[Version française sur le site de La Recherche]
Here we are… past the halfway mark. The last time we went outdoors, the last time we talked to a friend, the last time we had a fresh fruit… All this was sixth month ago. Next times are six month away.
I’ve received this question quite a few times, recently: am I looking forward to coming back? But to be honest, I had never really asked myself. We are busy from the time we leave our bed to the moment we go back to it, and being melancholic is not on top of my to-do list.
So, let’s see…
On one side, there are things I will be delighted to come back to. First, people: it will be great to see my family again, and to spend evenings listening to what my friends have accomplished in a year. Actually, even hearing the voice of someone who is not one of my five crewmates sounds exciting. Not that I don’t enjoy being around them; the 5 of them are brilliant and passionate. They’ve been selected for that. But after six months without talking to anyone else, some diversity in my social interactions would be highly stimulating.
Then, it will be such a pleasure to come back to the open air! Walking against the wind, having lunch under the sun, lying in the grass, swimming in a lake… I will even enjoy the rain. No, I will likely not spend much time indoors next September. There are also little, very simple pleasures I will be happy to rediscover: a fresh orange, a glass of good wine, a warm shower…
On the other side, I much enjoy some aspects of the daily life here. You might think that, after six months together all the time, my crewmates and I don’t have much to tell each other anymore. And it is true that if I ask one of them how their day was, or whether anything interesting has happened to them lately, I will receive either a suspicious look or a sarcastic answer. But my crewmates and I come from very different cultures and backgrounds, and we have a lot to teach each other. I learn, from experts, skills in areas ranging from field geology to music theory.
I also enjoy the freedom to manage my time exactly as I wish: I can use the lab at whatever time of the day or night, do sport in-between two experiments, or play music while the centrifuge is running. If I want to work when I am the most productive (usually in the early morning and late evening) and catch up on sleep in the afternoon, I don’t have to worry about who I should justify it to, opening hours, or a lab’s security guard.
There are also habits and rituals I like here. My duets with Christiane, her with her harmonica and I with my ukulele. The jokes that make us laugh uncontrollably but will only trigger polite smiles or shocked looks outside the dome. Our salsa evenings, our workout sessions…
And there are things I’m happy to go without. Running errands, for instance; I don’t have to go farther than the Sea Can if anything is missing in the kitchen. Or, time lost in traffic jams; here, my longest commute takes 3 minutes if I stop by the bathroom.
Generally speaking, I much enjoy being here. Yes, there are some difficulties, but working towards an objective that is so meaningful to us helps overcoming them.
That being said, I know that the hardest is still to come: the third quarter just started. Based on what we know from polar and space stations, our mental health, relationships and performances are likely to drop around… now. This phenomenon, well known in human sciences dealing with extreme environments, was dubbed « third-quarter syndrome ». Possible symptoms include emotional instability and hypersensitivity, loss of motivation, depression, and apathy. Yay.
I don’t know how much we’ll be affected, but some signs are present. Subtle signs, because my crewmates are not the kind of people who will complain or let themselves be discouraged easily. When they suffer, they hide it. But tensions between crewmembers have become more frequent and more intense.
I have a tendency to be very direct; if something you’re doing annoys me, I will let you know. We will talk about it and, once everything has been said, come back to a healthy relationship. On the contrary, some people tend to avoid arguments at all cost, trying to ignore resentment even when it makes them nauseous. If that can be a safe strategy in the short term, it can harm in the long term. Especially given that, as we can’t cool down by spending time alone, having a walk outside or talking to someone neutral, tensions eventually come out. And at that point, they have grown intense.
Part of those tensions can be explained by the fact that people unveil themselves more and more: if hiding your flaws and weaknesses is easy for a few weeks, it is much harder to do so for months. If you are self-centered and manipulative, or if your courage tends to fail in tough times, your crewmates will know it. Another factor is that, as time goes by, it becomes more and more difficult to put up with little things in others that you barely paid attention to in the beginning. A crewmate of mine, for instance, will become highly annoyed by another’s inaccurate assertions claimed in an overconfident tone.
Overall, our social situation is pretty good given the circumstances: we all keep relationships at least professional with each other. And in most cases, much better than professional.
The next few months might be the most interesting to the researchers who study us. What happens when the initial excitement is gone, when crewmembers reveal themselves and when monotony, confinement and isolation weigh the most upon the team?