We started thinking about our February trip to the Alps last year when were were still living in Greenville. Initially, we had been invited to join in on plans to rent a big catered chalet with several other Ex-pat families that were already living here in France, but the group was large and there were no large chalets available the week that we were all hoping to go. As a result, we were on our own in terms of planning, but because we had already had our hearts set on our first family ski vacation during our first February break, Chuck went ahead and made all the reservations late summer and then it was time to wait for 6 months.
Skiing is a big thing here in this region of France. I didn’t realize initially just how ski- crazy the French are! There are several smaller ski resorts (stations) within an 45-6o minute drive, which are great to have for a day excursion, but it is the Alps that truly beckon. Many of the French flock to the Alps all winter long, especially for holidays- Christmas, New Years, etc. And now I know why.
Chuck and I have been to the Swiss Alps during the summer back during that school trip we took in college and though it was summer and there was little to no snow on the ground at the elevation we spent the afternoon at, I still remember it as being probably the most beautiful place I have ever been. I had hoped I’d be able to dig out a photo of that day, but all of our photos from our early days are safely stored away in storage. OH how somedays I miss hard-copy photos (without clouds, IPhones, backups, etc).
Because of the equipment, clothing, etc. needed for our trip, preparations for our trip started early. We braved the local sporting goods store, Decathalon, on a cold, cloudy Saturday in early January along with what felt like the rest of the entire city of Clermont-Ferrand to start collecting long johns, hats, mittens, you name it. Considering we would have the daunting task of trying on, figuring out sizes, being fitted, etc for skis, boots, helmets, etc in French, we had to do some “feeling out” first and so after several long, Saturday afternoon trips later to several different sporting goods stores, we finally had all that we needed. From a cost standpoint it made more sense to buy our equipment rather than pay to rent for a week, assuming we would be doing more skiing during our next few years here in France but it definitely meant more $$ (and patience from store clerks!) on the front end.
It was unbelievable how quickly January flew by and before we knew it, the boys were out of school again for another 2 week break. As awesome as these 2 week breaks are, they still feel a little strange to us. It’s like having Christmas break every 5-6 weeks and it’s wonderful. But, as we all probably do during Christmas breaks, we let a LOT of things slide… outside activity, healthy snacks, making beds, holding back on screen time, etc. and add in #apartment life, plus the excuse that “we are living in a foreign country, why not?” and it makes for some laaaazy, pj wearing, sugar-laden days. And that’s the week BEFORE vacation. Anyhow, we remind ourselves that these times are temporary and when the boys grumble about school, we remind them that they have much more “school” back home in the US.
It was great to have a week to prepare for the trip, because since it was our first family ski trip, we were totally green on how to efficiently pack when your destination requires so many bulky clothes and equipment. And we really weren’t sure how we’d fit it all in our French-sized car. Somehow, God knew what he was doing when he paired me with Chuck because if I happened to marry someone that, like myself, also was not good at efficient, necessity-based packing or how to pack a small car with all of our (ok mostly MY) bags, we’d be in trouble. Luckily, Charlie and Owen are light packers and so it’s just Wells (the other pack rat) and me to worry about.
We had heard lots about how driving to the Alps could take hours and hours due to stand-still traffic if you didn’t do some smart planning and leave early in the morning. But, we didn’t trust ourselves to pull away early Saturday morning, so we headed to Lyon Friday night (as we had when we went to Annecy) but this time, we left later and sailed into Lyon (no famous Friday night Lyon traffic!) and stayed again at .
Being permanently scarred from having our entire stash of belongings stolen from our car back in October while traveling, this meant a long, arduous task of unpacking the car and carrying in ALLLLLL of our boots, skis, helmets, suitcases, pillows, etc etc etc into the hotel rather than risk leaving anything in the car while parked on the street. Once we unpacked everything, poor Chuck had to drive literally a mile away in order to find a parking spot, just for several hours, only to wake up early, pack the car back up and hit the trail. He is a good egg:)
The drive to Meribel couldn’t have been easier. It was a very cold and rainy day and we’d heard that if snowing, the traffic could be bad; especially because traffic stops will be set up at the bottom of the mountain to ensure that cars/vans have snow tires with chains; evidently, they won’t risk letting any vehicles up the mountain without, as this could lead to a major traffic backup. So, as we got closer to Meribel, the rain was freezing and we were ready to hit lots of traffic. Luckily, other than a few bottlenecks at toll stops and tunnels, we sailed and were there by noon. When we arrived, it was pouring freezing rain and since we couldn’t check in to our apartment until 5:00, we weren’t able to dig and find our rain gear and were not prepared with umbrellas. It was one cold afternoon!
When we arrived to Meribel, it was so foggy and snowy that you could barely see the slopes and definitely could not see the mountains or peaks.
It was so strange to be at 1800 m elevation and not be able to see where you are! But the little town center of Meribel was so charming and had all the feels of a little Alps village.
We saw a restaurant, Jack’s Pub, that was opening up for the day when we got there. When we walked in, we were fully expecting to speak French, but the entire restaurant was speaking English! All of the waitstaff were British and even the customers were all speaking English! It was like we had entered a language oasis. Aaaaahhhhh. As we were in France, we didn’t even think twice about what language we’d be speaking the entire week. At first we thought we had just gotten lucky, but as we found out later, there is a heavy English-speaking (British) population in Meribel. Now, it really WOULD feel like vacation this week!
After a few hours of lunch, playing some pool, having coffee, reading/Ipads, it was time to move on. We still had a few hours to kill and there certainly wasn’t much appealing outside given the freezing downpour with no umbrellas, but we wandered into a few shops- the boys found a snowball maker, and off we went to find another spot to sit and warm up. We stumbled into yet another pub, (Scott’s) this time 🙂 and thawed out next to warm heaters and had the first Buffalo wings we’ve had on this side of the Atlantic! It was amazing. They were playing the best 80s music and again, Brits everywhere! No French. We were sitting next to another English-speaking family with a few small kids, one of which was looked to be about 4 and was making quick work of an entire basket of wings. The boys thought he was pretty cute and started referring to him as “Wing Eater”. Little did we know that Wells would be spending the whole week with Wing Eater.
We finally checked in and, after a bit of driving around without finding our condo according to the map, we realized that the sign to our condo sat behind a wall of snow …
We got to our apartment late that afternoon and have never been happier to be at our new “home away from home”. After unloading the millions of things we had brought in the freezing cold rain, it could have been a complete rathole and it would have seemed cozy at that point.
But, it was such a cute little chalet condo that sat right next to one of the slopes and was literally nestled in more snow than we have ever seen!
While we unpacked, Owen and Wells put on all of their snow gear and headed out back to try out their new snowball maker and start stockpiling snowballs (which lasted exactly 5 minutes)- it was crazy cold and very wet.
The next morning, we were up early and prepping for our first day “on the slopes”… the boys were all signed up for ski-school (we paid a little extra for English-speaking! yay!- didn’t really want anything to get “lost in translation”, especially for their first time:) They were so excited. We were excited too- we essentially would have from 9:30-1:30 each day to ski while the kids were in ski-school!
Our first day was very cloudy and foggy with very little visibility- there were times when Chuck and I were headed up in the “telecabines” or “telesieges” where you could not see much at all…
Meribel is one of 3 valleys that come together and comprise the largest ski area in the Alps; hundred of slopes blanketing several very large mountains, but there was no way to appreciate its size that first day….
Lucky for us, we were no experts and the slopes we were skiing at the beginning were pretty predictable and didn’t require being able to see for long distances… that was until Chuck thought it might be fun to try a red slope. Probably equivalent to a black diamond slope out west in the US, I will spare you the details of the choice words I had for him when I realized I was way in over my head and couldn’t even see 3 feet in front of me to figure out how or where to go. I was pretty sure at one point I was going to die. Ugh, it was so scary and definitely not my best moment.
But, we survived and had a great first day. Though we were definitely rusty (12 years later and 40+), it was so much fun getting back at it.
Overall, the kids had a great day. There were lots of tears (Wells) and maybe a few “I hate skiing”s, but luckily this was temporary. When we dropped the boys off that first morning, their instructor asked for their poles and we (stupidly) stood there empty-handed- we had been told by several different sources that beginners didn’t use poles and therefore, we hadn’t bought any. So finding poles for beginners at 3 different heights was not as easy as we thought but after a few hours of searching through several stores, mission accomplished. We were ready to show up Monday morning with poles.
The boys again headed out for a snowball fight, but this time, they enlisted Chuck and we discovered how deep the snow really was. As in, Chuck couldn’t even walk in it because he kept sinking so deep. There were some parts that came to Owen’s shoulders!
Monday, the sun finally arrived. Shortly after we woke up, we went outside to see if we could finally see the peaks that we’d been hoping to see the last few days. To be able to see how truly high up we really were!
The morning was just glorious. Everyone was excited to ski another day.
Even this guy…
Their instructor, Max, told us that they would be moving Charlie and Owen up to the next group but that Wells would be going to a different group- with a new instructor, Maria. As soon as we met Maria, we handed her the poles, at which time she assured us that Wells did NOT need poles, but perhaps later in the week he would. Grrrrrr…….(oh well. It had surely kept us busy the previous afternoon). And, much to the boys’ amusement, little wing-eater was in his group!
After dropping them off, we couldn’t wait to head up!
We rode up a different lift which took us to a different area of the mountain, closer to Courcheval, and the view was so amazing, it’s hard to even describe with words. Each trail offered a more beautiful view than the next, it was hard to restrain ourselves from stopping over and over again to take more photos, hoping to capture any part of it to take home with us and remember.
We thought it might be fun to try our first stab at “family skiing” that Monday afternoon and it was quite the adventure.
The plan was that Chuck would stay with Wells and I’d go ahead and keep up with the older boys. It was pretty disastrous that first day- for Wells. For Chuck.
Owen and Charlie did great and just plugged along, practicing all that they’d learned the last few mornings. But Chuck insisted that THAT would be it for the family skiing that week.
What was probably a combination of exhaustion and fear -Wells turned into a wet noodle on skis. Chuck literally had to hold him up between his legs- pizza-slicing their way down a “beginner” (not so beginner) slope, Wells howling the entire way down. Every once in awhile, they’d get tangled up and fall and someone would inevitably lose a ski or pole several feet up and Chuck would have to pop off his skis and walk back up while Wells just sat there pounding his fists against the slope, yelling “skiing is SOOOO BORING!” Unfortunately, we were in another valley- Mottaret, and the only way back was a nice long trail that had some flat parts we had to push through. As much as we had hoped a family ski would be just as fun, it was NOT fun for Wells, Chuck or I that first afternoon. This video below contains rare footage of them “skiing”.
Overall, it was just a perfect storm of tears, frustration and exhaustion so we called it quits and counted our blessings that all bones were still intact.
So after that afternoon, we stuck with a new plan for a bit….the afternoons were for being lazy and that was just enough time for W to forget his frustrations from the day before and somehow, he was up and dressed in his longjohns each morning, ready to go.
That night I thought it might be a good idea to do a load of wash and much to my chagrin it was one of those Frenchy-type top-loaders (similar to one we had in our temporary apartment) that has a big drum that rolls; you just have to clamp down the top to shut it and let it run. I (thought I)closed it, shut the door and a few minutes later we heard the most awful thumping sound and thought it must just be an old machine. I’d get back to laundry the next day. Or would I.
Tuesday morning was just as beautiful as Monday. The kids were excited and ready to go. Chuck and I explored another area of the valley…
After lunch, I hung with Wells while Chuck and the big boys skied more.
That night, we and several other of the Michelin families from Clermont that were also staying/skiing in Meribel met for dinner at La Fromagerie, a local cheese shop/restaurant that serves fondue/raclette and meat plates, a very popular communal way to enjoy cheese in this Savoie region of France. Since moving to France, we have not been the most adventurous in the cheese realm (Wells especially). French cheese can be VERY strong in smell, I think it could be argued that the Savoie cheeses are the smelliest…..There were plenty of options on the menu, so we were up for it. Wells has ONE STRONG SNIFFER. As in, he will not walk in or even near a cheese store, or even the cheese aisle in the grocery store! When we first walked into the restaurant, we were immediately hit with the super strong cheese smell. Wells literally had his nose plugged for the first 20 minutes we were there. He even gagged a few times, but thank goodness for endless pickles and bread 🙂
The kids all got to sit together (sans parents) and the older kids started truth or dare-ing each other to eat from the leftover pot full of cheese sitting on their table….
Wednesday was my favorite day of skiing. While we had seen some beautiful areas the few previous days, this day we went higher up, closer to Saint Martin, one of the other valleys and these views just might have been the best…
Every day, the temps were mid 20s, so after a few hours, we would find a place to stop and sit, to warm up with coffee and sun. But the views this day, this high up (2300 feet) were special…..
After coffee, we skied down this trail known as “Jerusalem”. I’m quite sure that skiing and video-ing with your phone are a very dangerous combination, but I just couldn’t help myself….
Unfortunately, as the morning went on, my back started hurting more and more as a previous back injury from last fall reared its ugly head…. I did my best to ignore it for as long as I could because I just wasn’t willing to quit this early in the day… luckily there was lots to take my mind off of it….
Fortunately, that afternoon, one of the girls had been kind enough to book an afternoon at the spa in advance for all the mamas… The “spa” (which actually ended up being more like a hotel pool with lukewarm water) was nice and it felt great to sit in the hot steam room/sauna after freezing our tails off all week!
While some of the girls had massages, a few of us stayed in the pool, where we were “babysat” by a strange lifeguard who felt it was his job to stand guard over us to the point where (if he had spoken English) we would’ve sworn he was eavesdropping!
Late that afternoon, when we had tried several times to run the washing machine again and weren’t able to open it when the cycle was done, Chuck called the rental agency to ask if we could get someone to come look at it. We ran out to the store quickly to grab dinner and when we got back, Charlie said that someone had come by to look at the dishwasher (not washing machine) and wasn’t able to see any problems. I called back to point out the miscommunication and the woman asked me to find the “guardienne” in the building (the super), so off I went, knocked on her door and the nice lady came to check things out. Sure enough, the “door” to the drum was stuck and she proceeded to go into our kitchen, grab a kitchen knife and start jamming it into the washer, trying to pop the door open. After 20 minutes or so and no luck, she called the maintenance man to come look at it. Late that evening, he came by when we were leaving to run out and, again, jamming all kinds of tools into the machine trying to wrestle the door open. When we arrived home later, he was gone, but nothing had been fixed.
Thursday morning, I sat the morning out to give my back a rest in hopes that I’d be able to ski that afternoon with the gang…amnesia had set in and we had hoped to give family skiing another shot…. Wells’ instructor had mentioned that he was making some progress and, along with Charlie and Owen’s insistence that Wells’ was getting much better at skiing, (Chuck and I hadn’t had the chance to see him ski ourselves yet since that first day), this was our plan.
We had definitely noticed that his feelings about skiing had changed. He was excited to go in the mornings and insisted on carrying all of his own gear (including his poles which he was now using), putting his own skis on, etc. so we figured that was a good sign:)
This time, we studied the trail map beforehand and found several family ski areas with other activities (just in case). We were ready!
We were absolutely shocked. I don’t feel like the previous video of Wells did justice to relay just how hard that first day was. But this was a completely different kid! WHAT a difference 5 days makes! It was unbelievable!
Owen had made steady progress too during the week.
He really loved skiing and was super excited to go every morning. I really felt like he was the “safest” of our skiers because he was always skiing in control, at a good pace, but didn’t feel compelled to “try” the hardest slopes. He was comfortable going at his own pace and (uncharacteristically) did not fall much at all. Anyone who knows Owen knows how much he loves any opportunity to dive onto the ground. There have been times where we have wondered whether we are watching him play basketball (or football). He has been saying for months now that he would give anything to have a broken arm. He is always looking for a wrestling partner or any opportunity to expend some physical energy. Which has not proven to be easy when living in an apartment.
After a much smoother afternoon of family skiing, it was time for Après- ski 🙂 There was a great spot off the trail very close to our chalet called Rond Point. It had a huge outdoor seating area overlooking the slopes with a stage where musicians were performing, etc.
As the sun set, the temps dropped and we headed home to make dinner. We had lucked out that there was a great little grocery store near our chalet called Sherpa. It’s a chain of small grocery stores that can only be found in the mountains of Europe and will deliver! They had everything we needed to cook at home all week and I thought the name was so cute, too.
Shortly after we got home, we got a call from the rental agency asking us if we had insurance coverage for damages to the washing machine. After weeding through the conversation in Franglish, Chuck was able to make out that they were claiming we had broken the washing machine and would need to pay to replace the motor. Ugh. What I may have done to maybe “sort of” break it I”m sure was completed by all the knives and screwdrivers jammed into it after the fact. Oh well. They had our credit card so our hands were tied 😦
Friday was our last day on the slopes and we planned to ski all day. Luckily with some stretching, ibuprofen and heat, my back was a little better and I was able to hang. I had hoped to ski the same area we had skied earlier in the week with that magnificent trail, Jerusalem. We headed that way and were on our way down. As we had done all week, Chuck would go first and I’d follow behind, but as we headed down this trail, there was a fork and when I came up to it, I couldn’t see him anywhere. Unfortunately both signs were blue trails and so I wasn’t sure which path to take. I tried calling him, but all week, my phone did not function well in the cold and would shut off, and so I couldn’t get the call to go thru. I decided to continue on down Jerusalem because this was the path I remembered, but it didn’t take long as I headed down that I had chosen the WRONG path. And that’s the thing about skiing… there’s no quick way to retrace your steps.
I skied along for easily 20 minutes and finally came to the bottom of a completely different valley than the ones we had been skiing in. I was finally able to get thru to Chuck and he told me to take that lift back up to the first one we had taken that morning. Unfortunately, there was only one lift and the wait was 25 minutes. Somehow, I ended up sandwiched between a group of cougar-y French women (all decked out in their finest ski gear) and a big group of fraternity-ish French college guys. When I finally reached the front of the line, there were groups of 8 on each telecabine and me being #8 to ride with the women, I got shoved out of the way getting on and had to wait for the next one with… you guessed it, 7 other smelly French college guys. The 20 minute ride up was interesting. All I could do was hope that they didn’t speak to me, because I wasn’t in the mood to fumble through bad French with a very close audience of 7 rowdy guys. Ughhhhh. When I finally made it back up, Chuck was waiting on me at a restaurant next to the lift with the yummiest Irish coffee ever.
It was worth the wait. Disappointed that most of our last morning was spent backtracking, we were excited to meet up with the boys for their “awards ceremony”. By the end of the week, each of the boys were in a separate group, which was great because they were free to ski at their own levels without the distraction of messing with each other…
Wells finished out the week loving skiing and moving up to level 2… it was so fun to see his confidence grow in such a short period of time!
Owen finished out the week by moving up to level 3….
We saw a whole new side of Charlie this week that we had never seen before. Not typically a fan of sports, he has absolutely fallen in love with skiing. The balance he has always been blessed with, along with determination to figure out parallel skiing and trying more challenging slopes made for a great week for him.
Because he was skiing 100% parallel by the end of the week, he was moved up to level 4.
That afternoon after lunch, Charlie met up with his friend Elliot and his mom to ski and so we skied with the younger 2 and other than a few entanglements (Wells and I this time), we survived.
Despite being exhausted, Wells did not want to stop. He even passed up hot chocolate to keep going. He made me take one final video of him…
and then, he was done. DONE.
We were so sad that our week had come to an end. As the sun went down, we finished up returning all of our rental gear and headed home to pack up.
The week was full of surprises for us. As parents this year, we have watched our children repeatedly be faced with new, strange, unpredictable, unknown and sometimes scary situations over and over again. Trying skiing for the first time was just the latest (and most fun yet!). We are humbled by the realization that children have the potential and unique ability to stretch beyond what we’ve ever imagined possible. Daily life in a foreign, non-English speaking country comes with limitless challenges for every single one of us. Suddenly and strangely, we find ourselves all on a level playing field in terms of skill and ability to speak the language, knowledge about culture and daily life, and ability to muster through. At any given time, we do not all have the same amount of courage, positive outlook (or acceptance!) but we push each other along and its opportunities to do things like this that remind us all about perspective 🙂