“Excuse Me, I Am Going Out To Find Myself. I Shall Return Shortly’

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The journey

It seems a tired and cliched path, the one you take to find yourself. And when you go ‘travelling’ there is something embarrassing and revealing about the priority of ‘you’ in the face of new cultures, people and geographies. And so, I have avoided writing about my ‘journey’ or else I have side stepped it, unable to write in a way that does not evoke an uneasy toe curling.

When we travel we are making our way through ‘the strange’ (people, places, circumstances) and respond for better or worse. But in daily life we don’t do that, we adapt to the situations we find ourselves in every day, we act and over time we make a mask. The mask is fashioned and painted in such a way that we believe is acceptable to those around us, it keeps us safe and eventually it is so familiar we believe it is who we are. In my current half-life, my mask is not fully formed. This is good.

One thing I currently am is a newspaper scavenger. Guests buy them at the airport on the way here, they lay crumpled in rooms and on transfer day they are abandoned. When I find them at 08:00 on a Sunday morning, already tired from 3 hours of work. It is hard not to plop down on a bed and spread them. One morning I did (banishing guilt) and began reading an article Suzy Greaves had published in the Sunday Times ‘Style’ supplement. She introduced the concept of ‘wilderness therapy’, the physical and emotional journey where you can reconnect with ‘your own true self’ (the one without the masks) using nature as the mediator.

Interesting, especially in relation to ‘the journey’. And in the challenges that she and her interviewees suggested the wilderness presented, I saw the mountain.

“The only obstacle to the mountain is your mind,” a wise man (nee Motor Engineer, Dave) recently wrote. I wondered at his intuition (motor engineers are not widely known for intuition) because then the mountain was one huge obstacle to me. It was excruciating; my legs burned, my neck and head ached from impact after impact, and it was frustrating; inside, the mountain made me rage, I was desperate to let go (give up). And even worse, as I rattled down the piste an awful thought took shape; ‘this is what I am’. Damn the mountain.

This is what I am:

Distrustful of myself: I judder along a lumpy piste or grate down a hard packed slope. The first thought comes: “can I do this?” And then the second, “no”. My legs buckle, I catch an edge or I slip backwards. Whatever, I meet solid ground with an unsuitable part if my body (incidentally, other than feet are any parts suitable?)

…And others. We might go out two of us or five of us in a pack. And we’re all different, what we want to do on a board or skis, what we can do, nobody is more important than another; I believe this when I’m in an objective frame of mind. But when I’m on a slope trying to keep the coloured outfits of my colleagues (friends? on Facebook yes, for good, I’m not sure) in sight. I am terrified I will lose them, they will abandon me. So I bump down the piste, my legs juddering like an Elvis, broken from acceleration and emergency breaking, the rest of me wet or bruised from the last crash. My physical and emotional journey is not taking me anywhere near a true self I am keen to know. Which brings me on…

My boundaries are drawn by fear. Ben Howard tells me this fairly regularly during the imaginatively titled ‘Snowboarding 1’ playlist. But in general I think it is quite natural to be wary of the hard packed snow meeting my padded (in some places) body at speed or the suffocating stuffing and dragging of the deep off-piste drifts that I become planted in. But if I could take away the fear and sprinkle on a little belief I could be bouncing over lumps and untouched snow with a huge smile on my face. I know my mind is the only difference. Thanks Dave.

And, since I began writing this, I have done it. It is typically un-British to celebrate in this way but what the f***…I I love snowboarding. I came here to be a child again, to climb onto my metaphorical skateboard everyday, ask my mates if they’re coming out to play and stay out late. The board has become part of me, for the very impermanent ‘now’, it is what I do. I look down at it smile because it is mine. And somehow I have found that belief in the speed I can go and the small jumps I can land – where belief in everything else remains as fragile as ever – and I have that smile. So with a little pain (currently a stiff knee and bruised coccyx) and some slightly disturbing realisations my wilderness therapy seems to be working.

So ‘huh hmmmm’ (uncomfortable British throat clearing) long may ‘the journey’ continue!

Epiphany Postponed in Reberty: Where is The Hoff?

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The stars are brighter when you are closer to them. Every night Orion watches my careful steps to bed, his rhinestone-studded belt blinking above the La Masse summit. But he is always out shone by the piste bashers; headlights like diamonds. These huge machines appear as stars for hunkered, set into the mountains, combing the hard packed snow in the darkness.

And it would be the light from these mechanical shepherds, that would guide The Messiah home. If he were coming, that is.

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Messiahs are unreliable. They are permitted this discourtesy because by our definition they are Divine; there must, therefore, be a reason of significance for their lateness (I wish the same could be said for mine).

So, I cradle the hope that The Hoff is late. And as my anticipation grows I imagine him bourn on the top of a piste basher (for this is most certainly how he will arrive) his singing face illuminated from beneath (never the most flattering lighting, I grant you) by the machine’s huge strobe-like headlamps…

Which brings me to the what might be the most interesting part of the promised arrival of The Hoff; the excitement and anticipation it sparks in others. Because while The Hoff’s star has burnt out somewhat since the days of Knight Rider and Baywatch, mention his name to anyone, any age, and there is no doubt as to who he is and a dusting of either excitement or slight hilarity descends.

Personally, I have kept a close eye on the Powder and Shine chalet next door. For several days now it has been conspicuously empty, as if preparations are being made. One guest speculated that perhaps the chalet was being sprinkled with sand and hung with red buoys in honour and respect of the arrival.

Another wondered, how his arrival would come about. Helichopper, surely. Lowered on a rope to the piste all the while singing about getting in his car (a popular song of his, according to the same guest). I wonder now if he might do this clad in leather and red polo neck pulled up as far as it will go to stave off the cold.

If this happens then skiers and snowboarders will halt in respect. Snow will spray simultaneously before arms are raised to sway and lighters are struck to salute the rock ballad and its perpetrator.

But how to meet him? Shyness, awe, a heightened sense of the ridiculous cannot defeat a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet and touch a deity. Licking will only be permitted if he is wearing a onsie (see YouTube ‘onesie licking’ clips, a barely recognised Three Valleys pass time).

‘Disturb him in the outdoor
hot tub. You can see it from the balcony,’ one guest pointed eagerly through the break in the soffit to the next-door balcony. I wondered briefly how she thought I would disturb him, before she went on; ‘you might be able to take a photograph of his arm…’

‘Take him out,’ another said. I choked back an ‘easier said than done,’ and instead politely pointed out that I would have to meet him first and the chances of him saying yes were small to not at all. ‘No, on the slopes; floor him,’ she said, her usually angelic face suddenly devious.

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Another guest giggled: ‘Imagine, he’s parallel turning, it’s neat, tidy, competent but not out of this world. He’s wearing a yellow onesie, it catches the sun when he turns. Perhaps the sheen of the suit blinded you because you hurtle into him, blindsiding him, having taken some air from the lumpy off-piste, arms waving, feet clueless about how to – and oooops, you caught an edge, this is going to be bad – straight across the yellow skier, on your back and he’s down too! The Hoff is down!’

A great plan, but the outcome is unpredictable: a polite apology, feigned dawning recognition, an embarrassed request for a photograph before sliding away with the prize and the seeds of a blog entry in my tangled mind; or, The Hoff takes exception. He is getting on and the crash has exacerbated an old crime fighting or life saving injury. He is unhappy; a strong believer in technique before speed. He is hurting, his fur lined hood is ripped, he has no patience with those who cannot control themselves on the slope, its just like being on the beach again, so many careless people waiting to be saved, asking for it, well he’ll show them, by god he will: he breaks my face.

Even that situation would not be lost, surely the Daily Mail would buy Hoff Breaks My Face article?

But none of this matters if The Hoff doesn’t come. Some religions are simply prepared to worship and wait. This one is more aggressive; a dance, a drug or a sacrifice are in order…

A Case For Romance?

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It is a truth widely known that working a ski season is not synonymous with romance. The job, if you can call it that, is more commonly recognised by excessive alcohol consumption and casual sex. In the context of a culture of binge drinking and throwaway relationships, it’s almost an ideal; a load of young people are contained in a small place, with minimal ties and responsibilities, taking part in adrenalin charged, ego driven sports (opinion only – mine) by day and sinking chalet wine, cheap beer and Yeager Bombs by night (fact, to varying degrees). A ski resort, in fact, may not be much different to any other small town in the UK, only there are no close relatives and old school mates to bump into.

It began at the beginning, in training, where I was blissfully unaware of the multiple couplings breaching the midnight curfew. And I asked to come here, to Reberty, the one-pub-town made almost entirely of wood, with the intention of side stepping the drama and the Yeager. But even in Reberty, as Dr Grant so memorably puts it in Jurassic Park, ‘Life [has] found a way.’

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This ‘way’ is mainly facilitated by the hot tubs; alpine breeding units, with optimum conditions of water and heat where life thrives and evolution goes unchecked by the company rule that hot tub use is strictly off limits to staff.

In the first week, I heard that one of our hot tubs hosted three couples in one night. Remarkable (I thought). But perhaps the most remarkable thing is that by the time the sun rises over Pointe De La Masse (pinnacle of the eastern facing slope), all that remains is a story. One to tell to colleagues on the lift or to write down for those waiting at home, telling what happened last night.

I’m sure its not just the staff, the guests use the tubs in the same way, only I don’t hear the tales. Instead, I am left with scant physical evidence; a Durex wrapper clogging up my vacuum nozzle, making it sing like a Bee Gee, and the floating Twix, bobbing, mocking, on the rippled water, masquerading convincingly as a turd.

The guest – a strange beast in more ways than one – merits further mention. When I was researching life as a seasonaire I found well-meaning advice on the ‘bedding’ of these beasts. The ‘discipline’ is that it should be a last-night-only affair (pardon the pun).

Sadly, colleagues fell foul of this in the first week. They succumbed to the hot tub on the first or second night and after that were in the grip of the holiday romance – consumed with knowledge and need – only for it to roll away, six days later, on the transfer bus, down the mountain. For some, a sad story.

And then there’s the fantasy; the best story because nobody knows how it ends. A most beautiful creature came to stay in our chalet; mine and The Chef’s (I have capitalised him now, owing to the degree of print he commands). She was everything The Chef dreamed of and yet he knew nothing about her. She was indeed pretty and delicate – she was neither skier nor snowboarder. Instead, she lounged, painted her nails, purchased pink moon boots and read the following; The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel, The Case Against Christ and the Pocket Atheist.

I found the books she left lying around fascinating and paused, vacuum in hand, one day to discuss the question of Christianity. The Chef found her intoxicating (in spite of her reading matter, I think) and he began to woo; he brought her up a deck chair on which to lounge, he placed it on the balcony facing the sun, he opened beer and wine for her and gave her a piece of cheese cake, one evening, that was the size of a tall man’s foot. She then ate it all because she was truly angelic. All he did not do was try to relate to her about the time he read the Da Vinci Code – about which I was at once sad and relieved.

And she left as she came – bar those new pink moon boots – beautiful and precarious, unable to tow her oversized luggage the short distance to the bus stop.

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And when she had gone he looked her up on Facebook (as any over eager pursuer would) and was gratified with a response. Not a strong case for romance, I grant you, but less than bleak and soulless, which is a start.

A Euro in the Hand: what Grandma did

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Transfer Day #2 has come and gone and I can write about it now that it and I have the distance of days.

Transfer day is known well in resorts as the dreaded of all weekdays, not least for the challenge of turning the whole chalet around within hours. But there are other more complex issues. At 6:45 in the morning, the guests you have taken care of for seven days are leaving and for some, this is truly a sad time. Mournful even. For others it may be a time to resist hoofing the departing guests’ over-sized baggage down the hill to the bus stop (if not the guests themselves) in an effort to see the back of them. Either way it is fraught with emotion of some kind.

Whatever the emotion and no matter how strong, it doesn’t linger, new guests will be with you in five hours and round you go again. In the moonlit morning these fabled newcomers are shrouded in mystery and their coming is richly anticipated. On command, I can hear my chef saying, with a kind of dark superstition, ‘oh, I hope we get good guests this week.’ All he does not do is rub his hands together with Dickensian greed. Because good guests leave good tips.

Which brings me to a significant source of tension; tips. Either between chalets or within them, tips are a big deal because the wages are small. And, while I have covered tips already, in life we are always learning and travelling and this week my journey continued.

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And finally we come to What Grandma Did.

Before I lay all the blame at Grandma’s moon-booted feet, I must confess to not doing my job properly. As Chalet Host I am responsible for cleaning the guest’s rooms everyday. On the last day I am instructed to place a tip envelope – this asks the guest to consider whether they have received a service which has exceeded their expectations – in each room. Despite having entered and read the reminder in my phone, I forgot to do this (not an exceptional part of the service, I grant you). However, given that our guests, including Grandma, seemed to have had a lovely holiday, this did not concern me.

So, come bleary-eyed o’clock on the Sunday morning, as guests milled and we watched these movement more closely than usual, Grandma sidled up to the chef and placed notes, wrapped in a 50 euro note, into his hand. She moved on quickly to me, passing me notes wrapped in a 20 euro note.

Now, here is not the place to get into what each of us did or did not do for Grandma. What is important is that it is company policy to split tips evenly between those members of staff who work in the chalet irrespective of a particular guest’s point of view.

So we lugged and hoofed the luggage to the bus stop and waved and hugged the guests and the men helped the Gallic driver, who still managed to smile despite the Marlborough clamped between his teeth, as he loaded the bus.

Back at the chalet there was a distinct lack of communication from the chef on some subject matters. At once, he was quite happy to discuss the quantity of kilos he considered he had lost since beginning the season (only to be challenged by our manager, in mock apology, with an equivalent sum, that bring the quantity he estimated to lose each morning!) he was silent on the quantity of euros with which Grandma had greased his palm. While the chalet is typically tropical inside, the temperature dropped below zero.

Most of the time we communicate in words and phrases that are pre-programmed; we think little about them and they come from somewhere other than our true nature. It is widely suggested that words account for no more than 7% of communication. And then occasionally we do something which offers a window onto who we are and what we truly value.

It turns out that my colleague, the chef, quite simply values the sum total of 15 euros ahead of his word, established company policy and his working relationship. Convinced (correctly) he had more money in his hand than I, he did not want to risk it bring reduced.