Hello, old friend.

Blatiere
Grépon and Blaitiére, five-minute left-handed sketch

Returning to Chamonix is like visiting an old friend who you know so well, you can finish their sentence. In French. It’s a busy, touristy, Brit-filled place and must have more cheese per square metre than anywhere else on earth.

This time of year, the streets vibrate under the impact of ski boots and the sound of clattering skis is only just audible above the clink of beer glasses hitting the bars, waiting for refills.

For skiers and boarders, Chamonix is a Mecca of gnarliness. The easiest pistes in the resort would be intermediate anywhere else and the hardest, well, they’re off the scale, certainly off my scale anyway. For the brave and well-equipped, the mountains offer a massive playground, for the foolhardy and ill-equipped, they can be an icy tomb.

After a very stressful year, we were mentally exhausted. Even booking a ski trip was too difficult, so we opted to return to the town dubbed the home of alpinism and our honeymoon destination 18 years ago. Where else do you go when you need comfort than to see an old friend?

Everything was wonderfully familiar, so much so that we felt like locals, speaking French to everyone, whether they were French or not, then shrugging in that Gallic way when they replied in loud English that they didn’t understand. How we laughed! We had some fabulous conversations in French with people from all over the world. The solo skier, born in Brazil, but living in Geneva, over for the weekend, the two Spaniards who asked us which bus to catch,  then got on the wrong one, and the two French lads, off to do something brave, we agreed they had ‘les couilles d’acier’ (balls of steel). I even got to practice my French vernacular after a rather spectacular face plant ‘putain de merde!’ (f#cking sh!t). I don’t think anyone heard…

But the best exchange of all was with the waiter at our regular patisserie. I’d taken my sketch book to try and draw the impressive mountains dominating the Chamonix skyline. It was just a sketch, with my left (non-dominant) hand, an inspiration from the 64 Million Artists January Challenge I took part in, but the waiter was so complimentary, and our conversation so animated, I felt like I was a local, at home with my friends.

The snow will be gone from the lower levels soon, but we’ll be back in the summer to see our old friend, run the rocky trails, climb the crags, walk around the town, eat our own body weight in cheese, drink beer at the micro brasserie, sketch a bit and speak more French, though not swear as much.

Let’s talk about customer service..

runcham
Running in Chamonix – no ski boots required!

Call me old-fashioned, call me old, you’d be right on both counts, but I do like good customer service, no, actually, I like excellent customer service. Being self-employed, I make sure that’s what I give, if I didn’t, my reputation would suffer.

Let’s look at two scenarios to test out the principles of good customer service, you decide what actually happened.

It was the last day of a snow-packed slippy-slidey no-fall ski holiday (that’s no falls on the downhill, the cross-country had obligatory falling over). The snow just kept coming down and we were happy.

Our Chamonix hotel, the Faucigny was a favourite place to stay, we’d been there many times, welcomed warmly by the couple who ran it as a family business. They had since retired, but we went back as we loved it there.

It’s usual for ski boots and skis to be kept in the bowels of a hotel, usually in a room heady with the scent of 100 sweaty feet. We have our own boots, moulded to our feet and fitted with customised footbeds, so comfortable, like having your feet kissed…

As we opened the door that last morning, instead of our two pairs of boots, there was one. Mine. Noel’s had gone.

In scenario one, we speak to the reception staff, in French of course, who sympathise and offer to cover the cost of hiring boots for the day, and promise they will do their utmost to track them down. We leave re-assured and head out to ski our little legs off, trusting our hotel will sort everything out for us. On returning, we are presented with the missing boots, a guest had accidentally taken them, apologised profusely for the inconvenience, leaving a gift, a generous gift, we’re overwhelmed, we shed a tear or two, embrace the hotel staff, who hand us a warming cuppa and huge slice of gateau then bid them a fond farewell, promising to return. Soon.

Scenario two and we’re met with a shrug, there’s an offer of a discount voucher to hire replacements, the same voucher offered when we arrived. Definitely the least they could do. The hire boots fit like gloves, boxing gloves. It’s not a good day. We return to the same shrugging and decide to report it to the police as a theft, that way we can claim on the insurance. We spend the penultimate hour of our holiday in the Gendarmarie explaining everything in our best French. On returning to the hotel, to pick up the airport taxi, Noel checks the boot room one last time. The boots are back, still warm, and wet through, the reception staff shrug, saying one guest returned, but they didn’t see who, yeah, right. Noel explains in his best French that he’s not happy and would very much like to discuss reimbursement of the hire cost of the boots with the person responsible. More shrugs. We’re hungry, thirsty and angry and already composing our Trip Adviser review.

Once when we were there before, we’d returned to the room to find it hadn’t been cleaned. Monsieur was mortified, he called the cleaner back, apologised profusely and gave us a bottle of champagne and sacked the cleaner. That was customer service.

So, which scenario was it, dear reader?

The train took the strain

usnarnia

Flying out from the UK is getting to be more of a faff, what with all the ridiculous security at airports, weight restrictions, no liquids except the tears you shed waiting coatless, shoeless and beltless to be frisked by a burly officer. And don’t get me started on rip-off prices for mediocre food and dishwater coffee or having to buy bottled water because there’s nothing drinkable in the taps.

So for our ski trip  to the French Alps, we thought we’d let the train take the strain while we still have free movement to Europe through the Channel  Tunnel. There’s no  restriction on luggage and you can carry all the water  you can drink. Queues are negligible and there’s more freedom of movement and space, precious space. The faff factor is low.

Noel had always wanted to travel on the snow train,  that’s a train direct to the snow from London. He had this romantic notion of falling asleep in one country, waking up in the mountains, throwing on our ski stuff then hitting the slopes. Well, two out of three isn’t bad.

I thought we’d have comfortable beds with little curtains, maybe a chocolate on the pillow (both for Noel, sugar-free February continues). It turns out the overnighter has no beds, it used to be the all-night-booze train, but now there’s no booze, in fact alcohol is not allowed on board, unless it is bought from the bar. Not a problem for us, breweries would go out of business if everyone drank as little as we do, but the lack of bed was going to put a serious dent in the energy reserves needed to put our skis on.

It was definitely worth paying the extra for first class travel. Bigger, more comfortable seats, passable, even good food, and a sleeping kit including a blanket, eye mask, ear plugs and neck pillow, though no chocolate. And we would have slept well had it not been for Mr Tedious and his drunken friends. They’d smuggled litres of alcohol aboard in their own bellies and spent the entire journey talking complete bollocks in loud voices. We were all too British to tell them to shut the f#ck up, but if they are in the same carriage on the way back, they’ll feel the rough side of my tongue.

It turns out we were wildly optimistic in thinking we could ski straight away, but we did manage to ski after a couple of hours kip.  Meanwhile our chalet mates arrived late into the evening, exhausted after an extended coach trip from the airport. We’ll also get to ski the day everyone else leaves, that’s if my legs survive, before retiring to our comfortable-ish seat on the train.  Yes, I think we’ll do this again. Probably.

It’s turning into a bad ski season

One of us got to ski today!
One of us got to ski today!

I’ve often suspected that ski resorts have their heads in the clouds when it comes to describing conditions and potential for great skiing. Websites are snowdrift-deep in fabulous pictures of deliriously happy skiers emerging from pristine pistes covered in fine powder snow. Pictures like that would not have been taken here today. Nor yesterday. And probably not tomorrow.

We arrived in the beautiful hamlet of Gressoney La Trinite 1600m above sea level, expecting to see white everywhere. Beautiful crisp snow dusting the roofs and gardens. Maybe the odd snowman, his alpine cap tipped at a jaunty angle, his stick arms holding a ski pole retrieved from last year’s deep snow, waving at us merrily. Or perhaps icicles, carved by nature herself, teasing us with the will-it-won’t-it-fall-on-my-head game in the mid-afternoon thaw.

But nature has been having a bit of a laugh at the crazy humans who wear ultra-padded trousers and squeeze feet into strange-angled boots which creak and jangle and thrust them forward so that the answer to the question ‘does my bum look big in this?’ is always ‘yes, yes it does.’ Instead of white, the early snow is melting away to reveal brown and green and autumn’s detritus, still frozen, including the dog poo.

It’s turning into a bad ski season here, but you wouldn’t know it from the cheery websites . Of course they can’t be blamed for the snow coming, then going or the high winds which closed most of the lifts. No commercial enterprise will post a photo of brightly-clad skiers and boarders standing on frozen grass looking wistfully uphill, but a hint of less-than-ideal conditions on a given day would have been nice, especially as many or us booked in ages ago so were coming anyway.

Yesterday was challenging enough, with high winds not only making it draughty round the houses but whipping up a frenzy of spindrift activity and forcing the closure of the telecabine, our stress-free escape route. So we had to go with the stress option, where the optimistic description of the piste as a ‘cruisey red’ should be changed to ‘terrifying ice-riddled steep piste with no toilet stops’. But I’m sure they wouldn’t print that either. The one consolation was that as the last folk on the mountain, the rather dishy doe-eyed Italian ski patroller coaxed us down, Rachel and I that is, the boys didn’t need help. Nor were they impressed with our description of said patroller. Noel said he was only helping us so we didn’t die on his bit of the mountain. But he called us ‘miss’ and didn’t snigger out loud as I skied like the worst beginner in the history of skiing.

So today as we piled off the bus and waddled our way to the lift, we were just in time to see it grind to a halt and a little man put up a ‘chiuso’ sign.  The electronic board featuring lots of little mini lifts went from green to red. If the high winds that forced the closure were forecast, they weren’t on any of the sites we saw. There was nothing for it but to head back and drink coffee, which is never a bad thing, particularly in Italy which has splendid coffee.

At least one member of our party did get to ski today, though. The nursery slopes are kept going with snow brought down from on high and four-year-old Matilda showed us what it was like to have fun. Maybe I’ll send that photo to the websites.

Something beginning with C

Deux chevaux et une caleche (two horses and a carriage)
Deux chevaux et une caleche (two horses and a carriage)

Holidays are great. They are what we work for, what we look forward to, and what we plan for, sometimes to the minutest detail, it’s part of the fun. They take up a disproportionate time to prepare for, especially if there’s air travel. Especially, in our case, if Chambéry airport is involved.

I’ll skip over the seven-hour wait on the tarmac at Manchester Airport while the fog at our destination cleared. No, dammit, I won’t skip it. What were Jet 2 thinking of even boarding us when they knew Chambéry was closed? We were there so long the plane had to be moved to a garage forecourt just off the M60 and topped up with Esso Unleaded because we’d used so much fuel just keeping the toilets flushing. At least they didn’t run out of food, because they didn’t give us any, though water was available, I’m just not sure where they got it from. Zero out of ten, Jet 2.

Still, all this was soon forgotten when we arrived in the mountains, skis twitching to hit the snow, legs just crying out for that quadriceps burn, lungs expanding to grab the scarce oxygen at altitudes of 3,300m.  Yaaay, it’s holiday time!

But with the best will in the world, no-one, not even Noel with his ski instructor badge and certificate, can ski all day and all evening. Eating, drinking, shopping, hot-tubbing and sleeping aside, there’s still time to do stuff, useful stuff, holiday stuff.

Holiday minutes are precious and not to be wasted, so this week I’ve set myself a task, a creativity task. Not the kind of creativity where I make original shapes and art forms with my flailing body as I hit various obstacles on and off the piste and part company with the ground, skis, poles and, on occasions, backpack and goggles. Some people pay good money for that.

No, this week’s challenge is photographic, alphabetic and French. Each day I have set myself the task of finding and photographing something beginning with the letter C. I chose C because we’re in Courchevel, it’s as good a letter as any and gives me plenty of scope for another 26 holidays. And of course my words have to be in French, just to make it a bit more challenging. So far, I have café (of course), citron, clef, chaise and cheval, with the added bonus of a calèche (carriage) in the photo too. Well, it keeps me out of trouble.

Ooooo, it’s a bit steep

Steep stuff in the Alps

The last thing that Noel the Ski Instructor wanted to hear from his not-so-prize pupil as she teetered on the edge of a steep ice-sheet that was pretending to be a piste was: “I’m not going down there.” But that’s what he heard.

Seriously, it was a like a frozen waterfall, I’d visions of flying without wings or brakes and landing in a heap at the bottom, all skis, poles and broken bones. No, I was not going down there. No way.

In hindsight, the clue should have been in the name, Le Mur, French for wall. But we were on a high after gnarling down other icy slopes. So what to do? Stubborn as a mule, I flatly refused to go any further. I couldn’t make out Noel’s expression, hidden by helmet and goggles, but I put money on his teeth being gritted. No matter, I just wasn’t doing it and that was that.

There were no real alternatives piste-wise, so we set off in tracks of others who I assumed had had the same reaction to Le Mur. And if someone else had done it, then that made it all right. Ever the professional, Noel led the way, I think he was singing, he was certainly making some sort of rhythmic sounds, the words all began with an ‘f’.

Then the tracks ran out, they had reached the slopeside airport where the Russian oligarchs land their helicopters en route to their exclusive chalets from there they can hit the pistes with their Swarovski-encrusted skis. This was no place for a coward who couldn’t face an icewall. So it was off with the skis and taking a hike to the nearest snow bank which, after we’d clambered over it, turned out to be a piste. Nice and flat, we were safe.

Today’s skiing was much less dramatic, the sun shone for the seventh day running, the snow was crisp and the conditions perfect and we managed to avoid any piste featuring the word ‘mur’. A great holiday, we’re already planning the next one!

The picture above if the off-piste from Les Menuires to Orelle, the Fourth Valley in the Three Valleys ski area. Next time, next time….

Slight navigational mishap

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How many skiers does it take to navigate a mountain when there are big, obvious signs everywhere? Well today it was three, but mostly it was me, but I can explain and it turned into an adventure – and a proposition…!

The skies here in the Trois Valleés are sapphire blue, the snow is deep and crisp and uneven and we’re skiing our legs to stumps. Today Noel was doing his ski instructing bit, so Simon and James ‘volunteered’ to ski with me and keep me out of trouble.

Simon started the whole getting lost thing by heading off piste, he had a great time, James ended up in the trees and I found myself at the top of a steep mogul field. I got down, but with absolutely no style or grace.

Then James veered off, when he said he was going down the piste called Anenome, he really meant he’d point his skis down Renard. As we pointed out when we eventually got to the bottom, with friends like James, who needs anenome….

But top prize went to me with a faux pas at the sniggeringly-named Coqs. We were supposed to meet up there, but I missed the big obvious turning and ended up at the bottom of the mountain. Fortunately I fell in with a group of jolly Brits who implored me to join them for vin chaud and cordial company. One older fellow was particularly keen to get to know me better. I politely declined – and made my way solo to Coqs. There Simon and James were waiting for me with a coffee and plenty of comments about navigational cock-ups. Guilty as charged. Still, that’s not likely to happen again, is it?