At the Polish research station in Hornsund, the activity is hectic. The crew of 10 is preparing for one of the year's biggest highlights: the Christmas visit from the Governor of Svalbard. In the elongated building, which debuted in 1957, care is being taken with the cleaning and especially with the goodies. The visitors will be received in the best possible manner.
"Everyone gets their tasks ahead of the Christmas visit," said Andrzej Arazny, the station's leader. "Some tidy up, while others are responsible for the food. Yet others plan to guide the visitors through our station. You could say that everything is planned carefully, because this is important for us."
In 1976, the governor received his first helicopter. Since then it has been customary to make Christmas visits to the settlements by an official delegation representing Norway. Gov. Odd Olsen Ingerø is not making this year's visit to Hornsund, but has many such tours behind him. He doesn't hesitate to describe looking in on the settlements – whether it's Harald Soleim at Kapp Wijk, those living in Ny-Ålesund or the various folks located at different whaling stations – as one of the nicest aspects of the job. It is also a duty.
"The governor shall visit settlements on occasion; it is a part of our assigned duties," he says. "From the olden times the Christmas visits developed out of a need for mail and supplies, and that is still a part of what we help with when we go out. But today it is largely social and it is invariably nice to meet the people that are overwintering elsewhere in Svalbard."
The feelings expressed by Ingerø are mutual. The Poles at Hornsund are covering the table with a world of delicacies in the form of Polish pastries and chocolates. Soft drinks, beer and some stronger goods, there is no shortage of. The station's crew is dressed in identical pullovers before the visit that means so much.
Konrad Dobrzynski, a mechanic spending his first winter at Hornsund, is discussing the everyday work at the station and why the visits are so appreciated.
"Many of my colleagues are scientists and meteorologists, and they have fixed assignments they perform constantly," he says. "The mechanic's job is more varied, although everything becomes routine after a while."
Dobrzynski must ensure the generators at the station are going at all times. He makes sure the supply of fresh water is there, which consists of collecting ice that is melted in a large tub and pumped into the station. He must also repair equipment that fails and that is not always easy.
"We have 16 snowmobiles at the station, where some are in better condition than others," Dobrzynski says. "My headache now is that one of them was wrecked on Fuglebreen. It's too cold to repair it where it stands. I have to wait until we get conditions to allow towing it back to the station."
Arazny, as the station manager, expands on the mechanic's portrayal of life at the station.
"It is not only tedious routines," Arazny says. "Every third day we go on rounds to check the instruments out in the terrain and every 14 days we take a so-called big round, where the instruments located farthest away are checked."
"But from October to April we see mostly don't see anyone other than each other. It is one of the reasons it is so appreciated to have the governor's visits," Arazny adds, getting a nod of approval from the mechanic.
The six station members, with their leader at the forefront, stand in a row in matching jackets when governor's delegation lands at the fuel depot in Hornsund. Stepping out is Svalbard Church's substitute priest Dag Aakre, Catechist Randi Margrethe Mathiasdatter Larsen, Catholic Priest Marek Michalski, Lt. Gov. Jens Olav Sæter, Information Technology Advisor Jan Are Otnes , and police chief lieutenants Arild Lyssand and Irene Sætermoen.
Smiles are let loose by all, especially from the Poles.
"Nice to see you. Welcome to us here at Hornsund. Ah, you were here last year as well," says Arazny to Lyssand, who nods affirmatively.
Lyssand takes care of safety first, asking if polar bears have been observed nearby. He gets a negative response and therefore keeps a rifle in its case when the delegation goes from the helicopter to the station.
As the visitors taste almost all the goodies, all sorts of chatter carries on. Those who have not been at the station before get a tour from the mechanic Dobrzynski. After half an hour, it's time to head out to the Catholic cross and altar at the shoreline on Wilczekodden. Few are more Catholic than the Poles and it means a lot for them to get a priest like Michalski visiting a couple times a year.
"For us it provides peace of mind to have a Mass and get a blessing here at Hornsund," Arazny says. "Although it is a little while until Christmas, it gives us a Christmas spirit."
Towards the end of the Mass, Aakre takes over and performs a liturgical worship in the Norwegian tradition.
"We come from different denominations, yet there is much more that binds us together than makes us different," Aakre says directly to the Poles in his speech afterwards.
Between a wealth of exquisite hot dishes, the visitors rave to their hosts and to each other about the food. Gifts and speeches are exchanged. Catechist Larsen fetches a guitar standing in a corner. The members of the governor's office sing Norwegian Christmas carols and the Poles performing parts of their musical traditions from the holidays.
When it's time for the visit to go home, one feels the urge to remain a little longer.
"This is how it should be always," Lyssand says. "You feel a little sad when you're leaving those you have visited, and perhaps especially the Poles at Hornsund."
Ingerø agrees with the sentiment, although he isn't naming any favorites.
"It is always nice to visit Hornsund, but it is also a great experience to visit other places in Svalbard – both the destinations and the people are so different," Ingerø says. "Personally, I much again look forward to visiting Harald Soleim at Kapp Wijk. He has a particularly special life that I find fascinating."
Translated by Mark Sabbatini