Bringing Oden Back With Me

Blog in a Teacup by Dr Helen Czerski

51.5074° N, 0.1278° W

I arrived home 72 hours ago, and it still doesn’t feel quite real.  Almost all the scientists on the ship got on the same flight from Svalbard to Oslo, and then passport control, customs, terminals and airlines scattered us throughout the airport without us realising it, so we never really said goodbye.  For all of the first day back, I kept expecting Matt or John or Åsa to walk around a corner and bump into me, but they didn’t.    

Helen Czerski, Mario Hoppmann, Matt Salter and John Prytherch

The first thing I did after getting home was to go food shopping, and I hoovered up half the fruit & veg section of my local supermarket.  I made a giant salad, and then I slept for twelve hours straight.  And when I woke up, I went to the gym to do my ship circuit training routine, because it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do. 

And then I started to notice the mismatches.  I’m a jigsaw puzzle piece slotting back into a familiar pattern, but I don’t fit perfectly any more.  I came home smiling and laughing at things much more, because that’s what we did when things went wrong on the ship.  I realised that I had never heard one complaint out of anyone for the whole trip.  What would the point in complaining have been?  So we laughed about things instead and shared them, accepted them as part of our lives, rather than seeing them as obstacles to push aside into the territory of someone else’s responsibility. We had plenty of difficult times, but we moved through them together, rather than blaming them for discomfort and pushing them away. 

I have come back with a habit of regularly asking people whether they’re ok and meaning it, because we had to do that all the time.  At home, we often assume that if someone else is having a bad day they’ve probably got someone else to talk to about it, or they might choose not to talk to you, or they’ve got some other way of dealing with it, or now is not the time to face it.  On Oden, it was obvious that there was no “other” to help with a problem – we had to take responsibility for every member of our community.   And a day is a long time on a ship – if there’s a problem, you need to deal with it early before it grows.   All this seems healthier and more natural as a way to live, but it requires some extra confidence to do it in our society, one that tends to forget it’s made up of social animals. 

I can’t go back to Oden, but maybe I can bring the best bits of life on Oden back with me.  I’ve got a pile of things to add to my life: Swedish pea soup, a new appreciation for sieves, White Russian cocktails, putting marzipan in apple crumble, backgammon, two new knots, going to sleep without needing radio in the background, memories of the most challenging science I’ve ever done, and the best team-mates a scientist could ask for.   I was lucky on this trip – they’re not all like this – and I really appreciate it. 

And as Nicke the Swedish meteorologist would declare in strict clipped military style at the end of every weather briefing:

“End.”

“Questions?”

“End.”

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Dr Helen Czerski is a physicist, first and foremost, but she’s acquired a few other labels along the way: oceanographer, presenter, author and bubble enthusiast. A regular on The Cosmic Shambles Network, she has also presented a number of acclaimed documentaries for the BBC and her first book, Storm in a Teacup, which looked at the physics of every day things, was a bestseller. Recently she was awarded the prestigious William Thomson, Lord Kelvin Medal and Prize from the Institute of Physics.

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