Snow Plow! by Sue Bavey
When I was 20 years old and a student at the University of Manchester, UK, I spent a year in Germany as part of my degree course. I lived in a bedsit apartment in the downtown area of Kaiserslautern, a city located in the Rheinland-Pfalz region of Germany, and taught English to fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds in a local urban high school. My lessons were fairly light going and mostly revolved around playing hangman, translating and analysing song lyrics and vocabulary tests. Being not too much older than the students, they considered me something of a novelty and took me along with them when they went ice-skating and to football matches. Each January, the school organised a ski or snowboarding trip to Austria, travelling for a day by coach and spending four days skiing or snowboarding before returning to Kaiserslautern. My teaching mentor, Herr Schaeffer, the head of the English department, asked me if I would like to go along at no cost to myself. I was very nervous since I had never been skiing or snowboarding before and there was only a week’s notice before the planned departure. However, I told myself that I must grasp every opportunity by the horns during my year abroad, so I couldn’t turn down the chance of a new experience, free of charge at that! I was eager to visit Austria and see the Alps. My parents and I had visited Innsbruck and the Tyrol on vacation before I left home for university, and I was looking forward to seeing some more of the quaint wooden houses with carved shutters and balconies, often painted with flowers, which were so prevalent in the Tyrolean countryside.
I told the teachers that I would love to go on the ski trip, but that I had neither ski clothing nor equipment. One of the teachers who was going to be on the trip as a chaperone told me that his wife would happily lend me one of her older outfits and they encouraged me that my lack of skill would not be an issue at all. I could take the same lessons as the kids after all, what could possibly go wrong?
It all seemed perfectly feasible, except that I had failed to consider that the kids were German and therefore the lessons would also be in German. This was something of a problem since, although I had done well in my German classes at school and my linguistic capabilities had no doubt improved during the two years I had already spent at university, all of my German teachers up to that point had been English. I had a lot of trouble understanding the Austrian accent of the fast-talking skiing teacher. Anyone who speaks Spanish will know that trying to understand a Mexican person speaking Spanish is not the same as deciphering European Spanish. The same is the case with German and Austrian German. I’m pretty sure it is probably the same with French and Canadian French or Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese as well. Add into the mix my lack of fitness, compared to a bunch of fourteen-year-olds who spent a large proportion of the week playing sports of one type or another, and you can begin to imagine the situation I found myself in.
The kids began skiing down the beginner slopes as the instructor shouted something along the lines of “Schneepflug!” and I tried to join them, not having a clue what this term meant. It turns out it is the manner in which you learn to stop and is translated as “Snow Plough!” which is a term I now know is also used in America when teaching a child how to turn their skis into a V shape to gradually stop themselves. This meaning and its significance were completely lost on me. I went charging off down the beginner ‘bunny’ slopes and invariably stopped myself by falling on my backside in the snow. The teacher whose wife had lent me her ski outfit (a most stylish, red one-piece), was not very impressed as he watched me scraping along the sharp bits of ice. I managed to rip the backside of the outfit after only an hour or so. It was exhausting and thirsty work and we were all pleased to go and warm up inside the ski lodge with a hot cup of cocoa and a Pfanneküchen, which proved to be a kind of pancake with apple sauce on top and was delicious.
This ridiculous behaviour continued for me on day two, meanwhile, the children were improving with leaps and bounds and having a great laugh at my expense. I did not seem able to stay upright, however hard I tried, and they found me an incredibly funny sight as I tumbled over again and again! I was starting to get disheartened and dreading the third day when we would venture further up the mountain to a proper ski run. The way I saw it, there was no way on Earth I was going to be able to survive that experience without broken limbs, and I would probably bring down a few skiers with me if they managed to get in my way, as I careened helter-skelter down the slope, without even a modicum of control.
That night I dreamt that I was an expert ski jumper, soaring through the air after taking off from a jump on my way down a steep mountain. Of course, I won an Olympic gold medal in my dream! When I awoke reality set in, accompanied by the healthy dose of fear that usually shows its head in a life-threatening situation. Over breakfast, I listened to the excited chatter of the children discussing the fact that they were going up the mountain on a proper ski lift to reach an actual ski run that day, and my knees started knocking with trepidation.
We were staying in a youth hostel not far away from the mountain and soon the time arrived when we would set off for the mountain in our coach. My stomach felt like it was full of eels as the dread began to set in. Surely I would be able to do this if so many others were able to become capable skiers with what appeared to be ease…
We spent half an hour on the beginner slopes warming up and then the time came for our ascent up the mountain. I lined up for the chair lift along with the rest of our party, feeling vaguely sick with fear by this time. As we rose up into the air on the lift I tried to concentrate on the beautiful countryside passing beneath me, so many majestic pine trees lying in wait to cause my demise…
We came to the point where we each had to leap off the chairlift, since of course they do not stop to let you off and I, predictably, did a particularly ungainly dismount, catching my skis somehow and going sprawling, right in the path of the person trying to get off the lift behind me. I tried to regain what small amount of dignity remained to me, got back on my feet after several unsuccessful attempts, and made my way cautiously and slowly to my group, who were being told where they would set off from to glide their way gracefully down to the base of the mountain. I looked down the steep slope to the bottom and was reminded of my trip to Innsbruck with my parents. We had visited the location of the Austrian Winter Olympics while we were there and had gone up to the top of the ski jump and looked down it. At the bottom of the ski jump, right in the field of vision of the skiers who were about to throw themselves with all force down the slope, was a graveyard. I remembered that our party had been both shocked and amazed at the time, that these ski jumpers were not put off by the sight of such an untimely reminder of their mortality.
This experience was running through my mind as the kids in our group began taking off down the ski slope in groups of two. They had been told to remain with a buddy in case they needed any help. Soon it was my turn and I just couldn’t make myself do it. I was terrified and thought I might throw up. But how in Heaven’s name was I going to be able to get down to the base of the mountain again? I knew I just couldn’t make myself do it and told the chaperone teacher. He said I would need to hold on to him around the waist and he would take me down the mountain behind him. I was prepared to do pretty much anything to get back down to the bottom, but this seemed a little intimate. However, I screwed up my small amount of courage and gave it a go and down the mountain we went. It was actually fun gliding down the slope knowing I wasn’t in control, but that someone else was in charge of steering us. I even remembered to ‘snow plough’ at the end of the run so that we slowed down and came to a stop more or less where we were supposed to. I was so relieved when we reached the end of the slope that I couldn’t stop thanking the teacher who brought me down the mountain.
Needless to say, skiing is not my favourite activity and I have never learned correctly, although I have had a couple of unsuccessful attempts at lessons since moving to New England. We get a lot of snow each winter and winter sports are a big part of life here. Once again during my attempts at skiing lessons, I spent more time on my backside in the uncomfortable, cold, wet snow and I have since come to terms with the fact that I am just not cut out for it and will simply watch from the warmth and comfort of the ski lodge if my family ever wants to go skiing!