Frozen Smiles: It’s All Good at the Ice-Cold Edge of the World

January 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Quick. What countries came in first and second in the 2014 Miss Universe pageant? Chances are you don’t know now because you didn’t know then.

An easier question would be Who were the winner and first runner up in 2015? There’s a good chance you know the answer to that one, probably not because you watched the show, but because you heard about it afterwards. Thanks to Steve Harvey’s announcement gaff, Miss Colombia was the winner until she wasn’t, and Miss Philippines wasn’t until she was—and millions more people now know that the Miss Universe pageant is still a thing.

I’m impressed with Harvey’s quick apology. But I’m even more impressed with the ladies from Colombia. As the reigning Miss Columbia knelt down to have the crown removed by the past Miss Colombia (who was the Miss Universe from 2014, by the way), neither lost her beautiful smile.

They had on their game faces, pageant style.

But beauty-queen game faces aren’t really the ones I’m interested in. The one that’s caught my attention is in “Act One” of a podcast by Ira Glass of This American Life. The episode is titled, appropriately enough, “Game Face,” and the first segment is called “200 Dog Night.” In it, Blair Braverman tells about her experience living as a dogsled guide on an Alaskan glacier, hosting cruise-ship passengers who wanted “a taste of real Alaska.” Problem was, real life on a glacier includes UV rays reflecting off the snow and blistering the inside of your nostrils, humidity that causes the skin to slough off our hands, dangerously shifting ice, and often-unkind coworkers.

Eight times a day, helicopters brought a load of tourists to Braverman and her companions for a one-hour tour and dogsled ride. The guests were met with broad smiles and an unnaturally immaculate environment, courtesy of their hosts. Braverman’s best friend among the guides was Rebecca, an 18-year-old home-schooled girl from Indiana who was “guided by Jesus Christ and his teachings.” On good days, says Braverman, the guides called the glacier “summer camp on the moon.” On bad days, when the tourists weren’t around to hear, they called it . . . well, let’s just say it was a name that Rebecca probably didn’t use.

One day, after a group’s arrival, word came that a storm between the camp and the cruise ship was keeping the helicopters from taking their passengers back. The ship would leave without them, and the tourists, including an insulin-dependent diabetic, were stranded and would have to stay the night, maybe two. So it was time for the guides to put on their best game faces, to mask any hint of worry, to hide any threat of discomfort, or even disaster.

Two years ago, I wrote “11 Ways That Moving Abroad Is like Skiing to the North Pole.” I’m not sure why tales from frozen wastelands capture my imagination, but they do. As I listen to Braverman share her story, I can’t help but think about how, when we’re living overseas, we make sure to put on our game faces when visitors come to call. How often do we sweep our frustrations under the rug—the same way the  guides piled up the dog hair and dog poop out of sight behind the tents? How often do we organize activities like snowmobile rides and snowman-building contests, and then hear our guests say, “I can’t believe you get paid for this”? How often do we pretend that things couldn’t be better, when they could barely be worse?

“200 Dog Night” starts at the 4-minute mark.

[photo: “in snow smile,” by retrospects, used under a Creative Commons license]

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