5. Skiing

We have skied on three consecutive days, not quite a record but very unusual for us, not being inclined to over-exert ourselves and opting for clear weather and visibility. A free lesson with Oxygene, one of the local schools, was on offer so after consulting the forecast, we requested Tuesday afternoon. The sun shone, our Italian teacher (she was Italian, she didn’t teach us any of her language) was patient and our classmates were an interesting bunch including a delightful young girl, Meg, and two others in the ‘mature’ bracket, Jonathan and Jane (not together.) Marta dissected our technique politely, telling us that we were doing almost everything fundamentally wrong. Heyho, but the sun shone and skiing in the fading 4 o’clock light was a novel experience for us to be out that late in the afternoon.

We had noticed that there was an event on that pre-day-off evening in Bubble Bar, possibly our new regular haunt, but not a patch on Undies. There would be a raffle for a set of skis which, if the ticket was obtained between 6-8pm would provide free entry. This necessitated visiting the Boot Lab where we could enjoy a glass of fizz and canapes so we applied ourselves to trying to discover the location of this other venue. Wandering down the main street, peering into every shop window, we discovered it on the other side to our usual commute; a small ski shop crowded with people and a guy playing guitar just inside the door.
We were welcomed by Sarah, partner of the guy who owned it. She had been a chalet host several years before and had lodged in Mollard when it was staff accommodation! She had worked for Le Ski, a Huddersfield based company, and we discovered some mutual acquaintances and friends of friends from home. It’s a small world, but became smaller. She introduced us to another mature couple, Jane and Paul, who had been out for a few years and had come across our fellow self-catered house-keeping staff, more PE teachers, who had trained within a couple years of each other.

Courtney kept our glasses topped up whilst Roger devoured the sushi and I dipped into wasabi peas, then we were introduced to Millie. She organises the ski lessons for New Generation whose MD we happened to share a chair lift on our first excursion onto the hill. “We’re running free lessons for seasonnaires tomorrow and there are some spaces left, come along,” she said. Well it would have been rude to refuse so we enjoyed another lesson from the competition on our day off. We had been reluctant to go out as the forecast hadn’t been good but the enticement of a free lesson was too much and we set off in sunshine. Four of us followed Mitja including Immy, a newly qualified physio and Lottie. He wasn’t quite as polite as Marta had been and accused Roger of skiing like his mother (they are probably of an age) but it is hardly our fault that we demonstrate the technique that was taught 30-40 years ago. But he was a nice guy.
Unfortunately we were at the most far-flung part of the resort when the weather closed in. All attempts to practice the new technique disappeared with the visibility as survival became paramount in the ensuing white-out. We had wanted to locate the route back to our accom building which was reputed to be ski in/out but were unable to locate anything beyond the person in front. Much like driving in fog on someone’s rear lights. We picked-up a disturbed waif who obviously didn’t read the weather forecast and was caught on his own on unfamiliar pistes at a relatively inexperienced standard. He was extremely anxious and Mitja told him to follow our class. ‘Follow’ seemed to take a different translation (despite him being English) as he penetrated the middle of our neat snake and separated Roger and I from the others as we attempted to follow our teacher’s tracks and maintain a close distance to observe the undulations being traversed by those in front. But we all made our way safely back to the bottom of the lifts and walked to Mollard to sort out the washing and enjoy the Christmas tree we’d decorated in anticipation of incoming guests on Sunday.

Thursday dawned bright and sunny so we couldn’t resist the call of the hill after completing our morning’s work. We headed to the bus stop with the intention of skiing back to the door, now that we could see where we were going. A quick dip into Meribel, which is sunnier, preceded our mission to find the piste back ‘home’.

Meribel/Courchevel junction

Even being able to see didn’t enable us to discover the Cepes piste which should have taken us to the back of our building so we had to go up in the lift again, this time peering out to see if we could locate the correct route, but still to no avail. We knew we were in the right area but found a toboggan park in the way, and off-limits to skiers. With no toboggans in sight we started down the slope, keeping an eye on our building, only to discover that Cepes doesn’t seem to exist and this tob-run could be a major obstacle to our access. We’ll see. With achy legs we hobbled back to our room, so grateful for the fully functioning lift.

4. First Guests

Loft

2 weeks into our fifth season and the first guests are settled in, even if they were an hour and a half late. Being conscientious hosts we thought they might have trouble finding the entrance to an unmarked apartment so took turns to wait at the roadside to direct them. Unfortunately they had rung to say they were 40 minutes away prior to deciding to go somewhere to eat, causing the delay and our hypothermia! The sun had disappeared behind a sheet of cloud which sent the temperatures plummeting. They seemed disgruntled when they arrived; we smiled through chattering teeth.

We only have guests in The Loft this week. Mollard is a homely characterful abode which is a pain in the bum to clean but where I would chose to stay, but no-one else wanted to. The Loft looks incredible, if a little soulless and despite being basically very clean, has presented nothing but problems. The hottub keeps tripping the main circuit breaker, only resolved by turning off some of the radiators, which seems counter-intuative in the Alps, in winter with a couple of feet of twinkly freezing snow outside. The subscription had not been renewed for the internet as the notices were going to an obsolete e-mail address of last year’s admin assistant. None of the bedding fits the beds or duvets, way too small! (I’m exceedingly grateful to the pillows and cases which fit perfectly.) Three walls of glass displayed streaks which put bacon ends to shame, apparently due to long-term build up of cleaning product, to which we unwittingly added, but have been given advice how to resolve, thanks very much.

We weren’t deemed to require a pre-guest inspection by the operations manager or our supervisor so were a little surprised to find our 2 delightful admin assistants waiting to check The Loft 10 minutes before the guests were due to arrive. I couldn’t help commenting that it was a little too late if there was any inadequacy. The removal of the top of the new tissue boxes in the bathrooms seemed to be our greatest failing (and we might argue that they were better left in place to prove freshness) so all good.

3. Day Off

We enjoyed our lazy Saturday off and were treated to another day-off on Wednesday, which will become our usual break. The weather forecast for Tuesday was brilliant sunshine with cloud building up the following day. We were due to go Moutiers for a supermarket shop in glorious sunshine. As we had worked double hours the previous week I had the temerity to ask if we could swap our day off. (Perhaps I should have asked for time back!) This request nearly caused apoplexy in our supervisor so I backed down immediately. Ironically we were asked at 8am on Wednesday to go to one of the chalets to give an electrician the key. I had to remind myself of what I was telling the new guys, reassuring them that this was just the mania of set-up.

We stumbled out the building at 11am on Wednesday to be greeted with hazy sunshine, so not too bad. The ski lifts in 1650 weren’t due to open until Saturday so catching the bus up to 1850 we spent a couple of hours on the slopes. I had holidayed there 10 years ago but had not been responsible for path-finding so could only dimly recollect the layout, however was surprised at how much I remembered when looking up and down the runs. The addition of a series of art installations were new and whilst some were quite spectacular others were a little odd.

Meribel

We had deliberated over whether to upgrade the Courchevel pass provided by the company to a 3 Valleys pass which would include Meribel and Val Thorens and finally decided to opt for the latter. As such we took a quick dip into neighbouring Meribel, because we could, and covered a run we had skied 13 years previously which was as delightful as I remembered. We returned to the 1850 station via my favourite run from 2008, Creux, apparently one of the busiest in resort but only shared with one other person that day. The whole area was fairly quiet, we didn’t need to queue at all, or even share a cabin, but that will change dramatically from Saturday 15th when most of the resort opens and guests start to arrive.

Creux

When we returned to our apartment block we were met with 2 wonderful surprises. The lift had started to function; we’d had to carry our luggage up the four flights of stairs but at least our weary work and ski legs would receive a reprieve. Also, the scaffolding had been removed from our side of the building so I no longer had to frame the photos of our panoramic view with steel poles and wooden planks.

…and without the scaffolding

2. Set up

Set up weeks can be manic. Chalets have to be cleaned from top to bottom, inventories have to be taken (cleaning everything as it is listed). Each working item has to be checked for function so Roger has spent hours deciphering the machinations of internet processes, state of the art heating systems and entertainment centres. Maintenance issues have to be identified (and repeated and reminded), windows cleaned and owners’ belongings packed away. Logs and kindling displays near entrances must be neat and tidy. Supplies have to be stored in limited space: toilet rolls, cleaning cloths and products, toiletries, towels, gowns and bedding must be found accessible homes. We travelled down the mountain to the nearest main supermarket for the non-perishable welcome pack items: teabags, coffee, sugar, oil, cornflakes, jam, juice etc. Some of us have to be taught how to use, dismantle, clean and then, more challengingly, reassemble the Nespresso machines; I think I’ve cracked it. If during this period the essential ingredient arrives, snow has to be cleared from entrances and balconies. (We have extensive window and balcony in both chalets.)

Despite an easier life once the season starts as our guests are self-catering we have 2 chalets to prepare whereas others have only one. However we do not need to prepare and host test breakfasts and evening meals but can be the grateful recipients. We have been the beneficiaries of three marvellous meals provided by talented chefs and served by gracious hosts in spotless surroundings. 2 canapes, starter, main and dessert followed by cheese and petit fours have been accompanied by wonderful wine and port (apparently the latter was only for decoration but no-one told us that!)

Our 2 chalets contrast each other completely. The Loft is a spectacular luxury top floor 3 double/twin en-suite apartment with mezzanine master bedroom comprising a fourth double room plus twin ante-chamber and en-suite. The only negative is an internal hot tub when each bathroom holds a more enticing huge bath. Chalet Mollard is much more homely with many of the owner’s personal touches on display (which require cleaning). The style is shabby chic which means that it never looks immaculate despite hours of toil, but also the muck doesn’t show up as much, although will be discovered on pre-season inspection. This also sleeps ten with two nasty built-in sets of bunk beds, and another 4 bathrooms plus media room/sixth bedroom. The hot tub is located on a raised dias outside one of the upstairs double bedrooms with spectacular views down the valley surrounded by glistening white mountain tops and snow laden fir trees lining the lower slopes.

Chalet Mollard

We arrived in rain after a fall of snow so watched the sad remains disappear down the drain but after a few more days the heavy clouds returned and two feet fell over two days. The temperature has plummeted and we are a north facing resort so despite this second day of sunshine the pavements remain coated (roads were cleared straight away) roofs support a thick cover and trees droop with the added weight of their load. Those in the centre of the village are decorated with gold and blue lights which twinkle at us as we walk back to our room in the tea-time darkness.

Moriond 2018

Snow is falling all around us and our first week back in the Alps is complete. We have settled in to our extremely bijou apartment in Courchevel Moriond at 1650 metres altitude (the old name was Couchevel 1650) and worked 6 full days cleaning and setting up our two luxury boutique chalets. These are a couple of hundred yards apart and only a 10 minute walk from the apartment so very convenient. A short lift arises furom outside our block and it is only a quick run down to the bottom of the main 1650 lift which, again, is very handy.
Roger and I are the only team members based here, all the others live in La Praz and La Tania, a 20 and 30 minute bus ride away, but we will be able to ski over to them when everything is open. Our colleagues seem a talented bunch. The company has focused on maturity rather than cannon fodder. Our self-catering team of 6 have accumulated over 300 years of life skills including 4 previous PE teachers. The chefs have worked in Michelin starred restaurants and the hosts have hospitality experience. The drivers hold a range of useful trade knowledge: plumber, car mechanic and chemistry teacher! (although that may be useful for hot tub maintenance.)
Everyone seems very nice, including the owners of AE, the operations manager (OM) and our supervisor. The owner treated us to a meal in one of the bars on our second night and last night we had to endure a test dinner (including wine) in the flagship chalet which was absolutely amazing. Our tour, from one of the two hosts, took us down to the subterranean pool and spa area, past the massage room. I don’t envy those guys having to clean the place though, particularly not the bunk room which sports single and double bunk beds.
The resort officially opens today but as the snow continues to fall the visibility is not great so we have decided to wait until the sun shines and have a lazy day recovering from the shock to our systems and look forward to working our regular 25 hours after next week.

Going solo – random travels

Going Solo
I remember my first solo trip in 1981 when I set off as a naive 20 year old clutching an inter-rail ticket and a map of Scandinavia. I couldn’t find any-one else interested in following my plan (with whom I could spend that length of time) but I was determined to test myself; to discover whether I could manage on my own. I could, so the following year joined a group of like-minded strangers trekking around the south-eastern corner of Iceland. We bonded at the time and waved a cheery goodbye to each other at Keflavik airport. Another successful holiday.

I feel sure that I was embraced by other experienced travellers with more enthusiasm as a solo ‘explorer’ than if I had not been alone. The relationships may have been transient but were a pleasurable diversion from the stunning views from the train windows. However, I did miss someone to share the awe of fjords, Lofoten Islands and midnight sun. My diary was a weak substitute and the handful of Kroner coins fed into an occassional payphone my only contact with friends and family. In recent years my travels have always been with selected company and the compromises have brought unexpected benefits, visiting places I wouldn’t have chosen but enjoyed immensely. I never wanted to ‘find myself’ but had no significant other with whom to share these experiences at that time, and didn’t want to miss out.

I travelled alone in the pre-internet and headphone era. Solo travel these days must be so much more isolated where people can be within inches of each other but never engage. Would I be able to approach someone else who appears to be alone but connected to a device, interrupt them, ask them if they want to join me for a coffee/walk/etc. or if they know of anywhere to go or have been? Would I be brave enough to take the initiative and engage with a stranger? The worst that could happen is they say ‘no’ but they may want a personal interaction as well.

 

Random Travels – Morocco

We took a fantastic road trip around Morocco several years ago in the company of a group of Aussies with Gecko travel. Landing in Casablanca we found ourselves discussing the Milliband rivalry for party leadership with 2 strangers in the queue for rail tickets into the city. I vividly remember passing a recently harvested field where every single stump appeared to have grown a plastic carrier bag, all billowing left in the breeze.
Watching the Saharan sunrise from high on a sand dune overlooking our strings of trusty four-legged ‘ships’ truly is unforgettable. We had pulled the mattresses outside of the Berber tents to enable us to sleep under the most amazing canopy of stars.
A shower hit us before we arrived at Ait Ben Haddou, but it wasn’t raining there. We crossed the dry riverbed on foot to visit the fortress, from where we watched a wave of water sweep down from the rain-soaked hills and fill the chasm. Our return trip was on a mule to keep our, but not his, feet dry. These beasts of burden took the manic traffic of Marrakesh in their short stride, steadfastly pulling their carts whilst jostling with cattle laden trucks, coaches and Porsche Cayennes on frenetic roundabouts.
Every sense was stimulated by vibrant colours of the strata in the Atlas Mountains and sacks of spice in the bazaars. The noise of car horns and hammering of metal accompanied the background calls to prayer. The cool feel of traditional tiles contrasted the soft smooth textures of handbags and slippers hanging in the leather dying sector of Fez, which elicited some particularly pungent smells. Unlike Djemaa el Fna, where the aromas of the food stalls were enticing, but we only dared drink the thirst-quenching fresh squeezed orange juice.

Summer on The Solent

The sea was calm in the flooded Solent valley; soft and smooth as chiffon. Ripples diverged from an arrowhead as an early morning swimmer paced between the groynes. The water was the warmest she’d known for many years. These exercise sessions had become a pleasure since the water quality improved, but now even the temperature was benign. Emerging into the pre-commute air there was no need to leap across the pebbles and wrap herself in the huge striped beach towel to stave off hypothermia. It was as pleasant as on a summer’s afternoon.

This was the prime time of day during the summer of 2018. By afternoon the air would suspend a humid 33 degrees. An on-shore breeze would churn the surface but not be refreshing, more like a full body hair-dryer. The waves would continue to deposit seaweed on the stony shore, the detritus of humankind reduced to an occassional piece of debris as light plastic glared from the deep greens and browns of the ocean’s foliage.

The grass adjoining the land-side of the promenade was scorched, parched, looked dead but usually recovered. Some people chose to sit up there rather than down on the unforgiving pebbles, more bodies this summer than ever before. Multi-coloured windbreaks stood guard, but for what purpose? Perhaps just a habit at the English seaside. Barbeques abounded and groups loitered until late into the evening, watching the sun set behind Fawley Power Station. The only time when it isn’t an ugly carbuncle on the horizon. What would Queen Victoria have thought of that blot on her view if she had spied it from Osborne House on the Isle of Wight?

The trees on the island appeared to have retained their various shades of chlorophyll green, high-lighting the straw coloured fields. The water dividing this outpost from the mainland provided a playground for weekend sailors in shorts and T-shirts. No need for so’westers in this tender climate as they dodged the overloaded container ships and towering cruise liners. Those holiday-makers may have been traveling to cooler climes. Not what they’d expected when booking their vacations in the sun.

But for how much longer would these Mediterranean conditions last? How long until the weather returned to normal? Until the wind splatters the rain onto the window pane? Until the blue sea turns to tormented lead? Until the grass resumes its verdant self? Until stoic souls walk the promenade under coats, hats and scarves? Until the gun-metal of Fawley Power Station blends with the skies, even at sun down?

Random Travels – Iceland

Icelandic Trek

35 years ago I took a walking holiday in Iceland. A disparate group of 22 strangers were guided by a delightful Frenchman who spoke minimal English, but we had an unforgettable experience. On the first evening I ordered a local delicacy: baked sheep’s head, in the salubrious surroundings of Rekjavik bus station. Dried food held a certain attraction after that. A recent BBC programme on walking in Iceland’s interior featured the type of mountain huts we stayed in but now as emergency accommodation. These days hikers enjoy electricity, showers and proper beds in wood buildings which defy the word ‘hut’. We used torches, smelt of sulphur after bathing in thermal streams and pulled our karrimats outside to sleep as we were cooked by the heating derived from the adjacent dinner-plate sized hot spring.

 

Rekjavik, Tjornin lake, Free church (Frikirkjan), National Gallery and Hallgrimskirkja church

Three of we four girls had our birthdays during this 2 week escapade, all Leos?! The melted mars bar, marathon and milky way birthday ‘cake’ was a gastronomic masterpiece. When crossing the bridgeless rivers each of us was escorted by two of the chaps, linking arms as we crossed the fast thigh-deep waters. We wore shorts as there was no point soaking our trousers, even if that did mean braving a blizzard on 31st July bare-legged. But we warmed up sunbathing on 1st Aug, before skiing down a hillside of larva dust.

Mature Seasonnaires

Lunch stop

Is this title a contradiction? No. Age is only a number, not a state of mind. If we are open to new experiences, prepared to be flexible and comfortable outside a routine then working a ski season can bring amazing rewards. We were in our early fifties when we swapped motorway commutes for ski boots and embarked on our first winter season as chalet hosts with a tour operator. This introduction was far from easy but we are heading off for our fifth consecutive season in December (not with that tour operator after the initial steep learning cliff!)

Le Spot to ourselves

I wont deny that there are challenges peculiar to more advancing years but also huge benefits. The winter world is a tough environment, the work is physical (I found being on my feet all the time was hardest – good work shoes would have resolved that) and the hours can be long (but are improving). Life experience can bring advantages, many relating to working practices: reliability, responsibility, commitment, punctuality and professionalism will be attractive to prospective employers. However, these can act against a conscientious employee but unscrupulous employers are being outed, particularly in France at the moment.

Still Christmassy

But what this type of work delivers is a five month period of living in a beautiful environment, pursuing an amazing activity (ski-ing or boarding) whichever days you want (apart from changeover) so you can choose favourable conditions. We choose to only ski when the sun shines. Mix with a group of like-minded people, even if there is a significant age difference. The younger team members are a breath of even fresher air for us oldsters. Ex-pat business owners regaled stories of succeeding with alternative lifestyles, offering confidence that there is a viable alternative to the rat race. Meager salaries ensure that materialism is minimised. We gained maximum pleasure from the non-commercial benefits.

Morning commute after fresh snow

If you think you would enjoy this lifestyle but are too old, think again. Don’t hesitate to get in touch or read the blog/background if you would like to know more about how we turned our lives on their heads, without any regrets. If we can do it so can you. We are regular people who just wanted to try something different before it was too late. We would be delighted to provide any help we can to assist you explore your dreams.