Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Now Is the Time in Tyrol When We Ski

Back in January, Abigail missed the first week of school because of Bill’s busted back. Then at the start of February, she missed almost another full week because of her rotten cold and bout of homesick misery. Still, there we were, just a week into February, granted yet another massive two-week vacation. Like La Touissant in October, then Christmas break, here was yet another huge chunk of non-school time, starting less than a month after the Christmas break had ended. Time for a little sports franglais: faire du ski.

Boy do these French people know how to live. The government even staggers everybody’s winter vacations, breaking the country up into three different regions with slightly different schedules – rotating each year for fairness – so that the mountains don’t get overcrowded when hundreds of thousands of people take off for a week on the slopes.

I know it’s not even remotely possible that everybody French goes skiing. But while I am no sociologist, it seems to me that taking a full week away for skiing appears to be a much more widespread practice here than it is back on the East Coast. It’s seems almost as common as taking the whole of August off so that you can splash around at the coast avec toute la famille.

I cannot explain why exactly France has decreed that so many of its citizens should go skiing, but geez, they made it super easy and pleasant. At least for people who actually enjoy skiing.

First, they have these incredible mountains. I don't know whether any non-European geography geniuses have figured this out, but all those Olympic venues outside of the Northern Hemisphere -- Innsbruck, Chamonix, Turin/Torino, Albertville -- they are basically all the same place. If you could just hop mountaintop to mountaintop, as the snow flies, the farthest two spots are only about 100 miles apart. Still, the nations have graciously split up these wonder mountains into the French/Swiss/Austrian/Italian Alps.

The whole right hand side of that region calls itself Tyrol, and people there yodel for fun, in no less than five languages, including Tourist English. Here you find impossibly beautiful and enormous mountains where it never gets all that cold, where tons and tons of natural snow falls, and where people start learning to ski when they are tiny little Tyrolean children in leiderhosen and puffy ski jackets.

Ski trails in the Alps are steep, and long. They are mostly above treeline, (often even above cloudline) and there are lots of them, served by an incredible wealth of lifts. This, combined with the carefully staggered vacay schedule means no lines. However, they are not for the casual beginner. Or – in my case – the lifelong beginner. At the two resorts I’ve seen, the “Easy” trails are longer and more challenging than the intermediates back home on the East Coast. The nice man at the ski rental store assured me that Abigail and I would do a few runs on the bunny slope, then we’d both be just fine to head to the top and schuss down the enormous mountain. Apparently, he has never met anybody quite as cautious as Abigail or as poorly coordinated as I am, because he simply couldn’t dream of a reality in which one would spend the whole day up and down at the T bar. In terms of trails, an Austrian “Easy” = our “Way Too Scary.”

But for a strong skier? As long as you dig fondue and leather knickers, Tyrol = Paradise.

Europe has also made skiing just as democratically convenient as its mountains are massive. Equipment rentals (at least for downhill skiis) are cheap and easy, particularly via internet. There are perfectly lovely little hotels that wish nothing more than to feed you and make your bed on a daily basis while you are enjoying this government-encouraged ski vacation. You can book a year, a week, or a month in advance, and find exactly what you might be seeking.

Back in the U.S., skiing always seemed to require a much more significant commitment. You’d get up at the crack of dawn and drive for hours to a hill covered mainly in ice. Or take a murderous President's Day weekend trip in awful weather to Killington, where you would pay $82.00 for a day’s worth of fighting the crowds and standing in lines. Or yank the kids out of school and shell out big bucks for a condo in Salt Lake.

Here, skiing on perfect and natural packed powder -- like delicious baguettes or delicious wine, or simply time to breathe and enjoy your family – unfolds (again – for people who like to ski) with such ease and simplicity. In the U.S., skiing always seemed to me like yet another privilege afforded only to the Very Lucky. You know -- stuff like housing, or health care.

This is funny, that I am going on and on like the Tyrolean Board of Tourism about how nice France is to let you ski. Because, as it turns out, I actually hate to ski. Enjoying things like control, and warmth, and extreme forms of adventure-avoidance, I prefer a life lived by the hearth, preferably with a good book, or at least a fairly fresh copy of The New Yorker. If I am going to put sticks on my feet and clomp around in the snow, I like to do it under my own steam, rather than taking my chances with gravity. (I'll make like NBC and give you a Winter Sports Teaser: I'll post about my transcendent day of Nordic skiing in a day or two.)

But -- married as I am to Mr. Outdoor Adventure Man, and having spawned snow bunnies -- I have had to make my accommodations to those of you who like to slide down the sides of things when it is cold and snowy. When you get right down to it, my accommodations were modest in the extreme. I was happy enough to drive my family through Switzerland, through Lichtenstein and into Autriche, to get them to a big tall mountain.

(Yes, Virginia, there is a Lichtenstein -- we were there for all of fifteen minutes, spending ten of those minutes lost and circling, looking for a way to let ourselves out of its Ausfhart.)

I’m not complaining here, mind you. There were plenty of other joys to tempt me. I was mostly motivated by the chance to see real live New Yorker friends Michael, Lucia, and Milena for five days. Michael, a chef and foodwriter, promised we'd get to try real Sacher Torte, at the Hotel Sacher. I was also curious about seeing the land of my ancestral home, where my last name appears on the walls of buildings and on the postal bus. But I was also pretty enthusiastic about the fact that somebody else would be cooking, cleaning up, and making the beds for a solid week.

Before this trip, I always blamed my hatred of skiing on weather conditions, or excessive expense, or something external to me. This time, since the conditions were well-nigh perfect (a meter of packed powder, a wealth of gorgeously manicured trails, a steady temperature just above and below freezing, with no wind to speak of, absolutely no lines whatsoever, and delicious food available at the well-designed restaurant at the top) I can finally admit the truth: when it comes to skiing, it is me, rather than the ski resort, that is broken.

I’ve never spent this much time worrying about the fact that I don’t like bowling all that much. Or embroidery, rollerdisco, or even yodeling, for that matter. But since I was a teenager, cool people have been telling me that skiing is cool. Thus, it’s taken me a very long time to admit to myself that in this – as in so many other ways – I am not cool. More like lukewarm.

I finally came to this conclusion by spending one day on downhill skiis in Alpine Ski Perfection World, Austrian Version. On the first day, I joined in with our little crowd -- renting all the pointy equipment and taking the lifts in an attempt to enjoy things that normal folks find enjoyable. I did my best, but could barely tumble myself down the slope during my one run.

We all took the big lift to the lodge at the top of Axamer Lizum (“The Magic Mountains”) for lunch – even Abigail, who was still mastering the T-bar. Getting to lunch required that we clamber into a sort of zig-zag shaped little train, which carried us up the mountain on a track that was not quite as rickety or scary as the one that carries the Coney Island Cyclone. I don’t know what the Austrians called this funny lift (I can only hope the name includes the syllable “fahrt”) but I think the technical term would be “funicular.” I called it the Es-ski-lator.

Bill named it Villy Villikins, personifying it as the Possessed Little Austrian Engine That Could… kill everyone on board. “I Seenk I can, I Seenk I can” he would chortle, in Villy’s childlike, evil imaginary voice. "I Seenk I can kill you all..."

For those of you used to rinky-dink Eastern seaboard hillside ski spots, it would be impossible for me to overstate the difference between that experience and this. Back home, a “ski trail” is an icy chute between swaths of heavy forest. Generally, a snow gun has filled it up with "packed granular," (read: ice cubes), leaving the edges bare and sad.

Here, a trail – called a “piste” is not quite as rigidly defined. To paraphrase Pirates of the Caribbean, I'd say it's more of a guideline – little poles stuck on the far edges of an enormous field of snow, with another set of poles a few meters on the outside edges to mark places where it would be actually dangerous to go. You can actually ski pretty much anywhere you please – on the perfectly groomed trail, or in the whipped-cream piles of powder on the edges. That is, of course, if you like that sort of thing.

And there is almost no parity between a lodge back home and the sleek glass-and- sandalwood modern restaurant perched at an impossible angle at the top of this mountain. The Hoadlhaus (yodel like you mean it, Jens) overlooks two steep sides of the mountain. While it is built with a flat floor (thank god), it is architecturally designed to appear as though it is about to tumble off the edge. On sunny days, the entire roof retracts so that the happy skiers inside can be roasted, as though in a solar easy-bake-oven, while they drink their enormous steins of beer and pack away various kinds of schnitzel and fresh salads. For dessert, they serve more amazing tortes than you could possibly burn off calorie-wise, even in a long day’s worth of hard skiing.

I stuck to the goulash soup (way less gross than it sounds, more like a sloppy joe without the roll) and a small beer, although a small Austrian beer is bigger than the biggest ones France is ever able to pour. After lunch, Bill took our kids back down in Villy, while Milena and Michael zoomed away like professional athletes onto the pistes where they held the '64 Olympics. My very patient friend Lucia, who is both personally inclined to be kind, and also professionally skilled in the art of making people feel better about themselves, agreed to shepherd me down the mountain’s very easiest real run.

She led me to the brink of the hill. I suddenly felt like one of those indoor housecats who is taken outdoors for the first time; the field of snow was so scarily open that I wanted to crouch down and melt into the ground. No such luck. Once I went back from housepet to rational, I realized that there was no way down but down. I hazarded precisely one turn's worth of my best Suzie Chapstick imitation, but quickly fell back into a panicky snowplow. You would think that going one-and-a-half miles per hour would be fairly leisurely, but by the time I was down the first steep part, I was sweating like I had just run the Kentucky Derby. While carrying a jockey.

Lucia kept coaxing and coaching me, nicely, as though I were a toddler trying to get down the big kids’ slide for the first time. Except the slide was about as wide as a football field, with sheer cliffs on each side. There I go again, trying to blame the mountain, but I have to keep remembering the problem was me; nobody else there looked like she was about to cry.

I also kept experiencing a very weird phenomenon going on with the light, the snow, my goggles, and the cloud of fog at the top of the hill. Somehow the poor visibility, the light falling snow, and/or the altitude conspired to make me actually feel something like carsick. Everybody else was zooming down on snowboards like Shaun White at a million miles an hour, but I crept along, just trying really hard not to vomit.

I’m used to being off-kilter with the rest of the world, but I actually get snowsick? What a weirdo.

I have never been quite so pleased to see my family, or to come to a safe stop on a level surface so that I could gracefully fall down in a pile and rest, panting and worshiping the sheer levelness of the ground and the neighboring buildings. Abigail was still busy conquering the bunny slope, but Bill and Grace came bounding up to me, nearly frothing at the mouth. “Wasn’t it great!? Didn’t you love it!? I bet you can’t wait to go back up in Villy the Es-ski-lator!”

Yet again, not on the same page. Hardly on the same planet.

So what's today's life lesson? I'll give you my takeaway: being a real grownup does not simply require you simply to be old. Instead, you must also be able to recognize what you actual enjoy, and what makes you inexplicably nauseous.

And then a real grownup decides to do something useful with that realization. So, as David Foster Wallace put it, about his own seasick voyage on a cruise ship: here is yet another supposedly fun thing I will never do again.


  1. Launa, as a German speaker I just have to point out an inadvertent pun: your Tyrolean children are wearing "Leiderhosen" (unfortunately-pants), rather than "Lederhosen" (leather-pants). Since Lederhosen really are unfortunate, and anything with the suffix "pants" is automatically funny, this is a smashingly good one, as puns go.

    I, too, am quietly resolved never to down-hill ski again, after a similar experience on the top of a mountain on one of my first attempts.

    I have been reading this blog since November, guffawing and commiserating right along with you. Thanks, and keep the good writing coming!

  2. I don't ski either, and also married a skier/snowboarder. I've tried snowboarding--taken a couple lessons and donned the full-body padding Nick got me to make it less scary, but...not so much. Not yet, anyway, as Nick would like to think, but I suspect not ever. I wish my parents had put me on skis when I was wee, as I think Nick's mom did him. Ah well. We can't be what we're not, right?