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Travel book review: Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube

Setting: Arctic Norway and Alaska

Perfect to read on: A Norwegian coastal cruise or an Alaskan cruise

An engaging, short read that’s perfect to bring along on a trip to Norway, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube is, among other things, a story of travel wish fulfillment. At least for me, the dream when you visit another culture, especially on a longer stay, is to deeply connect with local people, to weave yourself into local life until your absence would be missed. The reality often falls far short of that. You go to another country and fail to meet a single local other than tour guides. You study abroad and by the end of the year realize you don’t have one close local friend. You make friends in your adopted home country only to realize they still hold you at arms length and reserve their truest thoughts and feelings for their own countrymen.

Author Blair Braverman manages to wear down those barriers in a place that would seem
pretty hard to break into: rural northern Norway. She becomes a fixture around the morning coffee table of a local shopkeeper, Arild, and ends up bonding so deeply with him that he becomes like a surrogate father. Braverman assimilates into local culture so thoroughly that when she introduces herself at a party as an American, she’s mocked as a liar.

(This reminded me of my experience selling sandwiches and drinks to taxi drivers at Orly Airport, during my year in Paris. The drivers laughed at me when I claimed to be American, because obviously a rich American wouldn’t be doing a crap job like this. Knowing better, they dubbed me “l’Irlandaise.” The Irish girl.)

Then there’s the other experience that Braverman weaves into the narrative, the one that gives the book its title: Starting at just 19, Braverman spends summers as a musher for tourists on an Alaskan glacier. Far from the cozy embrace of her surrogate family in Arctic Norway, the glacier is a hostile work environment in nearly every way, from the sexual harassment and abuse she suffers to the wind and weather. These sections were hard for me to read as the mom of a college student. When she returns for a second summer, I yelled at her, as if my admonishment could change what was printed on the pages.

I had actually read this book a few years ago and didn’t connect with it strongly. But then I visited Arctic Norway last summer! Rereading it post-Havila-cruise, I could imagine the scenes in Mortenhals, on the Malangen fjord, as the life that was hidden from us in all the small villages we viewed from the boat, with their tidy red barns and fluffy sheep at pasture. The characters drive the hour to Tromso, a city where we docked and met relatives. Now that I have ties to the region Braverman lived in, her little story of fitting into rural Norwegian life thrilled me.

The book also helped me imagine what it would have been like if we’d taken the Havila voyage in winter, which a lot of people do. Just as I had anticipated, the harshness and darkness of the Arctic winter she describes doesn’t appeal to me. I’m still glad we cruised Norway in summer. It would be cool to ride a dogsled, of course, but hey, sometimes people offer that experience in more moderate climates, like Lake Tahoe. Same for the Northern Lights: I’d love to see them, but I hope I don’t have to freeze my eyebrows off to see them.