It is winter vacation time here in Ticino. Elizabeth has flown back to Canada for ten days and Katerina, John and I find ourselves together to experience what we can. A couple of months ago we had talked of plans to catch planes and visit places that were otherwise names on a map, and I had hopes of seeing friends who I have’t seen in years. This couldn’t be given the current Covid situation in our part of the world and John’s unvaccinated status. Consequently, we are bound to the borders of the nation that we currently live in.
Despite the restrictions that exist here, the need for certificates, masks, distance adherence and limited social contact, there is ample to be appreciative of. The sun has smiled for the last few days and the outside world is there, arms held wide, for us to walk into. We have set ourselves a daily budget and yesterday, the day after the winter solstice, we headed to the slopes, and for the children’ first ever time skiing.
There are no ski fields open here on the warmer southern side of The Alps yet, so we decided to head through the San Bernadino pass tunnel to Splügen (pronounced Schpleurgen or something akin, not Sploogen), a small resort that promised just the right conditions for learning how to snowplough and slip and slide in laughter and glee.
Given that it was their first time downhill skiing, we chose to go only for the four hours of the afternoon, which would be enough time to garner a taste for what it was really like. The drive took us just over an hour and I must admit that I was apprehensive, if excited, at what might come. I was concerned that I would not be able to teach them what they needed to know, and I was worried that my metal-filled ankle would not hold up to the stress of being on skis again.
In the back of my mind was also the awareness that the Splügen website did not have an English translation, unlike the bigger resorts such as St. Moritz, an hour further down the road. I was right in being thoughtful of this and of the significance of the presence of oomlats in the name (the two little dots above the u) and this became apparent following the first question I asked upon arriving there. Despite being in an Italian speaking canton, a language that I am still a novice in, most of what was there was in Schwiizerdütsch, or Swiss-German. Nevertheless, after much gesticulating and stumbling through a melange of fragments of different languages, our passes were bought, our parking fee had been paid, I had donned my twenty plus year-old ski pants, our rented gear was in place, and we fumbled onto the gondola for the eight hundred metre vertical climb to the playground.
As it was, my concerns about John and Kat on the ski field were misplaced. I wouldn’t say that they took to the sport as “ducks to water”, however, they learned quickly and within a few runs were managing the short beginner slope, with its travelator (magic carpet lift) with little effort.
When I suggested we move off that slope and down the trail to the chairlift way, way down in the bowl on the far side, they looked at me nervously but excitedly at the prospect of real skiing. This is where we played for the next hour and a half, completing a number of circuits on a number of blue runs before the sun fell behind the peak and cast the shade onto the bottom reaches.
Yes there were falls, but these were few and gentle, and as we found ourselves coming out of the -12 degree shade and into the rays of the warming sun on our last ride on the chair, smiles were aplenty. They had achieved something new, they had begun to learn how to ski.
There was one more challenge awaiting once at the top which was to negotiate a shortish, if steeper, blue run and catch a t-bar lift back up. I did expect one of them to fall off of this, and gave instructions should this happen. I was more than pleasantly surprised that, despite sitting down on the tee on boarding (oh this brought a giggle), both of them managed to hold on up the steep slope until the top. Challenges complete, it was time for one final long run down to the car waiting below.
Now there are runs and there are runs and there are colours and there are colours. It had been fifteen years since I had last skied in Europe and, well, I had forgotten that the runs do not progress in order of difficulty as blue-black-red, as I naively assumed. No, no, no. The increasing order of difficulty is blue-red-black. We should not, I repeat should not, at my suggestion have headed down the shaded number 2 black run, the Blachtaboda, in order to join the last easy path to the bottom of the gondola and the waiting car.
What would take an experienced skier a few minutes took us half an hour of falling, ski and pole collecting, pitiful attempts at walking every which way on an icy crust, sliding down uncontrollably on backsides, and ample tears and wails before we reached the sanctuary of the middle gondola station and the safety of the assisted way back down.
“I am never going skiing again,” was cried more than once in this time.
When we finally arrived at the car, we shedded our protective garb, wiped down the gear, and loaded it up for the trip back. I looked at my ankle once it was free of the boot. It was swollen and I could feel the tightness, but it was intact. This part of the experience was over, and after one final look at the mountains around us, we headed back in silence.
A half an hour or so had passed when I asked the question: “If you want to ski again, when would you like it to be?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied John. “Not tomorrow, but maybe the next day.”
“Katerina, what about you?”
“Sure baba. Not tomorrow, I feel tired, but maybe the next day.”
After we arrived back at the apartment, we sat down to a meal of take-away burgers and fries which I had happily granted to them as a gesture of the atonement for the terror-run error I had made. It didn’t matter if we went over budget, despite their protests – this was my choice to make. What did matter was that as we spoke of the day, as we spoke of what it was like to ski, I could see the light in their eyes, dancing. I could see that we, privileged as we are, would soon, once again, be playing in the snow.