In the town of Longyearbyen, on the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen, one rarely goes more than a day without hearing the boast “world’s northernmost”. Whether it’s said of a post office, swimming pool or petrol station, one is always confronted with that word, “world’s”, as if Longyearbyen were another of those midwestern towns that cling to their claims on the world’s largest Ukrainian easter egg or world’s tallest thermometer like titles alone would be enough to convince the rivers of interstate warriors passing through to stop and spend some out-of-state dollars. Hang a right out of the world’s northernmost supermarket, past the tinsel-strewn pine tree imported from the mainland (the world’s northernmost Christmas tree, natch), and it’s either a coffee at the world’s northernmost cafe or a pint a little further down the road at the world’s northernmost pub. In the nearby student village of Nybyen, we would joke that each morning’s breakfast featured the world’s northernmost egg being fried up “at that moment”, or that the roomful of students gathered to watch Norwegian state television on November 4th constituted the world’s northernmost Obama victory party.
But the jokes, tiresome as they may grow (and difficult to verify as they may be), underscore a very real part of life on the Svalbard archipelago. No matter the situation, isolation is a defining feature here. For some, particularly those who, like myself, are just here for short stays, it’s part of the attraction. For others, shacked up in the company mining towns of Svea or Barentsburg on two year contracts away from friends and family, it’s a demon to be confronted with whatever substances may be on hand. The demon cosies up closer between late October and early February, when night blankets the island, and for fourteen weeks the sun has gone south for the season.