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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Reberty In A Bottle

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    The confession:

Since the age of 18 (when it was legal Your Honour) alcohol has played a not insignificant role in my life. It has been there at the major events; weddings, birthdays, graduations, saying goodbye…To be fair it has there at some pretty insignificant ones too, so much so that I am not sure if its the wine or the insignificance that causes me not to remember them.

And, fortunately I suppose, as I have developed a reputation for embracing alcohol, I have become known as a fun drunk, or, in darker moments, the person who makes others less embarrassed about their own drunkenness in a ‘thank God it wasn’t me who…’

spent all night vomiting in the sink

did the crazy jumping out from behind people with jazz hands dance behind unimpressed strangers

cannoned straight into a man with a tray of drinks sending the whole lot flying…

way.

And so, as a maturing and increasingly wrinkly person my idea of working a ski season arrived with a sense of trepidation. As far as I was concerned a ski season is synonymous with excess alcohol consumption. How did I know this? My good friend and ex-seasonnaire who spent five months in a beery haze, gelling the hair of strangers and who has never ridded herself of the taste for Jaegermeister alongside the propaganda of commercial giants, the likes of Jack Wills. Not particularly empirical evidence but on this basis I was convinced that time in a ski resort would not promote my spiritual growth and would more likely accelerate my onward journey to AA (not the fourth emergency service!). But true to my stubborn nature I could not put the idea aside. So, I applied, trained and chose Reberty as a nod to my concerns, the place of one horse and one pub. I believed this stood me in good stead for withstanding the lure of the Jaeger Bomb, tequila, chalet wine and dirty pints…

    Sire de Beaupre:

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The beginning. When the guests arrive they are welcomed with this; a sparkling white wine (of sorts) which costs no more than 1 euro 22 cents from the large Carrefore (a supermarket) in Moutier, the town at the bottom of the mountain (aka the suicide capital of France). It could in fact be that this stuff is the equivalent of a UK Lambrini, which lends some sense to the suicide statistics. But having said that it is much more palatable than Lambrini (most guests quaff it, even those who profess to be in big business and connoisseurs of fine vintage, or even the Swedish who live in a wine dictatorship of exacting high standards on wine permitted to be sold in the country and none of these people are dead to my knowledge, least of all from their own hand). However, the most overwhelming testament to its palatabity is the staff willingness to consume it given half an excuse; the hot tub needs jumping in, as s component in Buck’s Fizz on transfer day morning or the above mentioned Swedish guests turning up so late that we drink three bottles (theirs) and gobble their pork log (long pork pie) waiting for them. And so the week has begun.

    Vin blanc et vin rouge (aka ‘The Chalet Wine’):

The first thing that a guest might ask is ‘what kind of wine is this?’. Well, no, on second thoughts, the very first thing might be to express how it does not taste particularly pleasant (I’m being polite). The response to the second comment is ‘this is true’ and the answer to the first is, well, make it up (its a Merlot one week, Pinot the next) or give or it to them straight, like so; ‘it is a beverage loosely based on wine and coming in two colours, either red or white. It comes in 10 litre boxes which are located in that cupboard and you can have as much of it as you like.’ This response tends to improve the taste and quell any queries about the grape.

From my own point of view the stuff is pretty nasty (not nasty sic, which is in fact good) and not particularly intoxicating owing to it likely being watered down. Irrespective, over the last four months I have drunk a fair amount of the stuff and it seems the main reason (without over analysis) is to burr the sharp edges from an evening (spoken like a true alcoholic); the awkwardness with guests that I have little in common with or quite simply dislike (the man who joined a conversation about getting rid of something irritating and nasty by intoning that he had done this with his ex-wife qualifies) and with whom you can barely get past ‘how was your day?’, the social discomfort of dinning with these people and the moods of others (chefs mainly). Not only does it burr these edges but also your own; memory, energy and sometimes personality. Sadly.

    Vinho do Porto:

The au revoir drink, served avec fromage. The cheese usually goes ignored, yet the thick, rich liquid gets destroyed. It’s not offensive, you might even call it approachable, but despite this and the entreaties of the guests – those you get on with – to sit down and have a glass, Porto is not what you want to be drinking the night before transfer day – the 5:30 alarm and the 10 hour toil. But that does not seem to matter at 22:00, it seems very far away, so you drink it anyway and then it matters less and less with each warm sweet sip.

    Leftovers:

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No chalet is complete without leftovers. The toiletries go in your bathroom, the food in the bin, the alcohol most definitely not. They can’t take it with them, so they leave it behind; gin, vodka, whiskey (Johnnie Walker Black Label, Jack Daniels), brandy (Remy Martin), beer. In the most decadent of moments you might drink this on discovery, bleary eyed, at 07:30 on a Sunday morning in preparation for the long day ahead…

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(Transfer day breakfast)

…but rarely. The gin is the preserve of The Chef, nothing turns his eyes as red and has them rolling around his head like Gordon’s and the whiskey has mainly been used up in hot toddies to ease cold after cold. You can look at this swag in two ways; it saves you money, which out here is often a prime motivator; or (and I think I fall in here) it induces you to drink alcohol you would not otherwise have drunk, with occasional head pounding consequences – the Remy Martin springs painfully to mind.

    BYO:

And beyond that you have to buy your own. Rarely a day has gone by over the last four months when leaving the mountain did not involve one vin chaud or two or three. But nothing harder, at least.

    The Conclusion:

So, gradually, the good intentions, at least to some extent, have been eroded. Never more have I wanted to borrow the words of hallowed soft rock legend, Jon Bon Jovi: ‘sometimes you tell the day by the bottle that you drink’. And the fact is that when working a ski season the drinking is no myth, you could easily find yourself counting days in Porto, Sire Beaupre and spirit. If so, at the very least you will end up tired, run down, sneezing. And that’s how I find myself writing this, sniffling, coughing and with a hot toddy laced with ‘rhum’ in hand.

Cheers.

My Itinerary

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In the beginning, or somewhere thereabouts, I wrote and posted an itinerary; a detailed list of my travel plans until September. That was what I understood an itinerary was; a list of travel plans and places to visit. Another meaning of the word is the record of a journey. This is my record.

Over the last months I have come to realise the word means more. While an itinerary to me is a list or a record, on a mountain it is a physical route, a line of travel, down. An itinerary is not a pisted, tended run, but there is a way down for you to find and it is away from the bashed motorways of piste ridden by every other skier, boarder and their family; your own way.

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This is Le Masse, the summit I can see from the chalet window. Down the back of Le Masse runs an itinerary. To get there, turn left at the goat (strictly speaking, an ibis)…

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…(goat riding before committing is optional), follow the ridge, negotiate the rocks and undulations, bend around the mountain and finally into the crevice that scars the left hand side, can you see it?

I was scared at first. For off-piste skiing (or snowboarding) you should carry full avalanche equipment (transceivers and spades) and be insured (in France a Carte Neige does this). We left the top of Le Masse with no equipment and no insurance and my inner risk assessor screaming worst case scenarios. But there were five of us and the pow was thick* with limited tracks (the lines cut by skis and boards) running away over the blankets of undisturbed snow beneath us; we had to go. And to explain the ‘why’ you have to understand the feeling of swooshing through light powder, it is like no other…or you could say it is like floating and floating is something I do not do particularly often.

Contrary to the effortless implications of floating, pow is hard work. Stand back, use your back leg to turn, lean back to make sure the nose of the board does not begin to dip into the pow or so will your face. By the time we reached the edge of the first ridge Steve, Alix and I (the uninitiated) were panting; as much with fear as with exertion; where were we going?

But, as we followed tracks from ridge to ridge, between outcropping rocks and along traverses that hugged the mountain our breathing slowed and our confidence grew. In the distance was a hut, ‘we’re going that way,’ our leader said. And we did, onto a track that traced the scar of the mountain, taking us back to the piste. Smiling, relieved – because we had done it – we were back on safe ground. We had traced our own itinerary down the mountain.

The next time was different. A week or so later, with no fresh snow and blue bird skies blazing with spring sunshine, the undulating passageways had become hard, and deformed by moguls. The ridge that we followed, left of the goat, was striated with hard humps of snow. Needless to say I fell, I got up, tried to turn on one of the sun blasted humps and fell again. Then, as my companions slid further into the distance my fear returned, both a fear of the mountain and an older, latent fear that has lived in me for a long time. It became stronger with each fall, with the scrape of the hardened surface against the board edges, the impact against my legs as I hit the snow, sliding over a mogul, down with my heel edge fighting for purchase. I could not do it. A helpless child’s cry welled up inside.

By the end I was sweating. I had made it but my left leg was throbbing and I was angry, gripped by a fear that belonged in another time and place. I had made it but as I chuntered at my companions, fighting for control, I knew I needed to make that journey again.

I have done that; twice since then, each time with focus, rather than fear. Not necessarily with much greater skill but perhaps I make one more turn with each new journey. My journey; my itinerary.

And during this time my itinerary, my list of places, has changed. In the beginning I was not not staying for the entire ski season but would move on on 15 March towards Asia. Instead, I will be here in Reberty until the slushy end. This can be little more than a month away now: the lower slopes have turned to mush and the chalet roofs drip constantly onto the now exposed Tarmac.

When I move on I would not say I have a route, a line of travel, beyond that list. England seems a world away (wages, taxes, shopping and TV), like a pisted run I was brought up to travel on. I want to make my own line of travel, like dropping off the back of a mountain which you have been told is passable but you have no idea how until you get there.

* I have learnt over the last three months that all ‘pow’ (fresh powdery snow) must be shredded (ripped up with fresh tracks). This is known to some as ‘shredding the pow’ and is typed by this 33 year old with the greatest irony.

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Tired and grumpy having shredded people who have shredded the pow.

Reflections

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Shortly after arriving in Reberty I picked up a book of short stories from the ‘chalet library’ (also known as the kindling store as far as the poorer titles are concerned). Ray Bradbury, the author, has always fascinated me (ever since The Stephen King Days) due to his forking up of the weird and disturbing out of the human interior. The book was The October Country and the front cover featured skeletons floating in misty darkness set against a glowing full moon…just to set the scene.

The first story I read (and also the only one to date) was about a dwarf and aptly entitled ‘The Dwarf’. Unsurprisingly, The Dwarf has a problem with his size. The reader only sees him through the eyes of Aimee and Ralph, discontented fairground attendants, who watch as he enters their hall of mirrors each night. One night Ralph invites Aimee to peek inside the hall and watch how the dwarf preened, danced and bowed in front of his larger self, stretched to a tall, long limbed man by the magic mirror.

Aimee wants to help him, especially after Ralph tells her that what the dwarf really wants is his own mirror. But Ralph wants to thwart him because he is jealous.

In the final scene, haunted by the grotesque, mutated reflections of all three characters making their way through the hall of mirrors, Ralph has switched the dwarf’s beloved mirror. In its place is one that makes him much, much smaller and for a tiny man you can imagine that he just might seem so small that he barely exists at all. The dwarf leaves the fairground, seen brandishing a shotgun snatched from the shooting gallery.

The story disturbed me but I couldn’t immediately say why and ski resort life went on. Then it prodded my consciousness again as I tried to write about the people here. Because if a ski season is about anything other than snow and waxed up planks it is about human beings; colleagues, competitors, guests and the French Furniture – the locals who tolerate and make money from you and fill the physical blanks in resort. Like a special hall of mirrors these people give back reflections of you; sometimes flattering, sometimes grotesque.

Before I began my job as Chalet Host I would not have told you (unless you were interviewing me for a job) that I was cut out for the hospitality industry. I care about customers being satisfied but I do resent the petty wanting and needing (pillows, HP, a jug, a smaller portion of this, a double portion of that) and I am sensitive to friction, I take it personally and that said I perpetuate it. They show me humour, I show it back; they show me mealy mouthed dissatisfaction, ditto. Guests have come, gone and been forgotten and those uncomfortable hugging moments at the bus stop been avoided where possible, but there have been those that have given back reflections that have stayed with me.

‘The Johns’, both pensionable; one who slept with a lion’s head hand puppet and who wore the furriest bear trapper hat in the western world; the other adorned with beads, stubble and who coined the phrase ‘Christian has done for snowboarding what Mary Poppins did for deep throat’. They loved life and laughter and I was more than happy to give it back to them.

But while guests leave, recycled after a week, your colleagues stay with you. You live with them, work with them, go to the one pub (did I mention that?) with them. They may even become your real friends – the fact that they are labelled as such on Facebook counts for nothing (in my opinion, that is – does that show my age?). And throughout these intense relationships i have come up against myself as much as anybody else; my resentful response to the reproach of a chef struggling with her job and looking for someone to blame; my antagonism after the poisonous sentence posted on that same social networking site about my ability to ruin a day (a compliment if anything); my agitation and distress at the red eyes and the mouth that won’t speak to me in the mornings. And in my response to these things is my grotesque reflection; angry, resentful, childish. But there are other reflections; smiles and gushes of giggles at the terrible crude humour of Jamie, the chef; gratitude to Sioned, the Ski Host with the most mispronounced name (it’s Welsh) in resort; and toe-tapping happiness at the musical taste of Alix, the brave Chalet Host. In these moments I am tall and wide and smiling.

Like the dwarf I came away to see myself and be myself and perhaps what I expected was unrealistic. What I get is what I really am and like the images of Aimee and Ralph it is sometimes grotesque, but sometimes it is tall and good; just fleetingly, just for a moment that is never mine to keep.

After writing this I finished the first short story in Haruki Murakami, Blind Woman, Sleeping Willow (a la the updated chalet library), it was long and I looked for a shorter story to follow. I chose ‘The Mirror’; inevitably influenced by the title as much as by the five pages over which the story stretched. What’s in a title? It’s only a sign post. But when the main protagonist stated in the penultimate paragraph ‘the most frightening thing in the world is our own self’ I would be inclined to say, ‘a lot’; to paraphrase Meatloaf (badly) he took the words right out of my head.

“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!