Exchange students: Youths from Barentsburg and Australia get inadvertent education about life during brief cruise

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The youths from Barentsburg ended up taking a boat trip to nowhere due to rough seas. An Australian family who paid to visit the Russian settlement decided they were too tired to disembark while the local kids climbed aboard. Which turned their “diminished” experiences into something much richer than originally planned.

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Piana Kuriak, 7, takes in the view from the bridge of the Polargirl during last Thursday’s cruise. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Clustered on a deck next to a grill where hot dogs were sizzling, the Barentsburg youths and Australian visitors asked questions and swaped stories about school, holidays and life in general, courtesy of a guide on the ship acting as a translator.

“Do polar bears go by your classroom?” asked Amanda Millar, a Sidney resident taking the cruise with her daughter Amy, 10, and son Luke, 8.

A few of the older Barentsburg girls looked at each other momentarily with some amusement before offering a reply needing no translation.

“Nyet.”

But while the question might seem like what a typical tourist might ask based on stereotypes about Svalbard, a local teenager went on to explain there are indeed plenty of encounters visitors might consider exotic.

“They’ve seen a lot of reindeer and polar foxes,” said Iakov Lebedev, the guide translating the exchange.

Another surprise for the visitors was learning all of the local youths they were talking with are from the eastern Ukraine and, despite being the area targeted by Russia for the past few years, how they felt about their homeland.

“Do you miss the Ukraine?” Amy asked.

“Da,” several of the Barentsburg girls replied.

And while conversations about the weather are often fodder for people who can’t think of anything real to chat about, in this instance both groups learned some new things. One of the Barentsburg teens, for instance, said the winters here don’t bother her because she’s from a rural place with temperatures as low as minus 66 degrees Celsius. And the Australians explained that, while folks here are preparing for winter, those Down Under are making summer vacation plans.

Speaking of which, the students from both locations discovered they have much different holiday periods, different requirements for how long they have to stay in school and how different the big vs. small school experiences are.

For Amada and her kids, it was an experience almost nobody trying to get the “real Russian experience” by visiting Barentsburg will ever get.

“We went to Pyramiden yesterday and saw the glacier,” she said. “The kids were tired and then when we heard the kids (from Barentsburg) were going to be on board we decided to stay.”

For Barentsburg youths like Anna Demkovich, 13, it was a window into a world she hasn’t had much opportunity to explore – especially, since, in a way the cruise was her first opportunity to see where she’s living.

“It was the first time I could see Barentsburg,” she said, referring to the chance to see the whole settlement at once.

The youths got plenty of time to look at their hometown in Svalbard because the Polargirl sightseeing vessel stayed within a few hundred meters of the pier during the “cruise” due to high winds that made for a very bumpy morning trip from Longyearbyen to the settlement. They boarded the ship at about 11 a.m. after the tourists departed and, while the hot dogs started cooking, Lebedev told the youths about the vessel and the tours it offers.

“Many of them have never been on a boat like this before,” he said.

A distinct chill in the air obviously didn’t bother the local kids who devoured the hot dogs quickly before grabbing ice cream sticks and eating them while exploring the vessel. In fact, Piana Kuriak, 7, while sitting in the captain’s chair and seeing the high-tech equipment on the bridge, said the ice cream was her favorite part of the voyage.

But that was before all of the youths were handed bags of food and gifts as they disembarked after the ship returned to Barentsburg. Elin Amundsen, who has helped coordinate the cruises for the past nine years, said the food bags contained essentials such as bread and fresh milk instead of the UHT cartons sold in the settlement.

“It’s good for the brain,” she said.

The gifts varied by bag, based on what Amundsen collected from various local merchants before the trip.

And – to break what’s known as the “fourth wall” – the cruise resulted in one other cultural exchange: a translated discussion between Anna and the editor of this fishwrapper, during which she mentioned she’s written some essays and wants tips about becoming a journalist. It turns out those “essays” are articles about growing up in Barentsburg that have been published in Russian newspapers which meant, after a “holy s***” moment by our editor, he told her to send everything she’s written and anything she wants to write about here. A local expert in Russian has agreed to be a translator and the hope is to begin running Anna’s columns as a regular feature here as soon as next week.