I’m sat in a little Tabac bar in the tiny French village of Montriond, called the Marmotte D’or. It’s only me and the raven haired bar maid whose English and French is so good I’m not sure what nationality. Nothing much happening. I just came to have a little quiet time and get the next article together “Anarchy in the UK” just came on. I am genuinely surprised and electrified. Not my favorite Pistols song but the one that changed so many lives, mine included and gives me goose pimples even now, the clarion call, all that promise and taste of things to come that could not have been imagined back then, an earthquake and even now still so stunningly different. I love the Sex Pistols and it seems so peculiar to be sat here listening to it, I’m bright eyed and goose pimpled, all on my own, a wonderful past just arrived in my present and it reminds me I’m a rich man
The last 6 weeks have been a blur, we seem to have got into a rhythm. Every day is a long day, though the Saturday change over is still the longest, we’ve mentioned it to other Chalet hosts who we’ve met during the time here, all groan at the mention of it, the same thing, little pay and hard hard work.
The pair of us though are getting 5 star reviews which has kept us afloat, we came to see if we had it in us and it seems to be going well, we are being noticed for the love we are giving out, even got some reviews on trip advisor (Chalet Chamois D’or Morzine France)
On Saturdays as usual the previous weeks guests leave, many have early transfers for Geneva airport. We don’t have too but we get up sometimes at 5-5.30am to make croissants and coffee and give them a warm send off, others set off later with later flights, but rooms have to be vacated by 10am, so it’s bags down stairs to the boot room, some take the opportunity for a last ski and quite a few have expected to sit back up in the lounge afterwards, not realizing that the following weeks guests have already arrived and it’s not theirs chalet anymore, we have no foyer for people to wait and so it has at times been awkward with people who we’ve spent time with and enjoyed very much.
We’ve tried to speed up the cleaning and change over too but it just isn’t possible, it’s usually 6 hours scrubbing, you can’t cut corners with the rooms, they have to shine. There have been times too when guests arrive too early and have to wait down in town or upstairs whilst we plough ahead, a long stressful day on many levels.
When the rooms lounge and dinning room are all done, there is the evening meal to prepare, table to set up and serve and in between all that the meet and greet with the house rules etc. There are times when groups have arrived very late sometimes 10.30pm expecting to be fed and watered, but we’ve got into the stride, we really don’t mind, we enjoy being busy, the anticipation the not knowing and the arrival.
There were the cross-country skiers from Yorkshire who clocked up over 200klm across the mountains in 5 days. Super fit and very mellow sat around playing pub quiz in the evenings, we were glad of their quiet peaceful company after the wild partying Irish. Then there were the speed freaks with their little 8yr old son Tom who they timed at going 54mph down a red route, his uncle too beat his all time best and managed 60mph down hill, incredible to our eyes right then. He reckoned he could have gone faster but had the wrong clothing on.
They were a warm bunch who invited us to sit with them and share their whisky. It was early days then and after the months have passed we have come to appreciate their offer and their conversation, really good people.
Then there were the Vikings as we called them from the Faroe Islands, who we really enjoyed and have learned so much from. I’d emailed them a few weeks before they’d arrived and asked them where they were from as I was really curious about their names, Thurid, FrÃÃ°gerÃ, SÃ³lbjÃ¸rg, Ã rni, & Bjarki, to name a few. A lady called Jannine their leader sent back a fascinating link.
The Faroe Islands are situated between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, about halfway between Iceland and Norway and it turns out the islanders are mostly descendants of Vikings settlers and a few monks and because it is such a remote place that old language has remained intact, the nearest you’ll get to Old Norse. They were fascinating and absolutely charming, After dinner was cleared we spent many an evening downstairs in our little dark room lit up browsing pictures of the Faroe Islands and reading up on their culture.
It has been really interesting watching and listening to how different groups interact with each other. The Vikings certainly had something special, remarkably well mannered, and an interesting way of speaking, many of them had a way of taking a sharp intake of breath after a speaking a sentence. I wondered if it was a family habit or due to the cold and their climate
There was a chap with called Johannes Jensen owner of the famous KOKs restaurant there who told us much about their culture and the “Grind” I’d called it a ‘Hunt’ but they were all quick to point out it wasn’t a hunt, it was a harvest, if the Pilot wales came into amongst the Islands, 18 of them in all, only then would the boats go out
“We do not go looking for the wales” He said. “It isn’t a commercial hunt and it’s maybe once a year, sometimes the whales do not come, in the past that has meant hunger for the people”
It was fascinating to hear them talk.
A man called the Whaling Foreman will decide if boats go out to round them up to guide them into and onto a beach. Johannes told us how it was done and how and where they would be beached, that the local village or the population of the particular island would go down to the seas edge where the whales would be slaughtered. I saw the look in his eye as he told us how in modern times techniques had been developed to make the kill instant, there was no harpooning now, they were careful to make it as quick as possible, there was genuine feeling expressed in the way he spoke, it was in his eyes.
They explained it was their culture, that they had relied on the sea for survival for over a thousand years. But that is the argument, that it is no longer necessary, but that in itself is really a hypocrisy, imported factory farmed meat, which is worse?
Johannes told us how the meat was shared out amongst all the island fairly and squarely whether you took part in the killing or not, if it happened on your Island you were entitled to a share, they have kept meticulous records of the “Grind” for as long as its been done and is the oldest unbroken record of its type in the world, the distribution of the meat is free, strictly and fairly regulated.
I had seen pictures and films of it a few years ago and been appalled without understanding it. I am a vegetarian now of over 35 years and the killing of anything is very disturbing to me, but I have never judged, eat what you choose and be happy with your choice and its consequences, I have my reasons for my choice and will tell you if you ask
Johannes explained that on the island there is very poor vegetation and the vegetables that do grow, grow very very slowly, turnips, potatoes and rhubarb to name some of the few, with possibly a few carrots. They have lots of sheep and a few pigs too. But it is the sea that has provided them with sustenance and a way of survival. The whale harvest has been vital to them.
They told us, they knew exactly where their food came from, they had a healthy respect and gratitude for it, they all prepared and dried their own meat and fish, nothing was wasted. There was something in it that you have to respect and understand. If you live there you eat meat or you waste away
Some years there is no ‘Grind’ and some years they simply tag the whales, they take only a very small percentage of the pilot whale population and are keen to preserve them and if there is a harvest – slaughter and you want some meat you go down to the beach and you cut your allocated percentage yourself, it isn’t wrapped in cellophane.
There are some very interesting films if you are interested, one with the singer Heri Joensen of the Faroese rock band TYR called “Grind (with subs)”
Or a very interesting documentary called “The Grind” : Whaling in the Faroe Islands
Thought provoking, listen to the facts if you have the time or are interested.
What I found really worrying was the mercury levels found in the animals and creatures of the oceans and pointed out in these films, I noted too by the end of the film the Sea Shepherd’s leader Lamya Essem Lali had softened to the Faroese. I didn’t like her at first but found myself sympathizing with her conclusion.
If you feel strongly about this and you are a meat eater, think about how your bacon or beef comes to be on your table before you judge them. It is something I personally found hard to watch, the fisherman killing the sea bird in his boat, it’s little legs kicking, but I don’t live there, and I will say from first hand experience of the Faroese, they are some of the most respectful warm and humane people I think I have ever met.
Last week KOKs Restaurant got its Michelin star, we were thrilled for Johannes, we came to see their perspective, they all understood nature and food far more than anybody else we have come across
There was something beautiful intimate and woven about them, they were generous with us and with themselves, great people and great character. Some nights as the reds of the Les Roches Bleus and Montplo flowed they’d start off talking, the volume slowly rising until they were singing, not as the Irish did, there was no melancholy there, you could feel their laugher joy and community, the women and men too all seemed absolutely equal, we were sad to see them go, and have been looking at ways to go and visit them and their Faroe islands.
Then came the Danes who we’d expected to be of a similar ilk due to their countries connections, but they were a very quiet group in comparison. Sometimes they skied and other days they all just sat quietly around the Chalet reading or watching Danish TV. We were glad of the young boy with them who we were able to have a laugh with. He one day drew a lot of Danish flags in the lounge and cut them all out, I picked them all up when they’d gone to bed, I coloured them in, and placed them all across their dinner table and in their glasses next day, which they all smiled about, they really were very nice.
Denmark is apparently vey flat with only a few almost unnoticeable hills. I have heard it said that a nations character seemed to be formed from the land into which the people are born and raised. The lady in charge at first seemed to be on the look out for fault, luckily she found none with us. It was her birthday too. It seemed to be a very somber affair that morning, so later at dinner I just couldn’t help but sing happy birthday to her, and of course they all joined in., she was very happy about it and I wondered why they hadn’t done it sooner, it was a curious week but they all left happy and that was what mattered to us.
Then came the group who I called the doctors, 3 families and 8 children, they were very sweet and very English with that friendly reserve that melts as time goes on. We had no idea of course who or what they were when they arrived. One of them mentioned our certificates, I’d told them a little of what we did, what we planned and what we had been doing the past summer and my ears pricked up when someone mentioned a pain clinic.
So next day I asked them what they did, turned out one was a hospital doctor one a GP one worked in a pain relief center. I had to remind myself I am a chalet host, not a colleague, it’s not what people had come for, they were here on their terms, but at times my curiosity and my drive for understanding overflows
I had noticed the leader of the group had a sore hip, one day he’d stayed home after a pounding up on the mountain, I’d suggested to him why not have some healing from us and to my great surprise he accepted. A really nice guy, afterwards he’d said it was the most he had relaxed in a long time and I left it at that. A day or so later one of the boys had hurt his knee skiing, kids are so good at healing/hypnosis and he’d looked as if he was in a lot of discomfort, I knew it would help, so I’d offered it to him and asked his mum.
Her reaction was very strong.
I was taken aback but the message understood, I dropped the subject and very nearly packed our certificates away. It stung, though I kept it to myself and we were our usual good humour and in fact enjoyed them all very much.
One of the kids had told me a joke as I’d served dinner
“What do you call a three legged Donkey”
“I don’t know” I said
“I wonkey” he’d chuckled, the rest of the kids groaned.
Well; that was it as far as I was concerned. I flew back downstairs and straight onto Google kids jokes.com or what ever. Orsi shot me irritated looks, I was on my phone again. But I was working and it was important.
We served the kids meal at 6pm and the adults at 7.30pm so it was joke time every evening from then on. I was in my element.
So next day’s serving
“What do you call a parade of rabbits hopping backwards? A receding hair line!” “Ok and what about this, what do you call an old snowman? …Water!!”
Then the next night it was
“What did the tonsil say to the other tonsil? “You’d better get dressed I hear the doctor is taking us out tonight
I was on a roll, thanks to Google “Ok ok, what about this one. What do you call a pig that knows karate? – A pork chop!”
It went on like this every evening, they all got onto their phones too and began firing them back at me. When you tell a bad joke and kids roll their eyes at you, you know you’ve got them. I was loving it
“What do you get when you cross a snowman and a vampire? – a frostbite!”
“What do you call a fake noodle? – An impasta!”
And my favorite of all that still makes me laugh
“What do you call a fly without wings? – A walk!!”
It was a good week and they seemed to have a lovely time and that is what is making us happy, understanding what a group brings and finding ways to work with it.
I am still struggling with the suspicion and superstition that surround Healing and Hypnosis. We have had had such great results this year, seen remarkable things, sometimes healing takes a few sessions after a lifetime of abuse, wrong thought, habits and life styles created around suffering. I wonder deeply why the suspicion, why the brick wall, why such fear, not just here in the Chalet but generally. I do struggle with it.
Up until the 1950’s the ski and hiking trails here were actually smugglers trails over the border from the Chablis area now called the Portes du Soleil
Back in the 1700s the border between Switzerland and France was in fact the border between the Dutchy of Savoy belonging to the kingdom of Piedmont Sardinia (now France) and the independent republic of Valais (now Switzerland)
Apparently the Duchy of Savoy was a bit over the top with the tax on salt needed by the Alpine community here to produce just about all their food and so the smuggling began from over in Valais. There were incredibly harsh punishments if they were caught and they were only trying to produce food for their families A very greedy duchy milking the population
But then in 1830 after they were seen too in the Revolution Napoleon Annexed Savoy and to gain public support opened up the whole area to cross border trade free from tax much to the delight of the people here
But sadly for them customs and border surveillance was re introduced in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War and not relaxed again afterwards and so the smuggling began again back and forth between Switzerland.
Back then only wealthy people and soldiers had skis, the police had to rely on snowshoes which were better than plain old ordinary shoes but the smugglers had them apparently and basically skied rings around them. Skis were first issued to the customs officers in 1908 but they had no professional training and it so wasn’t until 1948 when finally the first ski school was set up here in Morzine to train the custom officers this apparently significantly boosted moral and their performance and the “Customs ski alpine club” was set up in 1949
Pretty soon smuggling just wasn’t lucrative enough and the customs officers became so good there was no one left to catch, so then what to do with all that talent? In 1952 the first week long international “Customs ski competition” was set up with teams coming from Italy, Germany, Switzerland Austria and of course France. This was followed soon by the national ski customs competition in 1956 and which continues to the present day. So it seems all this down hill ski madness we have come of think of as normal is due initially to smuggling, but a sport invented by customs & police officers
As for our skiing …
Well we did our first ski down the mountain. We’d had our second lesson, then next day got the lift up to Nyon skied over to Morzine, chairlift back up to the top of Pleny, blue route to Charniaz then back up above Nyon and then all the way back down the mountain into the car park underneath the chalet. We arrived down there drenched in sweat thighs burning both of us exhilarated, we’d actually done it. I still find it hard to believe
People kept saying oh you’ll get it, we had at times wondered when. We’d been up there one afternoon practicing and almost by accident we looked at one another and realized it was dawning on us.
“We’re getting there” I’d said
I was gathering speed and realizing what was needed to do the turn and to slow up, vital to survival up there, it was beginning to make sense, it was becoming clear, we were getting it.
After the long hours in the chalet it is always great to get up there, stepping out of the ski lift onto the beautiful dazzling Nyon Plateau, all white blue skies and bright sun shine. Skies on and then down through the pine forest runs, with their ribbons of mist as the trees exhaled and gasped outwards, spiraling upwards and vanishing in others places still silent veils hung all along the valley sides.
We have watched for weeks now from our balcony the hundreds of brightly coloured bubble wrapped tourists climbing heavy and ungainly on or off the transit busses below, clumping into the chair lift helmets and goggles on like psychedelic tank drivers and just a turn of the head away, skiers swoop out nowhere coasting down into the car park, I have never quite got used to it, it looks so other worldly the final descent down that ice covered hill is mesmerizing, like watching angels falling to earth
We have been going up now more regularly attempting, stomach turning descents and feeling pretty good about it. There are Green routes for learners, Blue for intermediate, Red experienced and Black for the nutters. I’d thought the colours were for steepness, expecting blues to be less of an incline, but of course unless your going to ski right around the mountain, in a slow spiral down you are always going to come upon an breath taking edge. W e came to realize blues generally mean the width of the piste so you have more time to get the turn in, the reds are narrower and blacks seem vertical full of bumps and everyman for themselves.
As we come down, we’d approach small groups of people gathered and paused peering over a lip, and you just know it’s going to be scary. I got to realize pretty quickly to come up on them slowly, you can never be sure which way the nervous will jump. Then as you come up and look over your stomach turns and you know you are already half way down the mountain, there is no going back, you have to go.
It was tough at times to push ourselves over those edges. But we have been getting better and going for it, dropping over, digging the outside leg into the snow, coasting across the piste using the tips toes of the outside leg then lifting and straightening your body up, which is the hardest thing, because as you turn, you are looking straight down and your skies are pointing straight down, but we are building that trust, swapping the weight onto the other foot and toes and miraculously you turn in a great C shape acrc across, A sailor would call it Tacking, I call it staying alive. I started thinking of it like driving a car changing gear, Press right you turned left press left and you turned right, sort of, ish…. But I’m still here so there is something in it
I have fallen I don’t know how many times, I think broke my thumb and learnt the rule, don’t strap your sticks on your wrists, if you fall let them go, apparently there is a thing called a skiers thumb. It was excruciatingly painful for the last 4 weeks. I have been doing a lot of pain relief on myself, this last week I have been able to move it almost normally again.
Yesterday a little girl took me right out on a really steep blue, she’d lost control, I didn’t see her coming, I was turning and bam..!! Her skies when right between my boots and my blades, knocked me straight over and I’ve hurt my shoulder. I got back up, brushed myself down but it shook me up.
All week long we watched the red Jacketed ski stretcher bearers whizz bodies down the mountain, and ambulances take people out from the bottom of Nyon lift. One kid was all strapped up laying horizontal, the stretcher guy was just flying down hill, and the kid raised his arms and let out a whooooooooo whooo. Amazing to witness
There was carnage across the slopes too. It was French bank holiday so it was packed up there, there were collisions all over the place, many serious accidents. Some people who are not really fit and not really fit to be out up there, attempting too much or maybe just unlucky. As we came along many of the routes there were groups of people stood around somebody laying in the snow, crossed skies, in the middle of a run, anxious faces. Pain. One afternoon I was doing really well and came sideways across a sheet of ice my feet went and I just went down with a thud. Everybody falls, you just get used to it and in fact have really begun to enjoy the mental challenge, charting a course, life and death, looking for the ice
There were also some amazing sights too, mainly the little kids, some 4 or 5 years old, just so fearless speeding so fast taking corners you just wouldn’t believe. A little girl all dressed in a blue onesie came up to an intersection we have come to respect on the way down to Nyon where a blue crosses a red, the red is out of sight above to the right, skiers and boarders come out of nowhere at incredible speed, we always pause, glance, take a breath, but the little girl just shot straight out there filming herself on her I phone, whooping and laughing completely fearless. Guests call it the Darwin effect, natural selection in action. She was going to get whacked or she was going to create mayhem sooner or later, incredible to witness.
There was of course beauty elegance and grace too, that is after all what it is all about. It isn’t just the speed, it’s that liquid elegant and grace that all aspire too. A father who was obviously a super secure had his little girl with him, she was all dressed up in padded ski gear, goggles and all, they were gliding down the slope I mentioned earlier, with the ice sheet, she was facing forward and stood fearlessly on her dads right ski, holding onto his leg, easily and effortless, perfect letter C’s all the way down, it was remarkable to see, as I passed them at the bottom, I pointed to his daughter and shouted
He beamed at me and waved.
I really do love to see the children out here following the French ESF instructors who are our hero’s. Like lines of little ducks following every move, leaps, one ski, swapping legs, outstretched arms doing the counter intuitive moves. Every time I see them I am awed. I saw one little kid fall yesterday after doing a leap, the instructor just swung round looked back at her and laughed
“Oh oh” he said Ironically
He didn’t rush across to help, left her to get up by herself. Once up she was beaming and everybody laughing with her. Another little boy about 4 years old later that afternoon went flying, crashed down bringing up a cloud of snow. Bam.. !!
I heard his mum say “Oh John, what happened there?”
I love it, brilliant
At the end of the day we came down and managed the ice hill at the end of the Nyon run without falling, we were really happy
On the way down later just past the crossroads, My Grandad come into mind
“You’re doing alright Micheal” he’d said in his soft Scottish voice, I felt the joy all around me
“Hello Grandad” I’d said “I can’t talk right now as there’s a sharp turn coming up”
I just heard laughter as we came down to a stop at the end of the run.
And yeah really, were doing alright