Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Skiing Novice Hits the Italian Alps

When I say novice, I mean novice. Allow me to explain. I tend to hibernate all winter, much like a bear. But once the warm weather arrives, it’s a different story. I’ve never met a beach I didn’t like. Packing for my ideal vacation involves bathing suits, flip flops, sun dresses and tanning lotion. The hotter the weather, the better. I notice humidity, but it doesn’t interfere with my day.

However, none of this stopped me from joining a ski trip to the Italian Alps.

First thing was a call to my Sister the Skier to borrow her clothes. “Sure!” she said, “come right over.” So I did. She was thrilled to share her skiing excitement. There was long thermal underwear, ski pants and a shirt with

Maybe I can't ski, but I can pose.

sleeves that hooked over my thumbs to prevent wind from whipping up my arm. It was here that trepidation started to creep into my tropical soul. There were special socks with padding designed for comfort in ski boots. (I was warned not to wear these in regular shoes; I have no idea why.) There was a hooded ski jacket with special interior pockets for money & ID. “Why would I need ID?” I wanted to ask. But when visions flashed through my mind of being lost among the Italian Alpine trees, freezing and waiting for a Saint Bernard with a cask of brandy, too cold to move my jaw and say my name, I decided not to ask.

The wardrobe extravaganza wasn’t done. There were special gloves with compartments to slip something called a ski pass. There were little squares of hand warmers wrapped in gold foil in case the gloves weren’t warm enough. There was a knit woolen hat that fit snugly on my head, guaranteed to produce hours of hat hair. Then there was the gator. This wide circle of fleece slips over the head and rests around the neck. Yes, this is on top of the special shirt, turtleneck, jacket and hood. “In case it’s really cold, damp and windy, this comes in handy!” said my Sister the Skier, in a joyful tone more appropriate to lending me a diamond necklace for the Oscars than spending an afternoon in the blinding cold. But this kind of baffling enthusiasm, I would soon learn, is typical of ski lovers. She offered her goggles. I declined, saying that my wrap-around style sun glasses should work just fine. Of course, I had no idea. I just needed to say ‘no’ to something. I was being buried in bad news.

Arrival in Italy: I meet my compatriots and I’m desperately seeking other novices. I meet two beginners, but no novices. Instead, I mostly meet dyed in the wool veteran ski club members. Their individual and collective enthusiasm is contagious, although I have no idea why. I find myself looking forward to cold and snow. I wonder if I’ve gone insane.

Not very convincing, is it?

Day One of Skiing: It’s early morning when I amble to our communal breakfast in my Suit of Many Layers. It’s an effort to bend my elbow to feed myself. “Are you skiing today?” Several people ask me. “Of course!” I answer, under the heady effects of ski-loving Kool-Aid. It seems foggy outside to me, but no one else mentions it. I conclude that it must not be an issue.

We make our way to the ski shop where I hang behind and watch the veterans navigate the equipment. Everyone knows what they want. Everyone knows what to do with what they get. Everyone can’t get out of the shop fast enough and onto the slopes, which are increasingly obscured by the fog. I watch their smiling faces as one by one they hoist a pair of skis onto one shoulder, an arm casually thrown over the front for counter-balance, both poles in the other hand. It all looks easy, smooth and cool. I’m excited because soon, I will look just like them.

I wait until everyone in my group has their equipment, as I am in no hurry. I enter the shop and catch the eye of an unsuspecting staff member. He naturally expects me to be as knowledgeable as everyone else in my group. He is in denial when I am not. He has a hard time believing how clueless I am. His denial prolongs the process and makes me irritable. I keep asking for help anyway, as I have no option. Finally, he gets it. He helps me into the ski boots and locks me in. I can’t believe how uncomfortable they feel. “They’re really tight; is this normal?” I ask. “Yes.” I stand. “I can’t straighten my legs; is this normal?” “Yes.” But I instinctively try to straighten them anyway, and feel a shooting pain up the back of my calves with every step. I look out the window and the fog is now so thick that I can’t see the mountain, which as I recall is about 100 steps away and straight up. I can’t imagine 100 steps in the fog with this pain shooting up the back of my leg. In this moment, I can’t imagine why anybody skis.

He hands me the skis and poles and is happy to see me go. I slowly and painfully make my way outside. Someone takes pity on me and says “If you walk heel-toe, it’s easier.” I try it and it is easier. Not easy; easier. Not painless; easier. I decide to take what I can get.

Now it’s time to throw the skis over my shoulder and look cool. But like every other aspect of this experience, it’s harder than it looks. The skis are heavy and slippery; traits you want on the slopes but not on your shoulder. (This may explain why skis are worn and not carried during the skiing experience.) The skis are held together back-to-back at the bindings, so the bindings are facing out. And they’re uncomfortable. And they’re smack in the middle of the skis, so I slide them in front of my shoulder. This is more comfortable but now I’m struggling to balance them. I finally get them set and step out with my first heel-toe and the skis slip completely off my shoulder. But that’s OK, I can catch them with my other hand. Oh, no I can’t. I have a pair of poles in that hand. Now skis and poles crash to the ground. I decide the shoulder-carry is too cool for me right now. Instead, I hold the skis vertically in one hand, poles in the other. I am mystified why anyone would consider this a good time.

I slowly make my way toward what I hope is the bunny slope. I can’t really tell because the fog is now so thick that the mountain has disappeared. I just travel haltingly in the direction of other skiers. Finally, I can make out a kiosk and the other 2 “beginners” in my group. I catch up to within shouting distance of them. They are above me on an incline and I can’t imagine how I’ll get there. I’m now off the pavement and on the snow, where I believe the skis were meant to be. So I drop them and realize I have no idea how to get them on. My friend Cindy, who thinks she’s a beginner but is soon revealed to be an intermediate, shouts instructions on how to attach the skis.

Me with my intrepid skiing friends: Cindy Bigras, Susan Van Allen & Lisa del Percio.

Riccardo, our instructor, shouts in my direction and demonstrates the horizontal, incremental creep one performs to move up a small incline. I imitate him and snail my way up. It’s then that I notice individual drops of blood in the snow. I am horrified. Who is bleeding? How were they injured? My eyes follow the crimson drops that lead to a man lying on his side, propped up on his elbow, looking more like he’s on a couch across from a TV than losing vital life fluids in the frozen earth. I realize he’s had a nose bleed and is collecting himself. His skis are still on and he looks OK, certainly calmer than me. It’s another example of the ever-optimistic skier. No need to get off the slopes; just wait until the bleeding stops, pop back up and swoosh down the mountain.

Dear Lord, take me to the beach.

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