I’m currently sat in a hotel in Paris, a city fooled into thinking April is summer. Last weekend I rolled in on a sleeper train from Mountiers, which is a town somewhere at the foot of a mountain which is in turn part of the Alps. I’d been skiing for ten days in the area known as Three Valleys, staying in a chalet in the tiny village of La Tania. I’d been with a mate for the first four days, after which I was Han Solo, a Billy-No-Mates on the piste on his own.
The intention had been to meet my wife in Paris, but the French turned down her visa application on the grounds that they did not recognise our marriage, which took place legally in Dubai (and is recognised by the British goverment). It appears the French only recognise the marriages of Brits if they took place in Britain, presumably thinking they are issued along with passports. Maybe they take the sanctity of marriage seriously, although this would be odd coming from a country where if you’re a middle-aged manager of any sort and you’re not having an affair with your secretary, they assume you’re a woofter. And you can forget about running for political office. Besides, having wandered about the streets of Paris long enough to form an opinion, I’d say they could do with getting some Russian women into the mix.
Anyway, by the time the French had finished saying “Non” I had already booked my flights and positioned the skiing in between two business trips in France, so I didn’t have much choice but to go anyway. In any case, I’m not convinced my wife would have liked skiing. Winter sports involve winter weather, something my wife doesn’t like to get mixed up in, despite her being from Russia. My theory is she was discovered living in an African swamp by Soviets advising the local cannibalistic leader how to spread mines indiscriminately around villages in an effort to stave of economic sense, and they took her to Leningrad for further examination. Anyone who’s spent an hour with my wife will understand why they soon shuffled her off into normal Soviet society. She could annoy Lenin into fleeing his tomb.
Skiing was fun, although not as much fun as I thought it would be. In order to enjoy skiing you first have to be able to ski, something I thought I was but soon discovered I was not. Whatever unbalanced, flailing techniques used to get you down a 300m hill in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk do not transfer well to a 3km red-run on a French mountain. For a start, going out of control on a short slope means you hit the bottom quite fast. Go out of control on some of the slopes in the Three Valleys and your mass will start to increase. Secondly, five turns executed with your legs a metre apart and your chin between your skis is probably enough to get you to the bottom on a small hill. Do that on a proper piste and your lungs will feel like they’ve been loaned to Ed Viesturs on his latest adventure and your legs will think you’ve been operating the pedals on an old army Landrover. You’ll be looking at the chairlift wondering if they take downward-bound passengers.
In short, technique is important. It’s also insanely complicated. Like smashing a golf ball straight, when you ski you have two-dozen barely discernible things going on at once, most crucially during the turn. My instructor helpfully explained it all, scratching a diagram in the snow with the spikey end of his ski pole. “When you are on ze straight you start to put ze weight on ze downhill leg bending the knee inwards and your ‘and going low like you are carrying une ‘eavy suitcase, oui! Zen when you get to ze turn you stab ze stick in here and zen you go oop! and ze weight goes from here to here and zen as you complete ze turn you move ze weight from here to here and turn your knee inwards once more. Watch me! Now you do it! Ah, zut alors! Your back is not straight, your ‘ips are not forward, your legs are too straight except on ze turn when zey are too bent, and you are not stabbing ze stick in early enough! Merde, I need une cigarette!”
It was hard. I found that when concentrating on getting one thing right, all the others did what they wanted. This is a problem if this includes your feet. Finally he got me into making turns with a half-decent technique. Or so I thought. But having got my back straight, knees bent or straight depending on what part of the turn I was on, pole being jabbed in with the enthusiasm of a Norwegian on the prow of a boat who finds himself unexpectedly amongst a pod of minke whales, and my hips forward (as opposed to what, I don’t know), he bellowed: “Oi, sacre bleu, zis eenglishmen is useless! Your shoulders must face down ze ‘ill, and your inside leg is lifting ze whole ski like zis, it is only supposed to lift ze heel of ze ski which must be in parallel wiz ze ozzer ski, like zis! If you lift ze whole ski you will fall over, ah…oui, just like zat! Remember, lift from ze knee, not ze foot. Jesu Crist, is it summer yet?”
You get the picture. Anyway, I spent the best part of a week going up and down blue slopes trying to get my technique sorted out and by the time I left I had pretty much done so…unless the slope was too icy, too slushy, or too steep in which cases I invented techniques of piste descent which had hitherto never been seen in the Three Valleys.
People had raved about the nightlife in the Three Valleys ski resorts, especially in Courchevel, a favourite amongst Russians. My buddy and I caught a free bus into Courchevel 1850 (the number appended to village names in the French Alps indicates the average price in Euros for a hotel room) and set about trying to find some action. At first glance, it looked as though the town had undergone an emergency evacuation of all personnel an hour before we rolled in, but after a bit of hunting about and poking our noses into doors and up against darkened windows we found a bar-restaurant which looked exciting. And it was indeed exciting, particularly if you were the one making money on the drinks. The beer was almost as expensive as it was in a flea-pit hotel in Lagos, but at least the labels on these Heineken bottles weren’t lying about the contents. We sat at the bar, contemplating minesweeping two cocktails which had been abandoned in front of us, (which – after a glance at the bar menu – would have been a similar crime in monetary terms to swiping a laptop), and watching the goings-on at the tables in front of us. The tables were large and there was barely a spare seat in the house, which made my mate and I realise that by going into the oil business we’d just have to get used to paltry revenues. They appeared to be mainly French judging by the Lacoste sweaters tied around the mens’ shoulders, but a few of the women could have passed for Russians but clearly weren’t. For a start, they were smiling occasionally. And they were sat with Frenchmen. And when they got up on the table to dance their dresses covered all the interesting parts and they seemed unconfident doing it in high-heels. Russian women can dance on sheet ice whilst writing text messages. We were the only Brits in the bar, and that the toilets were unisex was an indication that we weren’t their usual customers. Anyone who’s been into a toilet in a bar patronised by British knows to keep the Gents well separated from the Ladies. We hung about for an hour or so, unable to order more than one beer due to our mortgage brokers not working the weekend, and headed out into the street.
We passed by a couple of restaurants with a Russian menu posted outside, the doors guarded by a couple of gorillas who looked a lot more Siberian than Parisian (I kept the gorilla part of the observation to myself). I think we got charged just for walking past. Then we found another bar which was also run by people who just couldn’t make diamond mining pay so set up a bar in Courchevel. This place was packed full of French, the men here also wearing Lacoste jumpers tied around their shoulders, and was probably no more pretentious than Paris Fashion Week. The waitresses had adopted a serving style I had not seen before which involved barging you out of the way with their elbows, tutting loudly, if you had the temerity to stand on the floor trying to drink something. They were definitely French, although might have learned their trade watching babushkas on the Moscow Metro. We had a beer and left. We went up to the entrance of one building which looked to contain much merriment in the form of lots of pissed people and loud music, but upon confirming our nationality, the gorilla (French) on the door apologetically explained it was a private function. It was so exclusive that only Brits weren’t allowed in. We stopped a couple of British scallywags on the street and asked them where was good, and they mentioned some club down the road. We walked past, narrowly avoiding the 20 Euro Proximity Charge, and decided it was better to get the last bus back to La Tania. A taxi ride, which takes about 5-10 minutes, is upwards of 70 Euros.
Later on in the week, when my mate had left for Paris and I was on my own in the chalet (bookings were way down across the Alps this season because they haven’t had much snow), I headed up to one of the bars in La Tania to watch a band play. It was a Tuesday evening, and the scheduled night out for the chalet staff and other workers who enjoy Wednesdays off. La Tania caters almost exclusively to British visitors, and so walking into the bar was a bit like entering your standard British joint. Which immediately reminded me why I had emigrated. The band was good, or at least good enough. I like live bands and this is something the ski resorts have in abundance. This lot mixed up various styles and knew how to please a crowd. But it was the crowd itself which I took more notice of. Now I appreciate that I’ve been a middle-aged old duffer since I was 18, but there is something about the combination of Brits, music, and alcohol which would give a Mongol hordesman pause for thought. The first thing I noticed which, incidentally, was the first thing I noticed when I went to university fresh from boarding school in 1996, was the utter lack of personal hygiene. The Russians might not be able to get their electricity supply working properly, and some of the older ones’ clothes might whiff a bit, but the patrons of a Russian nightclub are as groomed as racehorses on derby day and as clean as a vicar’s language. By contrast, the British go out with the sole aim of being as unconventional as possible, with one of the conventions to be avoided being that of washing properly. Matted, greasy hair showing roots from dye washed in a year ago; greasy, pasty facial complexions perforated with pewter studs, rings, and spikes which would normally require a tetanus shot; unwashed, oversized trousers black and frayed at the cuffs having been dragged through the streets as if laying a trail on a drag hunt; woolly hats which had been retrieved from the bins of La Tania’s homeless. And that was just the women. Add to this the slovenly postures, hunched backs, pidgeon toes, fat arses, overhanging bellies, and clothes which were as appropriate in size as Ceausescu’s palace and as stylish as hurricane damage, and I thought I was back in college. Now you mention it, half of these were people who would have been in college around the same time as me but never quit looking like a dick and went and got a job. It’s one thing for somebody in their late teens to go around looking – and often smelling – like a sack of shit tied around the middle, but when did it become cool to carry this on once you’d graduated with a third in Media Studies? I guess when looking like that became a career option. And if you think that was bad, wait until you see the normal, middle-aged people who have come on a skiing holiday and decided it’s Gyppo Week in La Tania and everybody must take part. Dumpy British housewives decked out as twenty-somethings who are in turn pretending to be teenage rebels who kick back against oppression, i.e. having to clean behind their ears, is not a pretty sight. No wonder everyone was drinking so much.
Which was also the problem, everyone was hammered. The British are not the most graceful bunch at the best of times, but when they all get drunk in a crowded bar it’s like being in an elephant stampede. Dancing for the British consists of leaping up and down with no timing or coordination, flinging limbs everywhere at random, and howling like a banshee to whatever you perceive the song to be. British women are unique in that knocking over whole tables seems to be a normal part of a dance routine. Steel-toed boots are advised. As are fleet feet or lightning fists depending on your preferred option when, inevitably, some blundering hippopotamus crashes into you and twelve others sending bodies, drinks, and furniture in all directions and it somehow winds up being your fault.
By contrast, the French on the slopes are immaculate in their presentation, which is probably why they don’t hang around bars in La Tania. The only French girl I saw out looked like a supermodel amongst trolls (by virtue of her having teeth which were both straight and white) and was guarded by a phalanx of sniffling, shuffling snowboarders whose best hope lay in the chance that mademoiselle might be into scraggy facial hair and weed. I’d say – from a position of savage bias – that the faux hippy culture is more common amongst snowboarders than skiers, but this might be because it is most common amongst the Brits. For the French in the Three Valleys, skiing is a graceful sport to complement working life. For the Brits, snowboarding is an excuse to avoid it. The only other bar I went into had a band playing dreary Bob Marley and other mundane stuff played by outfits which lack imagination, entertaining only in the respect of guessing whether the next song will be “Wonderwall” or “With or Without You”. There’s an iPhone app. out there somewhere which tells bands to play certain songs when I’m in the room, I’m sure. The bar also stank of sheep, but that might have been the snowboarders over in the corner. On the way home, I passed a group of legless Brits running down the street half naked, with one of the girls swinging her knickers around her head and another topless. It’s a good job all this gets called by its French name – après ski – otherwise one would confuse it with the practice of louts and tarts getting plastered on holiday.
But for all that, the young British couple who were running my chalet were hard working, competent, very pleasant, and kept the place absolutely spotless. If the rest of the chalet staff were like them, much could be forgiven. As it was, it was nice to get out of Nigeria and do what I like doing best, watching people and subsequently projecting crude generalisations onto whole countries. Expect more of this in the future.