Tuesday, 10 February 2015


We had our first ski outing of the season today. As per my usual pattern my dreams last night were interspersed with snow catastrophes and uncertainty about how I would go physically. It used to be worse.

The very first time that we took the three children to the snow was in Australia on the Queen’s Birthday weekend, which was the opening weekend of the Australian ski season. We had no intention of skiing as the children were too young and it was uncertain as to whether there would actually be any snow. A patch of artificial snow was made to provide a somewhat authentic backdrop for the official opening photos and newspaper report but to get to this you had to take a chairlift. My youngest child was only a baby and I, having not skied for many years, and never with children, had never considered the safety aspect of children and lifts.

I had just gotten my, not-old-enough-to-walk son out of a carefully selected age and weight appropriate car seat from a car with safety airbags, new properly inflated tyres and a voice-controlled, ok me, driver cautionary system. At the chairlift embarkation point I, like all the other passengers, was offered a benchseat with one metal safety bar at about waist height when sitting to hang on to for safety. The only problem was that waist height when sitting was above head height for my son. The gap was so large that three babies sitting on top of each other could have slipped through it. What should I do? I didn’t want to miss out on all the fun that was only that chairlift away but how could I put my son into the risk zone just to satisfy myself? I decided to ask for advice. The liftie, a young guy certainly not old enough to have children of his own, assured me it was fine to take a young baby on the lift, as long as I held him tightly.

Well, I did, hold him tightly that is. So tightly, that my arms were aching by the time the ride finished. I dared not breathe, let alone move as it felt like if I relaxed a single muscle anywhere in my body I would send him tumbling into the void below. The day ended without incident but I suspect that my ongoing dreams are my punishment for lack of due care.

Strangely enough whilst driving to the ski station this morning I mentioned that I had not slept well because of ski related accident dreams. My daughter said that she had dreamt that there was an avalanche. With the abundant late snow of the last week followed by days of sunshine there certainly is an increased risk of avalanches and this is mentioned frequently on the evening news. At every ski station there is a team responsible for ensuring the security of the slopes. This at times means deliberately placing explosives on slopes judged to be at risk of avalanche to deliberately set one off. However, if you keep to the marked trails the risk is very low. The warnings apply to the real thrill seekers who look for pure virgin slopes, or ‘hors-piste’ skiing.

The discussion, nonetheless, continued about what to do if you did get caught in an avalanche. Firstly and obviously try to avoid it by moving out of its path, but secondly, my husband said, try to swim with it. ‘Swim?’ ‘Yes, and then be quick to act once you and the snow are coming to a stop, make space around your head because once the snow has stopped moving it compacts around you and you can find yourself without a pocket of air to breathe.’ Right, at this point we were still on the road, which was becoming more slippery and icy, the snow was starting to fall and the reassuring metal road barricades, that had been present when we were leaving the village below, had mysteriously disappeared, leaving unwary drivers the distinct possibility of missing a bend and flipping into the steep valley below. Ah, all the reasons why we love skiing so much were all coming back to me – and I hadn’t even thought about the cost of the day’s outing or the fact that it might be cold once we got there.

It was not just cold, it was freezing. The snow was attacking us horizontally and whipping the exposed parts of our faces. The ski lifts were barely visible at car park level and as we watched they disappeared completely from view. The wind was howling and we looked at each other despondently. At least we were wearing appropriate clothing.

As a first-timer years before in France my ski wear consisted of a pair of old navy blue tracksuit pants plus my black bushwalking japara. Not only did I freeze I felt miserably different. I didn’t have the all-in-one brightly coloured ski suit, cinched in tightly at the waist that my French female companions had, nor the matching lipstick and sexy fur bonnets. Neither did I know how to ski. Hard to say whether the not altogether friendly glances thrown my way were surprise at my outfit or my lack of ability.

After half an hour of procrastination this morning the weather cleared enough for us to decide to get our gear on and ski together. The reasons why we repeatedly go through this complicated ritual each winter were once again exhilaratingly clear.

Monday, 2 February 2015

A New Path

We discovered a new path yesterday. Out walking through the snow along the track overlooking the village leading to the castle we ran into one of the teachers from the primary school. She mentioned that a new path had been opened close to the castle and descending to the ‘Moulins.’ I was quite excited, as up until now the only way to do a round trip to the castle from the house has been to walk back along the road from Bluffy. I have always found this to be less than relaxing as there is no footpath to speak of and the cars take the bends as a bit of a challenge, fast and tight.

Sure enough, a bit further along on our walk, as advised there was a new wooden gate just off the main track, signposted to the Moulins. We took it and found ourselves coming out alongside La Vallombreuse, an imposing and beautiful old guesthouse, literally the other side of the bridge from our house. The path felt like the backdrop to an Enid Blyton adventure, drooping pine trees partially covered with snow that would make great hide-outs, stone steps hewn into the walled paths, perfect for bandits carrying contraband, an old stone doorway, still standing but leading nowhere, prickly blackberry bushes that would have served as good traps and all just at the base of the castle walls. Covered with snow with the light fading and the twinkling lights of the village appearing below we could have imagined ourselves either the heros of an historical adventure story or the wily smugglers needing to outdo the Famous Five.

More beautiful snow was falling this morning and once all the ski gear was back on, the destination of choice was the secret castle path. This time we went armed with toboggans and cameras. Everyone, except Granny had a go on the toboggans, first along the rather steep track and then as the children became more confident, straight down the even steeper slope trying to avoid the prickly tentacles of the rose bushes hiding just below the surface of the fresh snow. Too tempting was it to not use the field as a battleground for a massive snow fight. Grandpa and my husband quickly fashioned snowballs whilst the children were playing below and when their pile of ammunition on the path above was satisfactory they called the children up, on the pretext that we were heading home. Obediently and unsuspectingly they started up the slope. When they were close enough the signal was given and the attack was launched. Laughingly, the children ducked and weaved and unsuccessfully tried to retaliate. Then, in the spirit of all good Enid Blyton books we headed home to a steaming hot chocolate and a hefty piece of homemade fruitcake.

The morning’s activity cost us nothing and yet the fun factor was at an all-time high. We hadn’t had to get in the car, we hadn’t had to queue and jostle to see what was happening, we hadn’t had to wait around for opening hours and more importantly we had been outside together in the cool fresh mountain air enjoying running around. For the adults, there was the bonus of being able to momentarily regress into child-like behaviour and get away with it.

The reality of growing up was brought home to me recently. A young Australian girl contacted us. Her teacher, a friend of ours had given her our details. She is in France for the period of her summer holidays and is staying with a French family who coincidentally live within walking distance of our house. Even though she did not know us she rang, made a time to come and see us and then spent two hours intelligently and confidently conversing with us. She spoke about her aspirations for the future, her final years of school, her desire to improve her French, the travels that she had been on and the places that she still wanted to visit. I could see myself as a sixteen year old again in her, keen for new experiences and impatient to start the challenges that will open up the world to her.

The conversation left me feeling unsettled and reflective as, although not dissatisfied with the path that life has taken me on so far, I feel the urgency of time passing and a somewhat heightened reflection of past choices. My girlfriend, the same one who recommended that her student come and see us, wrote me a letter before our departure from Australia. She concluded with a poem by Robert Frost entitled The Road Not Taken (below). I still have it and I take it out occasionally to remind myself that the future should be viewed optimistically, as an opportunity and that with an open mind and a dash of stubbornness, ‘way can in fact lead on to exciting way.'

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.