Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Cross-country karma

Well, the Alps certainly were snow-covered. It snowed virtually every day of our week in Villard de Lans, as it had the week before our arrival, and the snow base was between one and two meters thick. You could ski on the picnic tables we ate lunch at last year. Temperatures ranged between –15°C (5°F) and –4°C (25°F).

Unlike most downhill ski resorts, Villard de Lans has a big cross-country ski area, and our family was split down the middle, voluntarily, into a downhill and a cross-country team. In the evening each team regaled the other with their respective experiences. We also did a half-day each of downhill and cross-country as a whole family.

As downhill resorts go, Villard de Lans is not very pricey. Downhill lift tickets cost €25 a day for adults, compared with €39 at Tignes/Val d’Isère. I looked at some US resorts and saw prices up to $70 a day, even at Killington in Vermont!! So despite exchange rates, come on over while the snow’s fresh!

Signing our kids up for ski lessons was, as it always is in France, hassle-free. Once you’ve reserved spots for them, you find their group, tell the instructor they’re there, give them a kiss and off you go to ski the black diamond trails while they’re in their lesson. No papers to fill out, no releases or insurance forms to sign. Trouble is, we’re not sure we’re happy it’s so hassle-free. Luckily, nothing happened to ours during the week, but we wondered how “something” might have been handled. What if parental approval or information about medical history (allergies, etc.) had been required before transferring a child to a hospital, operating on him, or administering medicines? Any French doctors out there have the answer to this one?

For me, downhill was the usual city-in-the-mountains scene, the annual urban transhumance. After a half-day, I had had enough of the drone of the lifts, the people everywhere, the weight of the skis on my shoulder or in my hands as I slowly progressed up the line to the gondola. Of course, when I say a half-day of downhill skiing, I really mean an hour of skiing, because the rest of the time is spent on a lift or queuing for one.

Or rather, crowding for one. At the approach to a ski lift in France, there is no crowd control, no ropes or barriers to create and maintain an orderly line. So you can’t really enjoy the scenery or have a conversation, because you have to concentrate on how you’re going to nonchalantly stick your pole between the skis of the person next to you, so he will be obliged to wait for you to pass. In the end I was not unhappy I had only planned to do a half-day of downhill skiing. This said, I did enjoy my two slides down the mountain.

As I was not part of the downhill half of the family, I spent the rest of the week in the serenity and quiet beauty of the cross-country ski trails, savoring an early morning “Bonjour” from a skier coming in the other direction, marveling at undisturbed snow piled high on fir branches pyramiding to a peak, reveling in the ability to turn back and have another look at something I’d missed.

It was also hard work. Three hours of cross-country skiing is three full hours of skiing. But it was hard mostly because I was learning a new skill: skating. Many other skate skiers, people in no better overall shape than I, gracefully overtook me on the uphills, while I sputtered like an old jalopy in need of a tune-up.

Which brings me to some popular received wisdom about cross-country skiing, at least here in France, i.e. that it’s either too difficult, tiring or boring. (Mind you, it wouldn’t bother me if most people continued to believe that!) According to my ski instructor, cross-country skiing used to attract people of all ages and physical abilities, but with the growing popularity of snowshoeing, people who weren’t really in it for the physical exertion part have been siphoned off. Little by little, however, skating is attracting a younger, more competitive-sports-oriented crowd. I wonder if the skating phenomenon is more recent here than it is in the US, where I think it has existed for around 20 years already.

At the end of the week, my lesson group did an all-day cross-country outing and skied to a restaurant accessible only on skis or by snowmobile. Log cabin on the outside, on the inside the theme was late 19th century hunter-trapper. Our instructor said he wanted to open a restaurant like it in New York, where he was certain none existed. Here's a picture of it:

"Malaterre" restaurant in the woods near Villard de Lans

I wondered if the New Yorker’s view of “French restaurant” was broad enough to encompass not only the three-star Michelin, the bistrot, the brasserie, the Provençal country kitchen and the crêperie, but also the mountain auberge. If so, the economist in me says there must already be one. Is there?



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