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Rooshin Skirrels, Jambon Blanc and ‘informations’ – ten days skiing in France

Submitted by on Tuesday, 1 January 2008No Comment
Rooshin Skirrels, Jambon Blanc and ‘informations’ – ten days skiing in France

Skiing is the only pastime I know that is better than sex. It lasts longer and if you fall, you simply get up and continue without frustrating a partner. Moreover when skiing, it is completely acceptable to indulge yourself. Which means you don’t partake in patronising conversations that begin, “Was it good for you too, dear?” Naturally you have to ensure you are up a mountain and there is snow; just as, if you want participative sex, you require a willing partner.

At the end of last year friends unexpectedly offered us use of their chalet in Argentiere, France. When presented with the possibility of twelve days of virtual orgasm, neither the strength of the Euro, nor the spectre of potential bankruptcy could deter us.

So, after days of juggling air-miles and recklessly decimating credit card balances, we flew to Geneva. From there, after an hour’s drive to Chamonix and fifteen minutes up a valley, we reached Argentiere. When we arrived, although it was dark we could clearly see the surrounding snow covered peaks and the great wads of white on the kerbs. Apart from the occasional iridescent yellow patch, it was fabulously clean.

In the morning we were met at the chalet by Guillaume Ravanel, our private ski-instructor. Given that we weren’t paying for accommodation, we had decided to push the boat out and hire our own tutor.

“Bonjour, comment ca va?” he enquired as he firmly shook my hand. Thirty-something, he was everything you expect a ski instructor to be; tall, dark and athletic. Actually, he wasn’t very tall.

“I will return in a few minutes but first I go and collect some ‘informations’ on the pistes (‘peests’/ slopes) for you.” As fast as he appeared, he disappeared. Upon his return, looking suitably satisfied with the ‘informations’, he took us to Sanglard, a ski-hire shop. There the affable Bruno, a good looking young Frenchman, helped to kit us out.

When in an attempt to initiate conversation I asked if he had a girlfriend, he enigmatically replied, “I am married, but I am not dead.”

His affability was soon tested by me trying on sixteen pairs of boots. I suspected he might be cracking, when after retrieving yet another pair from a backroom he remarked, ‘Just remember they are ski-boots not slippers…’ But he remained remarkably sanguine.

Finally, appropriately equipped to look the part, it was five minutes up the valley to La Vormaine, a beginner’s slope, to find our legs. Suited me, by then I’d lost complete touch with my feet. La Vormaine is owned by a family whose male members are clones of Asterix; they all boast humongous moustaches and project a serene ability to handle disasters.

When lifts broke down, albeit rarely, they would shimmy up the ice covered towers and within seconds have the cables moving. When people mounting drag lifts fell and got into a tangle, the amiable Gauls would phlegmatically disentangle them; all the while keeping the queues moving without inconveniencing anyone. La Vormaine is about 200m long and has three lifts that go to different heights so as to cater for any level of skill; except it seemed mine.

It takes a while to get the hang of skiing. Initially your feet hurt like crazy, the ski instructors don’t make sense and muscles in your thighs, which definitely weren’t there when you left home, ache. And curiously, none of the movements required to launch yourself down precipices at breakneck speeds with lengths of narrow plank attached to your feet and survive; are instinctive. But as you improve, it is spectacularly good fun. It all climaxes at the end of the day when you get your ski boots off. There simply is no better feeling than the ensuing, blissful relief.

One night Guillaume arranged for us to dine at Le Creamerie. He arrived to fetch us with a couple of paraffin torches, which he assured us would ward off bears and ‘wolvers’ as we walked through a forest to the restaurant. The enchanting Le Creamerie lies part way up Les Grand Montets and has been in existence since 1926. Wherever we went in Argentiere and Chamonix, much to our indefatigable ski instructor’s childlike delight, all the proprietors seemed to be called Ravanel. Le Creamerie was no exception. Chef Ravanel’s fare was delicious and after the meal, kindly insisted we share a small glass of Genepi with him. It’s eminently agreeable and if NASA ever runs out of propellant, they can do worse than fuel their rockets with this volatile, aromatic spirit.

The following day we went to the top of Le Tour. After absorbing the picture postcard views of the valley and the surrounding Alps, we tackled the pistes. Often at the top of steep slopes, the prospect of skiing down quickly transformed my usually cast iron stomach, into a cauldron of digestive turmoil. But, as soon as I got moving I felt king of the world. Everything was suddenly under my control. Or so I kept trying to convince myself.

Skiing is all about being able to turn – but turning while skiing is not simply a matter of leaning into a corner as you would on a bicycle. It is precisely the opposite. You have to lean out, away from the mountain and transfer all your weight from the downhill ski to the new downhill ski. Then you must push your knees into the slope, your hips and shoulders into the valley and lean forward with your weight on the balls of your feet and hold your poles waist-high, slightly in front of you.

It’s not nearly as easy as it sounds. If you decide to dispense with turning, you very quickly find yourself racing at supersonic speeds which preclude you from doing anything except, possibly, screaming.

Later, we lunched at a converted barn. Previously home to a herd of mountaineering cows, it was now a superb, compact eatery, run by a charming young couple. Many years ago I toured Europe and fell in love with the French. It began as I boarded a train for Paris and realised the conductor was actually the head of French Railways just filling in for the night.

My fascination and affection grew, when upon arriving at my hotel, it became clear the porter owned the establishment and his receptionist, gorgeously haughty and condescending, was unquestionably the Minister of Tourism for France. Finally when I observed the Minister of Transport, imperiously directing traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, the seduction was complete.

That however was then. Throughout this trip the Frogs had all been charm personified. Where had all the hubris gone? Little wonder the French didn’t win the Rugby World Cup. When they demonstrated their glorious conceit throughout the match against the All Blacks, they won. But against England, when they mystifyingly restrained their natural arrogance, they lost. However I digress.

Each morning I walked down to Madame Ravanel’s shop to buy supplies. Her store was an Aladdin’s cave of cheeses, dried sausages, cold meats, eggs, fruit, wine, liqueurs and warm, fresh bread; and the elegant Madame was the epitome of the new French charm. She would wait patiently as I made arrangements with my bank to finance the few provisions I had purchased, and then gently enquire as to how the skiing was going. The highlight was always the utterly, delicious jambon blanc (ham). Something I rarely bother to eat, because it is always tasteless.

One day during lunch, I noticed a group of bejewelled, attractive girls, wearing the oddest ski outfits fringed in fur.

“Rooshins,” Guillaume said as he observed me studying them. “The place is being taken over by very rich Rooshins.”

I asked if he ever had any, “Rooshin” clients.

“Oui”. But he preferred not to, as they were difficult to organise. Apparently they were more interested in being fashionable and in being seen, than in skiing.

We spent the next day on the mountain of Flegere. With clear, sweeping views of Chamonix and Mont Blanc, the highest point in Europe; it has more ski runs than most entire resorts have. Chairlifts snaked upwards in every direction while below the lifts, a myriad very wide Black, Red, Blue and Green runs provided the allure of endless days of skiing. Flegere was quite simply, ski heaven.

Our last few days consisted of ecstatically skiing miles of immaculately groomed pistes, on Les Grand Montets. Until on the penultimate afternoon, I nearly killed myself. It happened when I unintentionally lost a ski on a section of piste that in summer doubles as a mine shaft. The errant ski slowly picked up speed and then promptly morphed into a low-flying ballistic missile, which smashed into the crumpled heap which was me. I’m not sure if doctors can amputate a whole bottom, but that ski nearly managed to remove mine. Three weeks on and the bruise was still a thing of wonder.

Guillaume was particularly concerned as to how I lost a ski. He regarded all our crashes as a personal affront.

“A squirrel ran across my path,” I fibbed, “and when I tried to avoid it I fell.”

“Was it a Rooshin skirrel?” he asked deadpan. “Did it have fur on its cuffs?”

Some observations from our time in Argentiere. Skiers outnumber snow-boarders 5 to 1, from 3 to 1 a few years ago. More people are wearing helmets and usage is now up to 95% amongst kids and 30% amongst adults.

Beers cost 5 Euros; French bread 1.35 Euros; Ski-hire 25 Euros per day; Ski boot hire 24 Euros per day; Ski passes 28 Euros per day. A pizza at the delightful Stone Bar was 9 Euros. A game of pool at the same bar cost 2 Euros. Everyone has the surname Ravanel. The French no longer say ‘Oui’, they say ‘Weh’. A cup of the best hot chocolate on earth from Tania’s shack at the base of La Vormaine, 1.5 Euros. Oh, and the cost of Guillaume, ski instructor extraordinaire? Priceless.

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