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.
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!