“Political Lessons on the Slopes”

this was written the very week the war in Iraq started.

“Les americains ont commencé la guerre pour le pétrole,”

(“The Americans started the war for the oil”) he said defiantly as he looked at me for the inevitable response. He said it in a manner that was so simple and straightforward – as if Americans were too shallow and stupid to have any other reason than money or greed.

Alexandre was a Frenchman “embedded” with me on a ski lift in the French Alps. We were headed to the top of a mountain. For any other Frenchman saying this same line to me in such an arrogant way, I would have clocked him or immediately pushed his ass off the chair lift.

But I didn’t think it would be a fair fight – after all, Alexandre was about two-and-a-half feet tall and about four years old.

As I patiently waited for the chair lift to come around, a young French ski instructor with a gaggle of other two-and-a-half footers quickly plopped Alexandre on the seat next to me and asked me in French if I would take care of him until we got to the top of the mountain. Without thinking, I said, “Oui, bien sur.”

It was only after we were on our way up the mountain that I realized I had taken on too much responsibility. I mean, this little guy with his foot-long, cartoon character-covered skis and his diminutive size could easily slip under the bar and fall to his death at the blink of an eye. I kept my hand inches away from his jacket collar and was ready to scoop him up in case of danger. Only the French would throw such a responsibility into the hands of a complete stranger. And the real tricky part was yet to come: skiing off the chair lift at the top of the mountain without incident. I pictured somehow hanging myself upside down on the cables as I tried to get little Alexandre safely off the chair lift. Or – accidentally crushing him under my weight as I had him in my arms as I skied off the lift and slipped and fell… And adding a little more danger to the scene – my French is not so good, nor did Alexandre understand English…

I always have a problem understanding little kids in a foreign language. It seems like it should be easy but it’s not. Alexandre began telling me all about his skiing adventures. He asked me a couple of questions and I had no idea what he was asking. I decided to change the subject:

” What’s your name?”
” Where are you from?”
” How old are you?”
” Do you go to school?”
” Do you like to ski?”

He was quite bored with my line of questioning and took it on himself to take control of the conversation. He lost me again.

” I’m sorry, I don’t speak French very well,” I told him, ” I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

He looked at me as if I were the very first retarded person he had ever met. He contemplated that idea for a few moments.

” I am American,” I explained, “I speak English.”

He looked as if he were ready for more serious conversation – in French!

” Do you speak English?” I asked.

” Non,” he answered, shaking his head at such a preposterous idea.Then he looked up at me and said: “Les americains ont commencé la guerre pour le pétrole.”

Although I didn’t smile (he certainly wasn’t), I couldn’t help chuckling inside. And even though it came from a child, the comment was still irritating. I wanted to say:

” No, that’s not true, Alexandre… you see, Daddy, as intelligent and high in character as he may appear to you, is feeding you a bunch of shit. He is really a sleazy bastard who will do anything for a quick Euro; why heck, he would probably even sell Mommy off into the Moroccan sex slave trade if his cut were big enough. So, Daddy actually sells weapons, air craft parts and other bad things to the Evil Saddam – that bad guy in the Star Wars movie, remember him? Daddy is what we figuratively call ‘in bed’ with this Evil man… It is supposedly against the law but Daddy does it anyway – just like he cheats on his taxes and tells the government you’re not really his son. If he were an honest man, he wouldn’t chain smoke so much either…”

But I couldn’t work all of that out in French, so instead I quietly said:
” Oh yeah?”

We got to the top. Little Alexandre expertly skied off the lift like a pro and without incident. There were other Petit Froggies on mini skis waiting for him and cheering him on. Merde! He was glad to be back with people who could carry on an intelligent conversation…

I watched them all ski down the mountain and realized that my ski trip to the French Alps was full of symbolisms of the times.

Just a day earlier I was on a six-person chair lift with two couples: on my left was a young French couple; on my right, an older German couple. I understood what the French couple were saying – and – because of the similarities between certain English and German words, I realized that both couples were talking about the war in Iraq. Here I was alone between the two nationalities. I don’t think either couple knew what the other was talking about. And I don’t think they realized I was American. How ironic, I thought…

I stayed at a modest and comfortable hotel steps away from a ski lift. The basic rate included breakfast. Because it wasn’t very much extra to have dinner included and I figured there were nights I would be too tired to go out so it would be a real bonus. But I imagined the cuisine to be typical hotel food and that I would most likely seek out a better source when I had the energy.

The hotel was actually quite charming and as the French often surprise you – the food was very good and quite creative. In fact, after enjoying a pork filet mignon served with an incredible sauce on the first night, I knew there was a serious chef in the kitchen and despite being a mom and pop operation, hungry skiers were dealt with very seriously here. My last night there, the chef served a Scorpion fish with a saffron sauce and baby vegetables that just blew me away. The downside was the poor wine list. I am not a big fan of the wines of Savoie (where I happened to be sitting at the moment.) There were several so-so (and expensive) representatives from all the major French wine regions but the only one that I could justify was a half bottle of Paul Jaboulet “Parallel 45” Côtes du Rhône at 9 € for a half bottle. The delicious food (and my sore muscles) kept me in the hotel’s dining room nightly for the duration and the Jaboulet Côtes du Rhône became my house wine.

The owner was a jovial man in his eighties. I didn’t meet him the first night at that delicious introductory dinner but he did happen to pass by my table the next morning at breakfast: A British family sitting nearby was digging into eggs and sausage (proof that the hotel caters to tourists…) They alerted me to his arrival: “Bonjour, senor,” they all piped out with glee. This must be some sort of joke, I thought. The owner walked over to them and spoke in broken English.

He stopped at my table and introduced himself: “I am the BIG BOSS,” he said with a proud grin. I introduced myself in French and told him that I was happy to be there – at his hotel. He wished me a good breakfast and went on to another table full of Japanese tourists who were having serious fun with the breakfast spread, despite no fish….

I quickly discovered the Reblochon and Tomme de Savoie which WERE products from Savoie that I had a stomach for. My daily breakfast was juice, granola with milk, cheese, a bit of bread and coffee. I left the sausage and eggs for the British and the Japanese.

I skied my butt off that day. Actually, I skied for several hours in the previous afternoon – right after my 6-hour drive and 3 pm check-in time. That alone almost did me in. I was really sore the next day but the exercise felt wonderful and combined with the sun and perfect spring ski conditions, I was in heaven. I was skiing exclusively on my telemark skis which usually require a little more energy than regular downhill skis. Around 1 pm, I was dying to take a break; I found a restaurant with a spectacular view at the top of a mountain and ordered a grilled sausage with frites (nope, the frogs don’t call ’em ‘French’ either), a green salad, and a half bottle of – yes – Côtes du Rhône and about three bottles of water. I found a table outside and sat back and enjoyed the vista, soaked a little sun and people-watched. Courchevel apparently attracts a lot of British. Most of the French you come across there speak good English – unlike other areas of France. Because of the war situation, I was interested in talking to some Brits about their feelings as to what was going on – but I never really had the chance. I was on a mission of serious skiing. The place is HUGE and my biggest fear was skiing off into a neighboring ski area that did not accept my photo-ID ski pass to get back home. I think I actually could have linked all the way to Italy if I wanted to!

So here I am shoveling down a saucisse grillée avec frites, sipping a little vin rouge and catching a few rays. It felt really surreal that a war was going on. Although CNN consumed my evenings, skiing ruled my day. A table next to me was full of a mixed group of young, UK dot commers.

“So, did anyone happen to see Sonia last night?” A young man laughed out to his peers, “She was really rat-arsed pissed [meaning, Sonia was quite drunk] and began peeling her clothes off as if she were an American – you know how Yanks are always so compelled to go skinny dipping all of the time! They can’t wait for any occasion or excuse to take their clothes off” They all laughed and went on to tell stories about Americans they personally knew…

I tried to look as French as I could and was starting to enjoy this eavesdropping – especially the insight it provided into the British psyche. Shit, I thought, are these really people our boys would want to share a foxhole with? I guess that’s why we gave them Basra…

Had I had about seven more half bottles of Côtes du Rhône, I think would have leaped naked onto the center of their table and said, “Hi, I’m Bob, and I will be your American table dancer for the afternoon.” Yeah, that’s MY excuse…

I skied the entire afternoon and the real bonus was skiing right up to my hotel. There was a deck outside and I ordered une grande pression (a BIG draft beer). I relaxed and slowly peeled my ski boots, sweater…

(Sorry, folks…no table dance today)

I was worn out. Michel had given me a list of good restaurants in Courchevel but I certainly couldn’t muster any extra energy to go beyond my hotel’s dining room. Dinner that night was very good as usual and I decided then that restaurant exploring would perhaps come on another trip.

I realized that night that meals were set – although it was a multi-course delight, there was only one choice. No decisions other than at what temperature you wanted your Paul Jaboulet “Parallel 45” Côtes du Rhône served. I also caught on that we had been assigned to specific tables. This remained constant throughout my stay. Mine was the one with one place setting.

OK, so we had a group of a dozen Japanese who were obviously on a business / pleasure trip. They were having a great time. There was the British family with three kids from age ten to sixteen. The sixteen-year-old son kept bugging mum and dad about the fact that the drinking age in France is sixteen and that he wanted a little wine with dinner. They kept telling him that the drinking age was eighteen, end of conversation. He was a well-behaved and very polite young man – I wanted to go in on his behalf and tell his parent s that it was, in fact, sixteen…

Then there was a French couple with a little boy who loved to draw at the table. Another older, French couple dressed for dinner each night as if they were in Paris. This was the core group of my stay and we all wonderingly stared at each other during meals. The restaurant was also open to the public and there were usually several tables of new faces each night.

The owner loved to hold court at the nightly meals. This meant that he would joke as much as he could in English, then head on over to the French tables and sit down for a glass of wine and talk about the other guests. It never failed – he charmed the Brits and when he asked how their meal was, they would all answer, “Muy bien, gracias!” Now I thought only Americans were allowed to do this faux pas… The original Griswalds, I guess…

The owner thought I was British as well – I heard him mentioning me as such to the French guests. He joked with me in English and I tried to speak to him in French as much as possible. He even slapped me on the back after the delivery of a joke – as if we were long-time friends. It was a jovial atmosphere until:

He asked me how my steak was. I answered back in French, “It’s very good, very delicious…but I ordered the fish!”

He had a horrified look on his face. The dining room fell silent. I not only out joked the host, I insulted him – I think. I assured him that I was just kidding. He retreated to the kitchen.

I felt like the stand-up comic who seriously bombed: “OK, folks…ONE choice on the menu – steak…but I ORDERED FISH! Get it??…

The British family exploded into laughter: “Bravo! Bravo! Muy bien!” They weren’t aware that entertainment was included in the nightly rate. And these guys should have invested in a little French phrase book before their trip.

I looked around the dining room and suddenly saw a bay of ships, mostly French, with a Japanese cruise ship, a British carrier, and an American destroyer. The latter had just blown a French one out of the water.

I went to my room and watched the war. Only I turned the volume down. I believe this was around the same time US troops were struggling with passing sandstorms in the deserts of Iraq. I noticed that the American soldiers were wearing actual ski goggles – all of the popular brand names that I had seen today were clearly visible on the goggle straps which stretched around the back of their helmets. The same names you see on the slopes while waiting in line for the lift. Names like Scott, Uvex, Oakley, Riva, Arnette, Bolle, and Smith were all represented. Given the number of people watching the war at any moment – worldwide – I wondered if the goggles were freebies from the manufacturers in turn for a little high visibility product placement. (You know – those capitalistic Americans in their “War For Oil”… just because we’re fighting a war, do you think we are going to stop advertising?)

The next several days were pretty much uniform: serious skiing; a break for a sausage and frites (I felt like an old man set in his ways but it was very filling and satisfying); more skiing until my legs got shaky; a late afternoon ski down the hill – back to the hotel; a beer on the deck; a hot shower; dinner at the hotel; and then a little war before bedtime…

But there were two slight variations from these daily schedules: I took a telemark lesson one day from a French Ski School Instructor named Alain. He normally taught Alpine skiing and was thrilled to run across a free-heeled skier. I took a half-day lesson and he was a big help. Alain is a super nice guy and a dead-ringer for the best man in my wedding, John Tesman. Alain is also a surfer and invited Vicky & I to his house in Biarritz anytime during the off ski season. I will definitely take him up on it…

The other variation was two fold: I found a great place on top of the mountain for coffee. My hotel had the unfortunate habit of trying to please Americans in terms of its weak, gringo coffee; so every morning after a few runs down the mountain, I would make my way up there and imbibe in a strong café crème and a big bottle of water. There were beach chairs on the deck and music going on. It was a cool spot. There were usually a few crazy people skiing down the couloirs of the major peak and that added to the excitement.

As I was there the first day, I noticed paragliders zooming over the outdoor cafe. There was a booth nearby selling 15-minute rides. I walked over and listened in on the deal in French. A man who could have been my father’s age – Jean-Claude – was there with his wife and signing up for a flight. He looked over at me and asked if I was going to do it as well. “No, Jean-Claude, I am going to watch you,” I answered cynically. He paid and I turned to leave: “Good bye, Jean-Claude…and good luck” – we laughed and he urged me to try it with him.

It looked like a lot of fun. I think I drank three coffees watching these guys zoom off the mountain and flying up into the heavens. I eventually paid my bill, got up and moseyed back over towards the paragliding sales desk. I nonchalantly stopped at a ski rack just opposite and looked up at the sky as pretending to determine the weather. OK, Wilbur, are you going to do it or not? Well, I was doing a serious weather observation as I was standing in that spot for quite some time. I finally got the balls – I mean the weather prediction – to sign up. I signed up thinking I would have a little more time for “weather prediction” when the smiling young girl asked me, “So, Monsieur, do you want to go right now?”

“Uh…sure…” I answered. I paid and was bothered that the French don’t make you sign death waivers. That nervous little out-of-control feeling came sneaking up on me…

She instructed me to wait over near the edge of the slope. I was in earshot of a song blaring out on the loud speakers:
“…like a ONE-WAY ticket on a DERAILED train…..”

A guy named Serge was my pilot. He looked at my skis and asked, “Can you lock your heels on those skis?”

” No,” I answered.

” Hmmm… this could be a problem,” he said in an I’ve-never-experienced-this-type-of-situation voice.

” Why’s that?” I asked.

” The wind can catch your skis and throw them into our faces, possibly causing a serious situation.”

” HEY! I can come back tomorrow on Alpine skis,” I nervously answered, “It would really be no problem.”

” No! No! I think it is NOT a problem,” he said in a let’s-not-loose-a-profit voice.

I immediately had an image of him thinking if there WAS a problem – SIMPLE – just unclip the American and let him and his annoying skis fall. (You have to admit – putting your life in the hands of a Frenchman during these times does give you a moment of pause in any situation.)

Well, the experience was incredible! Such a rush. But the amazing thing was how it really felt like you were flying. Soaring over those majestic Alpine peaks was such a thrill. It was so peaceful up there – so inspirational – so awesome. I’m glad I took a camcorder and now have it on video which I am burning DVD’s of.

[PHOTOS: This peak below my skis is over is about 8,000 ft;
Above right: Monsieur Leedy paraglides over the French Alps.]

The next morning, as I headed into the dining room for breakfast, the owner of the hotel greeted me with a smile and said, “No Japs!”

“What?” I said, not understanding what I had heard…

All ships in the dining room had their eyes on me…

“No Japs,” he reiterated, “Japs gone home.”

“This put me off a bit and I wanted to tell him that they were US allies – unlike the French. Besides, a dozen or so paying guests – they boosted your normally slow late spring business – you shit head!

Then I remembered the previous night – at dinner:

A very late, reluctant, young French, businessman – who was obviously their business host, joined the Japanese – towards the end of their dinner -. One of the Japanese men spoke fluent French and was an enthusiastic Francophile. This whole trip was probably his idea. The other Japanese depended on him for communication and seemed to follow his lead. They were all having a great time. The French guy had boredom written all over his face and he didn’t mind showing it. He couldn’t wait to get away and later on, he and the hotel owner were having a glass of wine together at another table and talking about the Japanese in a not so positive light.

The next night at dinner – after the British family left their table – the owner sat down with a French couple at the next table whom he must have known well. The man asked him where the family was from. “Oh, they’re British just like this gentleman,” he said pointing over to me.

” Excuse me,” I said, “but I am an American.”

Their eyes lit up. An American? They seemed to be legitimately pleased. Or maybe they seemed pleased that an American was traveling to France during such times and such attitudes? After all, for the Brits, it’s like a trip to Disney World. For Americans, it’s a little more of a concentrated effort (and expense.)

The French guest came over and shook my hand while introducing himself. He switched to perfect English and told me how much he enjoyed traveling in the USA. He was a genuinely nice person.

As was the French couple with the budding artist child. As was the British family; we made no mention of the war during our time together. We were ALL nice people once the initial effort was made… Even Monsieur Proprieteur was a genuinely nice guy despite little bits of behavior that would turn off many Americans.

The French can be strange creatures when it comes to personal interactions. The Parisians especially so. I like to use my word, ‘cranky’ to describe them. It’s not that they necessarily dislike you; they are just operating on a different set of cultural guidelines. They don’t quickly warm up to new faces like Americans do. Despite things like their habit of staring, a penchant for breaking in line and a lack of the ability to smile (I actually read somewhere that the French consider anyone smiling to themselves to be a sign of stupidity), they can be quite nice folks when you get them one-on-one. Americans want to react to this initial belligerence because they feel it is directed specifically at them – when in fact, the French behave like this to each other. A perfect example of this happened today in Paris while I was at the post office: The post office was understaffed as usual and a French guy was making a big argument over something very minor (another national cranky characteristic) with one of two available postal clerks. A woman behind me started making over-exaggerated shrugs with over-exaggerated sighs (the French are famous for this as well.) I wanted to turn to her and ask, “OK, so, let me guess – you want to play Guess My Emotions Charades’, right?” When it was my turn, there was a problem that the clerk had run out of special envelopes for the USA and she was trying to explain to me the alternatives. The woman behind me got more and more dramatic with her shrugs. Her sighs became almost shrieks. I really wanted to turn around, and in a loud American voice ask, “Madame, what-the-fuck is wrong with you? Are you having trouble breathing? Do you want me to call a doctor?” When I was through, she walked up to the counter and I had an urge to jump back in the line and do a little one-upmanship on the obnoxious acting and give her a little of her own medicine. But I didn’t because all of the other people in line would have thought, how curious these strange Americans are! I’m sure not even one of them noticed her silly little sighs…

Towards the end of my stay in Courchevel, I asked the owner if I could have photocopies of the printed menus that were presented each night. I told him that I really enjoyed the food and they would be a bit of a souvenir (to remember, in French). “Well can’t you just remember in your head?” was his rather “cranky” response. Maybe it was a bit too much to ask him but any hotel in America would certainly have given an effort to satisfy….

When I checked out a few days later, the owner presented me with an envelope containing the menus. He gave me his card and said, “Next time, call me direct – don’t call the Courchevel reservation service – they will charge you more.” He patted me on the back and said, “Have a safe trip and I hope to see you again next year.” He shook my hand and gave me a big smile.

I smiled back and started to say jokingly, “No more Americans,” but I knew the humor would be lost in the translation.

I thanked him and said that I would hope to be back. I passed a vanload of incoming Spaniards as I went out the door. I turned to see the owner with a bit of a cranky look on his face as he regarded them.

More allies, I thought.

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