Arctic story time!
As I’ve mentioned in most of my Svalbard posts, this archipelago close to the North Pole was one of the destinations where I couchsurfed – stayed with a local. However, in this case a local wasn’t really a local, since most of the people living in Longyearbyen come from different countries and are only there for a few years. My host’s name was Tobias and he was a German chef working in the kitchen of one of the city restaurants. He was quite the interesting, adventurous soul and we bonded over travel stories and his videos of Australian outback car life, something that I’ve always wanted to try out. In terms of couchsurfing, he was also what you’d call a superhost, one of those people who have hosted hundreds of people, often multiple at once.
That was also the case when I was there, as two Italian journalists were also staying with him at the same time. They were filming a documentary about climate change and I think it was their presence and the conversations we had that really brought home just how much Svalbard and other Arctic regions have changed in the past few decades. So, for those couple of days the 4 of us and Tobias’s student flatmate essentially became one big happy family in a very small flat. The Italian guys slept on the floor in the central living space behind the couch, Tobias slept on the pull out couch bed that seemed to be his usual arrangement and I slept on the second bed in a small extra room with his flatmate. Sylvia was there to study Arctic biology and she was the one who was able to tell me that the polar bear we encountered during a boat trip to Pyramiden was probably male.
Fun fact: Tobias told me I was only the third person to have seen a polar bear out of about 85 people he’d hosted in his house in Longyearbyen, so I am still truly grateful that I got to see one. He also had a guestbook with photos of all his couchsurfers and if you ever stay with him, you’ll find me in there. 🙂
You’d think that we would have felt really cramped, but to be honest, the arrangement worked very well. We all had different schedules and were considerate to each other about bathroom needs, so everything worked out just fine. We did have to manoeuvre around the keys a lot though, particularly because Tobias worked late restaurant shifts, but we made it work.
Another interesting thing was the alcohol – both the lack and abundance of it. Couchsurfing is normally free, although it’s considered a courtesy to at least cook or buy your host a dinner. The Italian guys bought pizza and I cooked pasta with sage and butter, but Tobias also told us in advance that he would really appreciate a bottle of liquor too. No, he wasn’t a raging alcoholic, but rather a guy trying to get around the local restrictions. Since Svalbard is dark half the year, seasonal depression is quite common and the authorities limit the amount of alcohol locals can buy in a year in order to avoid at least a part of alcohol-fuelled mishaps. The locals also can’t import tax-free alcohol from the mainland the way Finnish people can from the Baltic countries for example.
Each private resident of Svalbard gets a punch card with their alcohol quota and if you’re a visitor, you need to show your passport and a departing flight ticket if you want to buy alcohol. Here’s the monthly quota as given by the Governor of Svalbard:
- up to two bottles of liquor (or up to four bottles of fortified wine)
- up to a half bottle of fortified wine (alternatively one bottle every second month)
- up to 24 cans or half bottles of beer containing no more than 4.75% alcohol by volume. However, up to 24 cans or half bottles of an annual quota can contain up to 7% alcohol by volume.
- light wine for reasonable consumption
Although the quota isn’t actually that restrictive, it is still there and considering the prices of accommodation on Svalbard, I was more than happy to buy him a bottle of liquor as a gift. As fate would have it, I ended up buying him some pillows and a duvet instead, because the alcohol shop was closed for a public holiday (all of Scandinavia has special, separate shops for alcohol with special opening times). I wanted to give him something of about the same value as a good bottle, so we went to Longyearbyen’s only supermarket and picked up some supplies. Since he regularly hosted international guests, Tobias actually had a whole giant collection of liquor bottles and wasn’t entirely sure what to do with all of them at the time, but I’m guessing his goodbye party is going to be magnificent.
I’m not sure if he is still there or how he weathered this whole Covid mess, because we didn’t stay in touch much afterwards, but when I was there back in June 2019 he’d just bought a fancy water cooling computer system and was determined to stay until he’d earned quite a lot of money, so I’m guessing he might be. Either way, thank you so much Tobias for letting me crash at your place and may we meet again somewhere!
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