Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Winter sports

"Sur les Alpes on est aigle ou crétin."

"In the Alps, one is either an eagle or an idiot."

Victor Hugo

When you live in the capital of the Alps, winter sports (les sports d'hiver) are almost compulsory. Grenoble hosted the Winter Olympics in 1968 - an event that had its fair share of controversy. For the first time, tests were introduced for women to ensure that they really were women and not men disguised in fuchsia shell suits (at that time, long hair and moustaches were not reliable indicators of sex). Then, the Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy nearly lost the slalom race he had initially won because his rival, Karl Schranz, claimed that a mysterious man in black crossed his path during the race, causing him to skid to a halt. Whether this figure was a ghost, a spectator or a bewildered French goatherd on his way home has never been established - but Schranz was allowed a restart and he beat Killy's time. Probably feeling slightly ridiculous by now, at having believed the story of the man in black, the Jury disqualified him anyway and Killy emerged a national hero and the winner of three gold medals. The Olympic Village - flimsy blocks of flats erected in record time for the athletes - is now a run-down council estate on the edge of town; the Olympic Ice Rink is a Sports Centre and the cycle track is used by rollerbladers.

Even if you couldn't see a "mountain at the end of every street" - as Grenoble's famous writer, Stendhal, put it - you would know you were in an Alpine town just by observing the passers-by. In winter, it is not unusual to see people shopping or queuing in the post office with a pair of skis slung over their shoulder or a snowboard tucked under their arm. And towards the end of February, you start noticing that a high proportion of people are hobbling around on crutches, their complexions unusually ruddy with pale, goggle-shaped patches around their eyes and greasy, white lips. You're not meant to feel sorry for them - these are status symbols to be admired and to remind you that not everyone can afford to break their tibia on the piste noire in Megève…

Actually, my daughter's boyfriend's family has a chalet in Megève and she'll be spending New Year there, doing le snow, le ski or le skate or whatever it is young people do these days. It's a far cry from our first (and last) family ski holiday. We’d rented a studio flat that slept six and technically, this was correct. However, if we wanted to do something other than sleep - stand up and walk around, for example - it did get a bit claustrophobic. The flat was furnished with a dangerously malfunctioning bed-settee, a wobbly Formica table and shrunken psychedelic curtains. The “fully-equipped kitchen” yielded cheese graters, garlic crushers and hatpins (although I think they had something to do with snails) but none of these came in very useful and we ate pizza for the entire week.

On the first day, we stumbled along to the ski shop to get kitted out. Once shod, the children dashed on ahead - oblivious to the fact that ski boots were evidently designed to cause as much pain as possible - and left me to follow Sisyphus-like to the foot of the nursery slopes, feeling a little like a novelty attachment for a Bouncy Castle (a pastel ski suit is not the most flattering apparel for a short, plump middle-aged woman…) The children's devastatingly handsome ski instructor led them off to the ski tow and I waited in delicious anticipation for my version of George Clooney in goggles. Jean-Pierre did indeed have goggles but the resemblance ended there. He grudgingly taught me how to put on my skis without falling over and how to snowplough, and then it was my turn for the ski tow.

I did a Bambi impression to the end of the queue and managed to stop. Keeping still was another matter. The person behind me suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision and I realised I was slowly sliding backwards. I tried frantically to wedge my right ski into the snow but this only seemed to speed things up. People moved politely aside as I gathered momentum, doing the splits with a contrived nonchalance that fooled nobody.

Making it to the front of the queue was like a recurring nightmare, but I got there eventually and was manhandled onto a suspended metal bar that shot off up the mountain with alarming speed. Apparently, the trick is to keep your skis straight, otherwise you get your legs in a twist and fall off and get impaled by the skis of the person behind you. Then if you try to get up, you get your head sliced off because the ski tow is relentless and doesn’t stop just because some silly person can’t get the hang of it. Fortunately, none of this happened to me because I managed to fall off at the right place and launch myself recklessly into the blizzard. As I hurtled down the slope, arms wildly flapping, I heard Jean-Pierre yell, “Lean backwards!” which sounded daft to me, but I did as I was told and fell flat on my bottom.

Since then, the mere mention of skiing sets my coccyx throbbing…which is why you'll never catch me hobbling white-lipped through the streets of Grenoble. And anyway, to be honest, I'm far enough over the hill as it is…


angela said...

Yes. And we pay handsomely for the pleasure.

thoraherd queen off dalek stairlifts said...

i think the best thing to do with your pastal ski suit would be to just burn it and forget the eparssing out fit thier is much better and stylish skisuits and ski ware out thier

Anonymous said...

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