Child Care

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In Reberty quite a few of the neighbouring chalets were run by family ski companies. This really means childcare is part of the package. This is evidenced by the trudging figures hung with day-glo-framed wayfarers and clashing luminous beanies, impassive and trailing a line of bibbed small people up towards the piste, down towards lunch. The children, most of the time, were remarkably quiet, probably sensing their carers’ limit of tolerance. No thank you, I always thought complacently, give me those toilets to clean any day. The nannies or the ‘mannies’, in many cases (which I found bizarre, am I sexist?), got only two days off a week, the rest of the mountain time was spent with the children. Huh, I thought (frequently), five days of child care a week would not be worth coming away for.

But, in my conceit, I didn’t realise, I’d actually taken on seven days of the same; but for just one child, a very angry, cantankerous one.

In previous posts I’ve referenced the ‘journey’. I mean ‘life’s a journey, man,’ (imitation stoner voice). But I’m nothing special, just because I have decided to travel distances and countries, there are different types of journey to go on: ‘…the tightness in the throat/and the tiny cascading sensation/somewhere inside us…’ Simon Armitage says it in ‘It Ain’t What You Do It’s What It Does To You’. So we are all on journeys, right? Wrong. In my experience it is more than too easy to get stuck and sometimes it takes being in a new place and being a new person to get unstuck. In my case, I became three people.

digression: something I occasionally wonder is, where does a person’s personality come from? Nature or nurture? I land somewhere in the middle with my lay-views. I know l like stuff – writing, books, snowboarding, skating, running, the countryside, wine, clothes, laughter, sarcasm, people – I dislike stuff too and I know I have opinions – about words and kindness and respect and freedom – and these things are ‘me’. But inside is a lot more complex than that. In moments of conflict – warning: this is a men in white coats moment and this will stand as evidence when they commit me – I am inhabited my more than just ‘me’ (conspiratorial whisper). Often, in fact, I find myself at the centre of an argument. One of the voices belongs to a child; me but younger. She doesn’t really speak, she feels and screams – like only a young child can. When she is afraid, I am afraid. Her little hands grip my throat and it takes everything inside me to suppress her panic; more often I can’t. She can preen when she wants. She is mischievous and denies herself nothing. Only she has odd tastes for a child; instead of cola bottles and My Little Pony, she has a taste for cab sav and nicotine, which is what comes from living in an adult body for so long.

The other voice is my mother’s; she admonishes and controls the child, leaving me mouthing, lost, somewhere in between.

And never more intensely than 2000 metres above sea level have mother and daughter fought so furiously, energised by the fears and exhilaration of the landscape and the proximity and tussle with other cramped and struggling personalities.

I arrived, determined to be an adult. It worked for a while. I was on good terms with most of my colleagues, I steered clear of most alcohol and the space in my head remained quiet – ish. But snowboarding, a sport that at once enthrals and scares me, offered the chink, plus I was lonely, just like everybody else. In the beginning, the chalet staff hit the mountain together and it quickly sank in that I was slow, slower than them, should I say. Disappointment, frustration and fear set in. Quite often, I would be the last to catch up with the group. They waited patiently on the piste. Panic, that they would leave, began like an infection; an old foe which has its roots nearly 30 years ago. They were the feelings of a much smaller me, but there, on the mountain, age 33, I was almost consumed by them. She wanted to scream – loud – and be made safe, once and for all. I couldn’t let her do that (even though I don’t think the ‘blood wagon’ guys have a psychiatric division). Instead, she screamed inside me and I followed the group, wrestling, exhausted and frustrated, not unlike a struggling mother.

I didn’t give up. I went out everyday and I got faster. Eventually, I could keep up with my colleagues. I could even compete with them, but only with a look for absolute terror on my face. In these times of ‘hooning’ I felt my own natural fear – the implications for my body, or somebody else’s, if I lost control – but not the irrational terror of abandonment. Instead, it was replaced by a ferocious determination to be better, the best. When this did not happen – which of course it did not, there are always things to learn and people who are better than you – I beat the snow and spat expletives down the valley, all the time knowing that I was having a child’s temper tantrum.

‘The best’ meant the park or demanding off-piste; new things. Off-piste, usually over the back of a summit, far away from the marked runs, the fear would return. She was afraid they would leave her in the white wasteland. She wanted to scream and demand that they never do that. To promise they wouldn’t. So often, as I negotiated the challenging terrain, I carried her with me. The park wasn’t scary, but it hurt and gave immediate results of success or failure. Cue tantrum, the scathing and futile attack on the snow when I failed in attempts to make the 180 jump, instead landing painfully, sitting, nursing self-pity and sore limbs.

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A view of the off-piste from the top of the Bouchet chair lift from the fourth valley. Between those two points, that’s where we’re going. Taken from the top of the Thorens telecabin.

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We’ve arrived, the view from the off-piste off the Bouchet chair lift

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Zero Air! – Area 43 (or was it 51?), Meribel

And in light of the above, I won’t even detail my foray into skiing.

When the snowboard was stowed the admonishment of the mother arrived mixed with regret and the desire to go back outside, with the realisation that the fear and the tantrums don’t change anything. They only make it harder.

‘Be careful what you wish for…’

Before I arrived in France, for many months, in fact, I would be asked why I was going out there, or I would even pre-empt the question and tell people: ‘it is a chance to be a child again, to go out, call for your mates and play everyday, to get good at something, just because I do it everyday, because I am carefree.’

‘ …because it just might come true.’ – Anonymous

So, I spent four months with my inner child and I can’t say she was always pleasant. But I don’t suppose I was the only one trying to look after their inner child out there; not based on the rows, tantrums, tears and tattling that coloured the season. Living in a ski resort and working, as I did, for a tour company, is undoubtedly a simple yet claustrophobic way to live. It is intoxicating, more-ish and most of all it comes with limited responsibility. That glimmer of a life we might once have enjoyed. The majority of the staff are young, almost grown out of being children but are still the best at playing; largely they do this without a care, except now the playground is sex and alcohol. There are some though, me included, who are older and for whom the ski resort represents a life that they crave, perhaps more deeply than the younger ones, and I suppose the question is, why? And then, is this sustainable? Is it really?

I don’t have the answers and I have no idea whether I am stuck, unstuck or just touch dry!

Big children of all ages and shapes!

Moody Food – May The Sauce Be With You

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Think of this as a religious parable, in style if nothing else (bear with me):

The other day we each sat down to two fried eggs, one perfect (soft yolk, no nasty crispy bits), the other broken yoked, smeared, ugly, defeated. I will admit, during the making of these eggs I became grumpy as it is never my intention to break a yolk and in my eyes these two broken specimens were as good as useless; I had failed. However, I was rather hungry so I got over it. And it lead us to muse over these eggs that to serve such an egg, professionally, is an affront, a visual ‘f*ck you.’ It says, ‘I don’t care what you think, I can’t be bothered to make you another egg; eat this broken one. I dare you to complain,’ [Now cease with the parable imaginings as there is no meaningful ending].

Throughout the ski season, food was one of the frontiers of battle for staff, let alone the mouthing consternation of an affronted guest. Inside the ranks, food was negotiation tool, peace offering and lethal weapon (we’re talking raw fish and bread batons here!).

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It becomes such (and now I am supposing) because whether you are manager, ski tech, ski host or chalet host, accommodation and food are provided for you, it is how the low wages are justified. You are reliant. So, in this arena, food becomes currency, plunder and leverage.

The first hitch is THE BUDGET. Each member of staff is fed by one of the chefs. They source the food – at least they should – but more often they do not factor staff into their shopping, lest it sends them further over budget. Essentially, they are banking on left overs providing. You get what the guests don’t want. In reality this is usually ample, although what you get might not be perfection every time.

However, there are times that fall outside ‘usually ample’ and in such moments you may be left wanting. And so, the first shot is fired.

Aside – as I see it, food is a fundamental need, one I am used to having met or meeting myself. When a chef failed to provide anything and further fail to tell me about before I was about to put everybody else’s meals on the table then I found I became very defensive; like an animal.

And I was not the only one.

Take the confit duck (stewed in its own juices, like many of us in the end). This is the finale, last night, dish – ‘ta daa!’ We tried it during training, twice. Inoffensive when heated through – a different, jaw-dislocating story, when cooked within an inch of its life, which happened on one occasion – and plonked on top of roasted vegetables. However, by month three I was hard pushed to eat it. By then, I decided to keep an amicable distance from the duck, which is funny, because I agreed to do the same thing with the chef who cooked it.

Sometimes, not to my dismay but to the dismay of others, there would not be enough duck to go around. It comes in tins of four or five and a chef will not buy or open an extra tin simply to feed a member of staff. This means that member of staff might not see the main course. And it depends how this is handled as to the overall effect:

1. There is no duck tonight, but you can have…[fine]
2. Or, there is no duck tonight [disgruntled of Reberty]
3. Or, it is left for you to work out by the number of plates the chef lays out for service, this alone tells you, there is no duck tonight…[not fine]

In my experience moods in resort fluctuate, it is due in large part, I think, to proximity. Proximity of colleagues, guests, the rest of the resort – every personality tic and clash is amplified, it really is a clash. It is at a moment when the chef’s mood is low when option 3 is most likely. On those occasions, I’ll admit, I was hurt, I may even have grumbled but it was never an ongoing source of contention. Let’s face it, it’s not cake.

For others, it was. At its worse it became the setting for a battle of wills where sausages and grilled tomatoes were the ‘amo’. An obstinate chef who could sniff a challenge (or weave one) at ten paces faced off to a stubborn and determined Ski Host – determined that is, to have a hot breakfast each morning. And she, the chef, was equally determined; no he would not. They fired at each other from above parapets of French loaves until one morning, she took a dish full of succulent, still piping sausages and with a jerk of her arm, fuelled by malice, tipped the lot into the bin of the chalet next door to hers so as to ensure that the determined and stubborn ski host would not eat the hot meat. The culmination was ultimately embarrassment: ‘ooooops, not all the guests have eaten,’ the chef exclaimed later when they shambled down to breakfast. Karma, perhaps? And to misquote Iris Murdoch: ‘we are all judge and the judged, victims of the casual malice and fantasy of others, and ready sources of fantasy and malice in our turn.’ How true, a wise lady and I strongly suspect Buddha would have here-here’d her.

Yet, there is more. Like a great maggot hole in the apple of your working season, food has deeper implications and effects. Hunger is often mixed with mild anxiety; for all evening meals are expected to be taken with the guests, this is irrespective of of dislike, distaste, discomfort, disturbance.

In the end, food becomes lack: ‘let them eat bread.’ When the guests have left staff diet plummets. No hot breakfast, only cereal, yoghurt and fruit. ‘Make do’; the prandial reminder of your place in the food chain from upper management. *

And finally. Cake; let them eat lots and lots of it. That surreptitious thigh barbarian cloaked in sugar. He wreaks havoc, not just on thighs but on the buttocks and hips of chalet girls. He butters (not in a radical way as described in the ABC of Snowboarding) and spreads and moulds so that come April, when they walk out of resort, they roll with the full weight of the season. **

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Not a chalet girl and not an ounce on him, but his enjoyment says it all

I’m finishing this from a rubber matted table in the UK where a bunch of daffodils that have seen better days waft their stale scent under my nose. From here I can hardly believe my France-appetite (although I blame the altitude) – cooked breakfast, porridge, muesli, yoghurt, Mars Bars, chocolate sauce plopped on everything, including the muesli and the yoghurt, bread, cheese, cake, potatoes and that is all before the evening meal and most likely before lunch. I could not conscience having the appetite for these things now, nor the motivation to cook them. And from my seated position all the stand-offs and battles seem pointless too. It is a surprise that the attitudes of others can have such a profound effect on each other’s and my own piece of mind.

So, to fully exhaust the food theme; living and working a season is like living in a small lunch box alongside some pretty pungent items prone to offend after a period of time, especially when held in captivity, only hold your nose because the flavour is in the foulness…

…garlic sausage anyone?

* That said, we were amply provided for, at no point was I really left wanting.

** This is a gross (pun signpost) exaggeration used for dramatic effect only. ‘Chalet Girl’s Arse’ is a well known phenomenon, although not included in ABC of Snowboarding, which men (mainly) like to point out to belittle their female colleagues.

The Last Supper

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You wouldn’t know it – the snow is still packed and light in places, spraying upwards when I push the toe edge of my board into the steep bits to break my speed – but the winter season is coming to an end.

It rained yesterday afternoon, for hours. On some lower pistes the dark earth is a shadow beneath a sugar coating of crystal snow and snow streaks from the peaks down the rugged striations of rock like tears.

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The slopes above St Martin

I have even taken to skiing in the worst weather; soupy mist and snow so wet that your trousers cling to you. Rain is forecast for this week, up to an altitude of 2650 metres. Soon the snow will be gone and in just over 10 days time so will I.

Looking back – as we are prone to do – the passing of the season has been so quick. That’s not how it seemed at the beginning, but now it appears that existing in a season is like living in compressed space and time.

The sun was at its brightest at the top of the Thorens lift, the Glacier Du Bouchet visible beyond the bowl behind us, when a Blazing Raisin* (one of ours) slid by, refusing to wait for us, masked face intent on the piste ahead. “Don’t worry,” called Jamie, the chef, from his position on the snow behind me, “he’s on borrowed time.”

I giggled and feeling the cold radiance of the snow beneath my bum I continued to casually ratchet my snowboard binding tighter; if I’m in borrowed time then the debt is massive.

So, some say you can borrow it, others that it is precious (although this is misleading, because surely they mean the moment, not the measure of the moment). Others believe it is an illusion with no value at all while there are some who think that we are stuck in it. Can all of these be true?

I recent years I have heard writers talked of the multiple and layered nature of time. Never are we in one place in time. Walking the street we are remembering an event, feeling it, perhaps oblivious to eyes that move over you, a child that falls across the road, or an item dropped, more intent we are on the past or the future. In which case, perhaps all those things can be true.

Four months, 17 weeks, the passing of winter. It is not long, whichever way you look at it. At the beginning, ready to be trained, among 50 strange faces and having endured 28 hours on the same coach with them (making them none the less strange) one season seems a long time. Because while time is a completely inadequate measure of the unknown experience to come, it is the most common.

After training, when we arrived in Reberty, still unsure of each other, testing, wary, hesitant, we unwound the place. Dust was cleared from furniture, cling film peeled from plates, mugs, bowls, pans, cupboards stocked with food and boxes of wine stacked beneath the stairs. Leaflets were laid out, chalk boards drawn up and through sweat and sneezing (dust snd chemical induced) the place was unfurled, spread out like a carpet for our first guests. Work and snowboarding lay ahead.

When the guests arrived the routine began. Days were marked by meals, cleaning and snowboarding. Slow at first, the cogs of my clock clunked as i struggled with nine bathrooms, determined to catch every last hair yet anxious to catch my colleagues before they headed to the slopes. Christmas and New Year, our customary landmarks in time, passed with little celebration. It was all about the snow and welcoming the New Year by being on it. Yet, each outing on my board was an ordeal, my heart and the fears of a life time were in my mouth, while my legs burned. I despaired, but eventually improved, skimming the contours of the snow instead of fighting them. And time sped up too.

The guests, the alliances and dramas with colleagues stained time but do not slow it. Some marks are heavier than others; two religious groups; the one which held services in the dinning room, the other that tried to convert us; The Johns, jovial, funny, wise; The Academics, tentative and kind; the girls who received the romantic attentions of The Chef.

And now time turns back on itself. The cling film is wound back over the kitchen goods, the cupboards are sparse, the cupboard under the stairs is empty. And colleagues begin to wander away; some physically, others have already left in their minds and all that is left are the motions.

During a season you are contained, perhaps more visibly and completely than in everyday life. Imagine a snow globe; conveniently it is not unlike this. By mountains and an electronic lift pass you are held in a scene. You live in a picturesque chalet, from which you walk out into this scene and every so often some one tips the globe and a load of white stuff is dumped down on top of you. At one moment all you have is the plank you strap to your feet and your scenery to explore on it. And then you have neither. The glass cracks, the liquid leaks away and the snow turns to mush. You are free.

The other night I served my last supper and in the morning hugged the three of my colleagues goodbye, preparing for them to be strangers. The first trickle through the cracked glass.

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A last outing

* A Blazing Raisin, a term found in the ABC of Snowboarding Dictionary to describe an old(er) dude, made raisin-esque due to time served in the sun, who canes it down the mountain like his life (and everybody else’s) depended on it. Here in Reberty, we had two.

RIP Steve, who left for Gatwick car park last Sunday.

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