I write to you from a stunning studio apartment in London, which my friend Debbie and I have rented to spend New Year’s. Twenty-ten, my friend! Can you believe it? We’re almost officially out of the naughties!(2000s)
After spending a week of skiing in La Plagne in the French Alps, some parts of me are still readjusting to the lower altitude and urban life - a very weird development, considering I’ve spent most of my life in these should-be familiar conditions. Mountains have mystical powers, I’ve surmised. You think you’re the one taking them in, standing in the snow, admiring their beauty, but they’re really the ones that are taking you in. Just one week, and that’s it, you can’t really leave any more. You’ll be back for more.
Skiing for the first time in my life was 1 part fun, and 2 parts frustration. Being the physically unfit person that I am, climbing those slopes day after day were horrid, especially since I couldn’t keep up with most everyone else. My shins hurt terribly - as did most everyone’s, as your feet take time to break into ski shoes - but because I’m so unused to physical discomfort, I took it extra badly. On the 2nd day of skiing, I was literally tearing up at the sharp pain in my right shin with every step I was taking up the slope to the ski lift; I wouldn’t have gotten up at all if it wasn’t for Clare, encouraging me along. I was gradually demoted from the most accomplished beginner skiers group, down through the middle group, right to the very lowest skill level, where it was just a bunch of us nice, unused-to-sports girls having a ski holiday, doing as much basic level skiing as we did cable-car sitting and photo-taking. And I still struggled, falling multiple times on some of the steep slopes. I was even caught under the ski lift once - yes, I was tagged down to the floor and the ski lift chair went over me, grazing my head. They had to stop the whole ski lift for me to get up and get back on, it was awful. At times, I was so visibly angry with not being able to complete a steeper slope (think: tough blue/easy red slope, really shouldn’t have been a big deal) I was ramming my skis and poles into the snow in ways that I hope didn’t scare my poor ski instructor, Nicolas, and make him think I was angry at him, because I really wasn’t. It was just me being angry at myself, not being able to get it. Not leaning forward enough, not extending my leg enough, not shifting my weight right, not twisting my feet inwards enough to snow plough it and control my speed properly - on some level, skiing was actually incredibly stressful for me.
You’re probably thinking, so where’s the fun part? Well, firstly, there was snow. Truckloads of it! I’ve been missing it so much - we don’t get much in Oxford - so it was really nice to have so much of it again. Made falling completely painless too. Then there were the ski instructors - I went through three ski instructors, in my gradual demotion, Julien, Brian and Nicolas, all of whom were very helpful and sweet. Nicolas was especially funny, singing funny songs at random times and referring to us girls as his “eight problems.” (When I joined, he said, “You’re my new problem.”) He had a pretty awesome Christmas hat on on Christmas day too, that he got from Florida, which sings and jingles the bell on its pointy tip with a touch of its rim. One particularly memorable conversation:
On Christmas eve, the ski instructors performed a “Torchlight Descent”, where they skied down one of the slopes in the dark, a flaming torch in each hand, down to the ski resort. The next day, on the ski lift:
Nicolas: (referring to the Torchlight Descent) You like it?
Me: Yes, it was very cool. (Or something in that vein.) How did you do it? Skiing in the darkness?
Nicolas: Yes, you can’t see, you can’t see anything. It’s very dangerous. Skiing is dangerous.
Pause. Then dramatic voice:
Life is dangerous.
Throw in the fact that they were all native French speakers and had varying levels of fluency in English, and you have an even funnier combination. Such as unintended insinuations of a lack of learning when you ask them (upon finding out that they grew up in the Alps) “Do all French learn English in school?” or “Are there schools in the moutains?”, to which the respective responses are [uproar at how poor their English must appear to be to make you ask that], and “… ah, yes - I read, I write…”
The food, I must say, is simply better in France. Every day we were treated to hearty lunches and dinners with a phenomenal salad bar featuring yummy concoctions of chick peas, bulgar wheat and the likes, as well as delicious fish and other meats. We even had awesome mussels, one night! And smoked salmon on Christmas day! There was even cake and gloriously well-brewed tea in the evenings, after coming back from skiing. Even with all the skiing, I’m so sure we all put on weight, rather than lost it.
I should probably mention that at some point during the ski trip, I spontaneously accepted Clare’s invitation to join her and Jit in Paris thereafter (!). Clare and I dragged our luggage out to Aime, La Plagne, wandered around the town looking for lunch with our bags in tow (bad idea), got help from a French-speaking Belgian visitor along the way, had omelettes at a French bar, paid through our noses (100 Euros) to catch the TGV to Paris, savoured the last strains of mountains and Southern French countryside, and had long conversations about everything under the sun. The whole journey to Paris was quite an adventure, with really hilarious points of us being in the middle of nowhere with no French and a lot of heavy luggage. Definitely not something that would have happened to either of us, under normal circumstances - we’re both the planning type!
Paris is a beautiful city, yet somehow, I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I should have. Clare, having been there before, managed to get us to the famous sights, such as the Notre Dame, the Arc de Triumph, the Eiffel, and along the way we enjoyed wonderful French food, like tarteflette and macarons and so forth. Yet the whole time, I felt.. out of place. Metros? Tall buildings? City life? Where are the mountains? Where is the snow?
All of us bogged down by various thoughts, I gamely suggested that we go to Disneyland (the happiest place on earth!), not expecting to be taken seriously at all - but the idea was a hit! Clare, Jit and I got out there! Disneyland, Paris! It was amazing! Jit and Clare got photos with Aladdin! We took that crazy ridiculous scary awesome Hollywood Hotel/Twilight Zone ride! We went to Agraba! We visited Sleeping Beauty’s castle! We went on the Indiana Jones ride! We went through the Haunted House/Phantom Manor! We sang along to glorious Christmas and Disney soundtrack orchestra music! It was so much fun. My generation grew up on Disney, it will always put smiles on our faces and laughter in our bellies.
And then it was goodbye to Clare and Jit, goodbye to Paris, and goodbye to France. I hopped on a Euroline bus for the first time, and found myself back in England, experiencing the worst of its wet, cold weather. Yuck. :( And I still felt tempted to say “pardon” and “excuse moi” at everyone I dodged, “bon jour” or “bon sua” (yes, Ivee, laugh at my Srench) to everyone I met.
It sounds weird, I know, but I’ve never been particularly drawn to France or French culture, so I never thought I would enjoy France this much, but I did. I’ve very gradually, unwittingly, fallen for this country and its charms, and I’ve no doubt in my mind that I’ll be back.