From the March 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler
I charge along the Kurfürstendamm, dodging and weaving to avoid the winter shoppers strolling this tony avenue in Germany’s capital of Berlin. Some stare disapprovingly at the impatient out-of-towner, but I cannot slow down—I need to get my blood moving. The circulation in my fingertips and toes has just screeched to a halt, and every time I breathe it feels like I’m inhaling a box of razor blades. I had heard that winters in Berlin can become downright chilly, but I had not expected this sort of Arctic cold.
I hate the cold, mainly because I’ve never been able to take it well. On those unexpected sunny days in spring when everyone strips to sandals and T-shirts to enjoy the (relative) warmth, I’m the party pooper cocooned in Polarfleece. Winter’s diversions have never been adequate compensation for the discomforts of the season. I don’t like snowball fights, ice-skating, or even hot chocolate. The very idea of skiing sends a shiver to my bones. In fact there is only one thing worse than being cold: being cold and wet.
I grew up in the northeastern part of the United States, so I’ve trudged through my share of frozen sludge. I was never happy about it, but I figured winter is like nature’s annual trip to the dentist—something you toughen up for and get through because you will feel so relieved when it’s over. As I began to travel, I discovered a new and better way to deal with winter: I could leave it.
The first places I escaped to—staying for months at a time—were Florida and the Caribbean nations of Trinidad, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. Notice a trend? I didn’t consciously program my travels by looking at a weather map, but I certainly didn’t mind being a repeat visitor to places for which I knew I’d never have to pack a coat.
Hanging out in the Caribbean, I was shocked to learn that many people of tropical heritage were unaware—even unappreciative!—of their climatic good fortune. When I’d mention to someone in, say, Trinidad, that I lived in New York, they’d usually respond, “I’d like to go there, but in January, because I want to know snow.” My Puerto Rican pal Alex, raised in New York, has visited his parents’ warm-weather island exactly once in 45 years. “I got off the plane and nearly turned around right then. I felt like I was wearing a fur coat I couldn’t take off.”
I remember I laughed at Alex’s story, and—okay, I admit it—chided him for not being a more open and adventurous traveler. After all, I would never refuse to go to a new place just because I didn’t like the weather, would I?
“Been to Alaska?” he asked slyly. “Moscow in February?”
I changed the subject. But it nagged me. I always have the best travel experiences when I push myself out of my comfort zone. Asked by others how to make their travel richer, I invariably recommend they charge boldly into the unfamiliar—landscapes, customs, languages, cuisines. Climate is just as much a part of a travel experience as food. I didn’t turn up my nose at the Oaxacan locust wrapped in a tortilla or the snake soup in Guangzhou, so why did I limit my travels to a temperature range of 75 to 95 degrees F?
Then I read a travel memoir, An African in Greenland, by the Togolese writer Tété-Michel Kpomassie. He is the extreme version of my Caribbean friends who yearn to roll around in snowdrifts. Restless in his tropical birthplace, Kpomassie makes his way, in stages, to live in one of the coldest spots on the planet. Though I expected his tale to be full of horrific descriptions of Arctic chill, Kpomassie is disarmingly matter-of-fact, even jocular, about the weather that instantly freezes his fingers when he tries to take photos and makes his lips crack when he laughs. That’s the beauty of the book—it’s not about cold; it’s about a culturally complex, fascinating place that happens to be covered by an ice sheet up to two miles thick.
Clearly, I was missing the boat, so I booked myself on one: Greenland’s Arctic Umiaq line, with ships that service the settlements and islands along Greenland’s southwestern coast. (I hedged my bets, though, and scheduled the journey for July, when temperatures in Greenland reach the balmy 40s F.) Planning the trip proved to be a revelation: During the process I came across travel agencies devoted to travel in the Arctic.
Another surprise awaited when I met my fellow ship passengers: They were my mirror opposites, a hardy clan of travelers who chased the cold as doggedly as I chased the sun. “This is my third trip to Greenland,” said Barbara, a retired professor from upstate New York. “Would have been my fourth, but last year I went on a cruise through Norway’s Svalbard archipelago instead. You’ve met George? He was on that cruise, too. We became acquainted some years ago on the way to Antarctica.”
I sat in my deck chair, snuggled into my sleeping bag. At nine in the evening the Arctic sun hung golden in the sky, frozen in the “magic hour” of sunset when the light makes everything glow like in a movie. The ship maneuvered through a maze of green-blue icebergs big as mountains. The experience was gorgeous, lunar, surreal, sublime. I felt like a piece of ice floating in an enormous martini.
I now wondered what I’d been missing. So, gradually, I’ve stuck my toes in chillier waters, venturing to Europe in January (an incentive: Transatlantic flights are much cheaper in winter). Traveling in the cold certainly has its ups and downs. For one, it’s more difficult to lose yourself in an unfamiliar city when you can’t feel your feet. But seeing a place under varying weather conditions changes your experience of it. The Amsterdam I knew from spring visits was not the same city I stayed in during a blanketing blizzard. When cold forces the world (and you) to slow down, an otherwise ordinary trip becomes unforgettable.
Would I have noticed that Berlin’s stores have terrific winter sales if freezing winds hadn’t forced me to find refuge in that shop on the Kurfürstendamm? Maybe. But I doubt I would have bought this beautiful green coat. It is long, stuffed with puffy down, and portable—I can roll it up into a ball like a small sleeping bag. It has become my secret weapon in my quest to embrace the world of cold. With a comfort zone tucked in my suitcase, I have no fear of traveling out of mine.
Contributing editor Daisann McLane sheds light on local ways in her blog, www.therealtravelblog.com.