Seeking Refuge in Antarctica

September 30, 2011

Gracious Living Day by DayAt the very end of the 20the century, I spent a year reading nothing but books about Antarctic explorers.

Shackleton's ship, Endurance, trapped in pack ice

Shackleton's ship, Endurance, trapped in pack ice

1999 was a torturous year – for the country where I was born, for my family and for me.

It came at the end of a torturous decade.

All through the 1990’s, Yugoslavia was going through a viciously bloody civil war, different republics trying to disentangle themselves from the deeply interwoven web of the united commonwealth.

We had family members, people we loved, respected and cared about, on all sides of the chasm.  We had family in Serbia, in Croatia, in Bosnia. Some were Orthodox Serbs, some Catholic Croatians married to Orthodox Serbs, some Catholic Croatians married to Bosnian Muslims, some Bosnian Serbs married to Bosnian Muslims.

We heard alarming stories but didn’t know what to believe. The only thing easy in this unintelligible mayhem was passing judgment.

In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia for more than three months.  Sometimes, when I called my uncle in our old village or my aunt Angelica in Belgrade, I heard screaming air sirens on the other side of the line. I cried here and they cried on the other side of the line. So close, and so far away.

All throughout this heartache, my mother was disintegrating from the afflictions of Alzheimer’s Disease. Losing her mind, losing her hold on the terrible reality of what was happening to the people we loved. Or maybe, hers was the easier passage.

Many evenings, after I had tucked my children under their warm comforters, while my mother walked around our house because she had mostly lost her ability to sleep, I read about Antarctic explorers.

This obsession was set in motion when I found two musty old books in a used bookstore. One was about Robert Falcon Scott, the other about Earnest Shackleton.

I knew very little about either man. But once I started reading, there was no turning back.

That year, 1999, I read book after book about these visionary, gallant and intrepid – but also unrealistic, romantic and foolish adventurers. These men were trying to understand, to conquer, an environment where the rules (or the protection) of civilization did not apply.

At the very beginning of the 20th century, Scott lead two expeditions in a chase to win the race to the South Pole. They made it to the pole (pulling their own gear on sleds) in 1913, only to discover that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen (who used dogs to pull his sleds) had gotten there first.

On the way back, starving and exhausted, Scott and four of his companions froze  to death.

Improperly dressed and ill equipped for the ruthless frigidity of this frozen world, they had spent previous months collecting data, keeping scientific and personal journals, and playing classical music while gathering for well-mannered meals (often of penguin blubber and nothing else.)

Robert Falcon Scott and his crew, 1913

Robert Falcon Scott and his crew, 1913

Earnest Shackleton, another restless adventurer, led a number of expeditions himself – at one time trying to cross the Antarctic continent from one side to the other.

Things didn’t go according to plan when his ship, Endurance, got trapped in pack ice and was slowly crushed, forcing Shackleton and his men to abandon it and seek shelter on an inhospitable, isolated island.

While his men waited on the island, Shackleton and five companions made a fifteen day open boat journey, then walked across mountainous South Georgia island to the secluded whaling stations to seek help.

Endurance Crew, 1915

Endurance crew, 1915

What appealed to me most about these stories was the fact that the amoral cruelty of this numb, icy, isolated and indifferent world did not destroy the humanity of these explorers.

Scott and his men died. But they died holding on tightly to the cords of civility, broad-mindedness and compassion.

Shackleton survived his Gargantuan journey and saved his men. A few years later he died of a heart attack on a ship in South Georgia while trying to commence another Antarctic journey. His wife had him buried there – in the icy wilderness.

Sometimes, the only way to survive the present is to look to past for comfort.  Stores can heal.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Joseph Tomczyk September 30, 2011 at 11:10 am

Liliana, preceding the above sharing about your mother’s passing, plus the awesome 1913 Antarctic explorers, your thoughts are tenderly ironic to me regarding the turn-of-this-century viciously bloody civil war among the nations of the former Yugoslavia; in that 19-23 June, I was moved by hearing BBC’s Heart & Soul – Return to Vukovar as described in their Croatia Vukovar war: Overcoming a legacy of war .
Then coincidentally — based merely on its starring Andie McDowell who lives and is active here’bouts near Asheville, NC — I was gripped by seeing a DVD of the so realistic horror-of-war 2000 film Harrison’s Flowers.
While those three tales (links below) are primarily from a Croat perspective, most all ethnicities rooted there suffered more or less. Please recall that I’m amazed to recall having worked in Detroit circa-1950s-60s for descendants of both Croatia and Serbia.


Joseph Tomczyk September 30, 2011 at 11:12 am

Correction: rather than June, that was 19Sep.


Liliana September 30, 2011 at 11:30 am

Fighting in Vukovar was one of the most painful periods of that bloody, fratricidal war.

I have a cousin from Vukovar (a Serb) married to a Croatian woman. They were lucky enough to escape to Germany (with their young son) right before the fighting started. But they lost many loved ones, including his wife’s parents.


Betsy September 30, 2011 at 7:54 am

“Scott and his men died. But they died holding on tightly to the cords of civility, broad-mindedness and compassion.”

What an image. I can see why you retreated to these stories.
Your country has such a tumultuous history. I met a man, a gentle man, a Serb, I think, while I was in France. He had been a war prisoner, spent a year with his hands shackled behind his back, not being able to meet his newborn baby. We were in a French class together and every week he told me stories, in French, about his experience. He showed me his scars. As a sheltered American girl, I was simply blown away by the hardships people endure and file away as they carry on with their lives. I wrote about meeting him here:


Liliana September 30, 2011 at 8:11 am

Dear Betsy,
I read your blog entry and I cried.

You capture the loneliness of being a foreigner so honestly and clearly; but you also capture the camaraderie, and the joy it brings, that can unite the most disparate of cultures.
I send you hugs and best wishes.


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