Our Little Chalet in the Mountains
As a young teenager I used to live from one holiday to the next. Well, actually it was one ski holiday to the next. Being Swiss, my father, to this day an avid alpinist (mountain climber and passionate skier), always made sure we took full advantage of the Shell home-leave packages we had as benefits at the time.
This meant regular three-week ski holidays at “home,” where we stayed in a little chalet my parents had bought when I was about five. It was a delightful place in a small village called Graechmatten, near the Torrenthorn skiing area just above Leukerbad in Wallis, with a view that would make the Grand Canyon blush – well, maybe not the Grand Canyon, but close, honest. That was usually during the Easter holidays.
Or for the Christmas holidays we were carted off to a Swiss ski camp in Zweisimmen (so as not to lose touch with “our heritage”), which my father managed to get us into because his climbing buddy was on the board. My parents would drag us out from under my grandmother’s heavy (and too short!) feather duvets at 4:00 on Boxing Day morning to bring us to the coaches. Despite the cold morning air we were always thrilled about the idea of a week’s skiing and fun-filled evenings with the Swiss kids we saw at this annual get-together. Both occasions meant that we’d be skiing from morning until night.
Indeed, when I think back, especially to those holidays in the chalet, I wonder whether I’m not over-romanticizing. We’d rise not long after the local cows were getting milked (or at least it often felt that way) for three hours of ski school followed by a (sandwich) lunch with an apple and a row of chocolate. As real (as opposed to tourist) skiers, we would have to stand in the cold cable car entrance hall (or fight for a seat on one of the four benches they’d put up for picnickers) in the days before they closed off the hall and put up special picnic areas. The restaurants with Abba pulsing through the sliding doors were not an option for us.
No time for a cosy break in a mountain lodge with couches, lounges and a fireplace. Nor was it even worth dreaming of a warm plate of pasta, schnitzel, or bubbling fondue, followed by an assortment of desserts and après-ski schnapps, because after lunch we had another three hours of skiing until the lifts stopped at 16:30. I’d spend hours and hours training Kurzschwingen (short turns) over specially made moguls and jumping over Schanzen (small ski jumps). We’d bond with local ski racers and friends we made during ski class while racing off-piste through forests, dodging trees, followed by singing silly songs on the ski lifts. All of this in all kinds of weather. It didn’t matter.
Where did we get the energy? My guess is that part of it had to do with the happy buzz from being outside all day.
Following this we’d all go home, singing in the car. (Very “Sound of Music,” I know, but there is something about being a happy family enclosed in a car that makes you want to sing, right? Though when I try to get my bunch to sing now, they all give me those constipated smiles and turn up the volume on their various gadgets, and failing that they argue that they need better headphones, but that’s a different story.) And if you’ve never tried singing in a car with your whole family, I’d say give it a go: it’s rather cathartic, especially after a successful day of skiing. Unless, of course, your kids are all teenagers, in which case do not try: there’s something slightly David-Hasselhoffish about the thought of a happy teenager singing in the family car.
Back at the chalet, we’d sip my mum’s homemade tea mixture while watching the sun set along the length of the Rhone valley down to the three mounds of Sion and beyond, and then we’d have Raclette melted by the open fireplace until we all fell in to bed exhausted and full and exquisitely happy.
Of course, nowadays I can only dream of three full weeks of skiing. The nice thing about the happy moments is that the rest becomes so trivial. I vaguely remember my parents doing homeschooling with us, something I’m not sure I’d like to try with my kids now. Needless to say, as I became older, I didn’t appreciate the early rising quite so much, and I’m afraid I never went back to my pre-teen excitement of the early bird catching the worm. I was quite happy when my kids decided they didn’t like the idea of ski school anymore, so now we often only make it out around 11:00, just in time for lunch.
In this sense, skiing is no longer the same. We’ve tried to pass on the passion to our kids, who are all great skiers; and they love snowboarding equally, but they also like their hot chocolates with cream and swimming after skiing just as much. It’s a different sort of thrill, and maybe it has to do with the fact that, because I grew up outside of Switzerland, skiing did attain a sort of otherworldly status, which my own kids can’t appreciate as the mountains are at their doorstep.
And maybe it was the fact that our little chalet, which gave us so much joy, was the one thing that never changed over the years. It was the only experience I had of consistency, as well as the closest I ever came to roots. My safe little (Wendy) house of happiness is closely tied with some of the best memories I have of growing up.