a milk squirting set of plastic tits, a gown cut out of a failed latex weather balloon, styrofoam high heels glued under my sandals (on which I stumble all night, but how can women walk with those ?), a set of hair bunches and an ugly hairy wart on my nose made of wax. Tonight I must be the ugliest wet nurse on the face of the earth as I go squirting milk on the other contestants, some of which are damn sexy.
Left: Two of the Miss Concordia contenders.
Right: A trashy Miss Plastic putting on her dress and high heels.
The appetizers start at 19:00 during which the first ever MidWinter at Concordia is officially declared open. No speeches yet as we are busy eating, drinking and laughing at the costumes of the 'Misses'. We also spend a few minutes discussing the current infection by 'The Thing' which is a role playing game Pascal and I designed a couple days earlier. Fairly simple rules: we randomly selected one contaminated person at lunchtime; if (s)he stays five minutes with exactly one other person, that person becomes contaminated in turn; then twice a day we administer a 'vaccine' to whom the majority thinks is infected. It's the first time we do the vaccine session and Stef is targeted for vaccination, although he claims his innocence. After he drinks the syringe of 'vaccine' we tally up anonymous papers to count the number of contaminated people: 5 so far. We'll see how far the infection progresses overnight.
Left: A dancing miss
Right: Miss Concordia fainting from emotion after having won the contest
20:00 — everyone sits down at the table and gasps upon discovering the 15 course menu concocted by a mischievous Jean-Louis. After a while he admits that he's not trying to kill us, we only need to select one out of 3 items and the service will be done carrying the plates like in a real restaurant. For the duration of the midwinter there are two helpers for the service, so we walk around the table taking orders and helping out to prepare the plates in the kitchen. The dinner is excellent, plentiful and quite long since we crawl away from the table only after midnight for the election of Miss Concordia. The various candidates (who shall remain anonymous) perform various dances or dirty tricks like my milk squirting. Some are prettier, or better dressed, or sluttier, but as usual the winner is the one with the biggest tits... After the election we dance the night away.
Left: Stef managing the Drinking Wheel while Jean-Louis wins all the points.
Wednesday — for lunch most people are barely awake and quite a bit hungover (it's easy to blame the higher altitude). We do another round of 'The Thing' game and discover with horror that most everyone is now contaminated, but the game carries on and points are awarded to contaminated people by how many sane people they can contaminate and to sane people by how long they can remain sane. In the afternoon are were supposed to go play outside in the snow like little kids, but it's very windy and combined with the -60°C temperature leads to a tremendous -90°C windchill. We switch the activities and perform the fair (indoors) instead. Pascal and Claire have designed most of the games: fishing ducks out of the fountain, looking for ping-pong balls inside a vat of water and then one of flour (messy!), walking on cans, throwing balls, hammering a nail through a board and a couple other activities, the most successful being the drinking wheel manned by Stéphane. The purpose is quite simple: you turn the wheel which designates a cocktail of his own design; you need to find out what it's made of. We are all lost in conjectures with our glasses in hand when Jean-Louis tries his hand (actually more like his nose and taste buds) at the game and beats us all silly by finding just about every ingredient in a few minutes. Claire cheats shamelessly at the fishing game by strangling the ducks with the fishing line instead of hooking them. Heads come out of the flour vats covered in ready to bake pastry. And Stephane finishes the afternoon all tipsy from trying too many of his own cocktails.
Left: Roberto walking around the arena on tin cans, carrying a ball on a spoon in his mouth and trying not to fall on his face.
Right: Pascal after fishing a ball out of a vat of flour with his mouth.
Right: Stef and Emanuele as Roman legionaries.
Left: Christophe as a gladiator.
Right: Jean with his very Roman helmet...
Left: A clean-shaven Cleopatra (Clairopatra ?)
Right: Right out of Gladiator, Pascal the fighter.
Left: A Gaul on friendly terms with a Roman.
Right: Not quite a Roman orgy but a nice dinner nonetheless.
Before dinner time everybody goes to their own rooms to put on the costumes in theme for the evening: Gauls vs Romans. It turns out that there are only two irreducible Gauls vs 11 Romans. Everybody parades around in his costume and it's easy to tell which ones have been inspired by the Asterix comics books and which ones by the Gladiator movie. Michel is sweating inside a curtain shower trying to look like a serious patrician. Claire makes for a decent (if hairless) Cleopatra. After a mock sword fight with Jeff in which he smashes my fingers we settle down for a dinner of mussels and fries, followed by an excellent meringue-ice cream.
Left: A helmeted Emanuele in front of the screen.
Right: Clairopatra in front of the screen.
Then there's a modified version of the Bingo game in which you have to perform stupid tricks when you finish a line. And after that we all start dancing in Roman costume... At two in the morning only Emanuele and I remain and we start to clean up when, after 5 minutes, he announces that I'm now contaminated ! I'd been very careful all day long to move after staying a few minutes in contact with anyone and was actually one of the last two sane people remaining... Damn, I've been had like a rookie. This game actually instills a healthy paranoia in the group, forcing people to look at the others in weird ways all day long.
Right: Ice sculpture contest, everyone trying to build a decent Concordia before freezing a finger or two.
Thursday It's still very windy today, but after lunch we decide to do the outside games nonetheless. Everybody dresses warmly and heads for a sheltered spot between the containers down by the power generator building. We do a race track with ice blocks and start running around in various ways: walking on hands (I win hands down) or legs tied up (Karim wins). There are also group competitions like a human pyramid. An artistic (?) carving contest performed on blocks of ice with various instruments, the theme being 'Concordia'. We shorten the competition after only 10 minutes because of the cold and at this point it's a tie between Roberto and Emanuele. Everybody seeks shelter inside the power plant building for a well needed mulled wine prepared by Jean-Louis in a thermos bottle. The exertion of the games is quite violent on the lungs and most people have a dry cough. They go back outside to continue the Concordialympics with a rope pulling contest while Karim and I go prepare the equipment for a group photography with Concordia and the full moon in the background. Back inside we are all disheveled (well, those who still have remaining hair), sweaty and frozen.
Left: Michel serving the mulled wine to warm up the contestants (Michel and Jeff).
Right: Hand walking race.
Left: That'd be me as a cardboard shark.
Right: Pascal the evil pirate.
Left: Jeff the pirate.
Right: Michel the pirate.
Left: Stef the pirate, armed with, Hmmm, a bottle of Champagne...
Before dinner there's another dressing up session for the Sailors/Pirate party. Jean-Louis has a cute bread parrot on the shoulder. Michel shows up in the middle of a large boat that can barely negotiate the doors, followed by a flock of seagulls (helium inflated balloons with wings and webbed feet). Claire and Michel perform an impromptu clown show. Almost everybody is dressed as a pirate, except for me who can barely move in my rigid cardboard shark costume. After the extended buffet of Italian pasta and pizza we continue the evening with a special Antarctic version of the Pictionnary game, in which all the words to either draw or mime have been specifically chosen by Michel and myself. We are all laughing out loud when watching Stef and Jean try to draw an inflatable doll or a straitjacket; or mime an aurora or a caterpillar... After some dancing in the LSD lights of the video projector, we finish the night trying to pop the remaining balloons by squeezing them between our bodies in some kind of weird drunk mating ceremony. An idea of Stef...
Right: An excited game of pictionnary pitting two teams against each others.
Left: 7 shinny heads in some cultist ritual. Apparently the Concordia hairdresser is a fan of the razor.
Another midwinter tradition I submitted to last time is the head shaving. You'd think that with the outside temperature people would want as much hair as possible (not only on their heads) to stay warm. But being away from the criticism of the rest of the world (family and colleagues) is actually a good opportunity for such a major overhaul of one's own look. This year 7 people shaved themselves bare, leading to a majority of skinheads on the station. Speaking for myself I'd rather grow my hair one last time before I begin to lose it (?)
Right: Roberto throwing the (big) dice for the board game
Left: Stef, Emanuele, Jean, Claire and Pascal watching the game unfold
Friday Last day of the midwinter vacation. The afternoon is a relaxed board game based on Trivial Pursuit with some modified questions and additional tricks to perform. The main difficulty being the translation of the questions not always easy between different languages, so we have to adjust the rules with a second card in italian in case the first one in french is not answered (or the opposite). When the appetizers start at 19:00, Pascal reveals the results of the game 'The Thing'. We'd better not end up in the same situation as Kurt Russel since out of the 3 games we played during the entire midwinter, the contamination was total all 3 times. I guess the difference is probably due to the fact that we don't have flame throwers or firearms like the americans. Shame on us. Pascal has given points mainly to the amount of people each has been able to contaminate.
Left: Jean receiving the Cesar of Concordia (and a kiss!) after winning most of the Midwinter games.
Right: Jean-Louis, needless to say best cook of Antarctica, but it's also good to say it.
After the results of this final game, Claire reveals the Cesar of Concordia and the winner. The Cesar is a sculpture strikingly similar to the real ones awarded at the Cannes festival, only it's made of compressed beer cans spray painted in golden paint. Well, maybe the real one is made the same way, who knows. For every game we played and every costume party there was a tally of points and the total is now revealed, with Jean a clear winner. He gets the Cesar and a quick kiss from Claire, all red faced.
Left: Board filled with greeting faxes and emails received for the Midwinter from various other Antarctic stations, colleagues currently baking in the northern summer or friends.
The midwinter is also a time when Antarctic stations exchange greetings in some kind of large "we are glad to be here" group communion. Communications between stations are rare and far between and used to be limited to radio calls or telex transmissions but nowadays there can be a couple hundred email recipients to the greeting messages, many of which are actually outdated or only apply to empty summer stations. Still we receive messages and pictures from many of our American neighbors at McMurdo and South Pole, our friends and colleagues at Dumont d'Urville, Aussies at Casey and Davis, Japanese at Siowa, Argentinians, Brasilians, British floating on their ice shelf and a few others. Are there really 47 stations active this winter ? We haven't heard from them all and it seems a bit much to me, but I guess someone spent some time counting. The game was trying to spot how many women in each station based on the group pictures received.
Right: Relaxing last evening of the midwinter, watching videos and shinny skulls.
One more excellent dinner of meat fondue prepared by Jean-Louis and we embark on a marathon video session. I've prepared the screen and some comfortable seating in the party room. We start with a viewing of 'Asterix and Cleopatra' which is a decent choice for our mixed french-italian assembly. Then we watch the obligatory midwinter movie, John Carpenter's 'The Thing', thinking about our failures in the game of the same name. And then we finish with an old ultra-classic french comedy with stupendous actors and dialogs: 'Les Tontons Flingueurs'. Well, it's not quite over yet. At 4 in the morning Jean-Louis serves an onion soup to the 7 survivors, pushed down by some more Champagne. The midwinter is now officially over. Let's get back to work.
Left: The Concordia team, group picture taken during the midwinter, with the full moon shinning on the station. From left to right: Roberto, Michel, Emanuele, Jean, Pascal, Stéphane, Michel, Christophe, Claire, Jean-Louis, Jeff and Karim. I'm the black face in the back.