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!

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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.

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.