"Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were."
"These are the breaks."
We were just outside of Bourg St Maurice, at the foot of the Alps, when reality started to bite.
Wedged on the back seat of a blue minibus with a crick in my neck and a stale taste in my mouth, I awoke to find myself squeezed between a travel-sick Essex girl and a taciturn Australian, surrounded by half a dozen other people I didn’t know, nor particularly wanted to.
I wasn’t even supposed to be there. At that precise moment, I was supposed to be working the tills as a seasonal bookseller at the Crewe branch of Ottakar’s. Two months into my tenure, after one too many arguments with customers – have you ever seen that episode of Spaced where Daisy, stacking bookshelves while visibly stressed, tells a patron to fuck off? That was me – I decided to cut my losses and get out of there. (It was also eating into my getting-high-time.)
Which was how I found myself part of a minibus convoy rumbling south towards the French ski resort of La Rosiere – a retinue of would-be seasonaires drawn from the four corners of our fair isle accompanied a handful of irrepressible interlopers from the Commonwealth. We didn’t know it then, but each of us was destined for a gruelling week-long induction of self-aggrandising small talk, repetitive deep-cleaning and heavy drinking. Not all of us would make it. Many left bodies, minds and former selves on the mountain; some even lost their virginity there. A few didn’t make it back at all.
My father had staged a pre-Yuletide intervention to give his eldest and most feckless offspring some direction in life. I’d graduated that summer and spend most of the autumn getting stoned in my room and bemoaning bookselling (in hindsight, actually quite a good gig). He suggested working in a ski resort instead, and it seemed like a no brainer. I was a decent skier, hardworking(ish), personable. We’d holidayed with this small ski company several times, so he made the phone call, put in a good word. There followed a hurried journey across the Pennines for a quick interview with the management team at their Yorkshire HQ, before being offered a job for the winter on the spot. The turnaround from quitting my bookshop job to being wedged in the back of the minibus was little over a week.
The job I was offered was entirely provisional. I was too young to be a ski guide or work in the bar, didn’t know one end of a chef’s knife from the other, missed the slots for ski tech or plongeur, which basically left ad hoc chalet boy responsibilities: making beds, cleaning toilets and waiting tables in the restaurant. But it was too good an opportunity to miss: aside from the desultory pay they threw in a free lift pass, bed and board, a beer money ‘slush fund’ (tips) and, so long as your chores were done, all the time to ski in the world.
Our base in La Rosiere was the 62-bed chalet hotel Le Roc Noir (since demolished), headed up by a long-serving resort husband-and-wife management team: our surrogate parents for the season. For the first week of induction twenty to thirty of us stayed at the Roc: hoovering, bleaching and mopping in the day; drinking, chatting and settling in. I distinctly remember using a scouring pad to scrub the skirting-boards in the dining room, and repainted the kitchen doors with gloopy, decades-old emulsion that came off on my hands when I rehung them. Nevertheless, there was a wonderfully collegiate sensibility in the first week, with everyone on their best behaviour. Then with the hotel fit for human habitation, and everyone familiar and affiliated, the team was split up.
A skeletal crew was left at the Roc: in the kitchen, camp, authoritarian head chef , a gregarious, muscular Canadian and quiet, hipster Australian; the chalet team, three girls – two traveller-types who’d signed up together and the Essex girl - plus myself; a wall-eyed Welshman plongeur-cum-barman; two bar staff who fell out almost immediately; and three ski guides of varying capability.
My one and only season in a ski resort was defined by false dawns and fuck ups, stoned camaraderie and social dissipation. It also bore witness to the most depressing Christmas Day I’ve ever endured. After staying up until 4am on Christmas Eve and retiring to bed in a drunken mess, I was woken at 7am and given a dressing down: I’d forgotten to set up breakfast for the guests the night before. Later that day, having wiped down toilets and nursed my hangover, I phoned home whereupon my mother burst into tears. That evening at dinner I spent two hours being purposefully ignored by the hotel guests (every seasonaire was expected to join guests at their table and clear their plates, top up their wine, engage them in witty repartee etc).
I’d initially hoped to become the resident ski tech after the incumbent snowboarded into a snowdrift and broke his ankle the week before the Roc was due to open. It was certainly better pay. Desperate to remain, he discharged himself early and returned to the hotel to edge skis while – I kid you not – hopping on one leg. I aided him in the task by holding his Black and Decker Workmate steady. He rewarded me by insulting me in front of guests (by calling me Rupert all evening). When management tried to send him home, he had the pins holding his ankle together removed early and fitted the guests’ skis while hobbling around on one crutch. Eventually, he recovered sufficiently to be able to join the guests at dinner, seeing off carafe after carafe of foul house wine in the process – though he never rode his board again.
He shared a room with a strange individual who was the resident handyman, a guy who dry-heaved every time he emptied the bins – the result of some earlier trauma while working for Doncaster council. One occasion he wandered into the kitchen with vomit over his corporate fleece, muttering something about finding a dead cat in a binbag. He was supposed to be a ski guide but after losing his group twice in the first week was stripped of his stripes. On the rare occasion I was given a night off dishwashing I’d visit the kitchen to find he’d either dropped a stack of plates or dismantled the dishwasher.
It’s somewhat fortuitous, then, that I found myself in a four-man roomshare with the only other non-psychotic seasonaires, the two chefs and Welshman. Incredibly, we all got on really well, despite the barely-humane conditions of our accommodation: a claustrophobic room below the bar where the only natural light came from a small window which opened directly onto La Rosiere’s main thoroughfare. One half of the room – the half where I slept, read and wrote – barely saw any natural light.
In the centre of the room was an en suite, with a small toilet and a shower which immediately became clogged with pubic hair and jism. The toilet had an electric flush which we disconnected so we could plug in the stereo: consequently on a few occasions the bathroom became flooded with piss. There was a desk where I penned pained letters to friends and family, skinned up, or sulked when I was issued with a bollocking.
A sea-change of sorts came when the ever-chipper Welsh guy switched from kitchen dishwasher to working behind the bar. He also ducked out of our sperm-scented hovel. From then, things improved considerably. Freed from the back-breaking, ball-busting duties of the chalet cleaning team, it meant spending less face time with the frequently-obnoxious guests. By comparison being a plongeur was absolute bliss.
It also meant more time to ski. Back then, La Rosiere was a tiny, three-chairlift ski area which bordered with La Thuile in Italy. Every day you could ski across the border and back, albeit via an excruciatingly long poma ride into the wind. We grabbed a couple of days skiing every week, and could pick and choose our days, avoiding the busy slopes of national holidays and predominantly skiing in fresh powder in unbroken sunshine. It was absolutely heavenly and made every moment of the mind-stultifyingly monotonous work worth it.
That said, at least in the kitchen we got to play music, joke about and drink beers. The Australian had arrived with virtually no patisserie skills (every day he failed in his quest to bake an edible cake), but did bring with him some hiphop and electro records. Being more a Sixties counterculture fan – steeped in the dour tones of Bob Dylan, The Band, Neil Young – who’d only figuratively dipped a toe in the chilled waters of triphop (via Massive Attack, Leftfield, Morcheeba, Rae and Christian), these records were revelatory: Afrika Bambaataa, De La Soul, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Erik B and Rakim, Kurtis Blow, A Tribe called Quest. The fiercely political lyrics of 'The Message', melded to the sustained urgency of its electro hooks and fizzing synths, was aurally superior and infintely more authentic than anything Dylan had penned or opined. We segued into jazz and soul-funk: Gil Scott-Heron, Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers, Curtis Mayfield. A local radio station played 'The Bottle' at least once a week. Daft Punk released Discovery that year, and we played it until the CD began to skip. The Canadian owned a couple of Dave Matthews records, and once or twice a day we had to endure the piping of his pseudo-folk-blues-funk fuckery as we busied ourselves in the kitchen.
So things were great for a couple of weeks, and were generally great save for the deleterious effects of drink and drugs. Weed – or more specifically, cheap hash sold to us at exorbitant prices by a short-arsed, stroppy Glaswegian ski guide – arrived sometime in late January and immediately started to bugger things up. I didn’t see anything harder being consumed, though from his permanently-furious persona and bragging about having coke snorted off his cock, clearly they made their presence felt in other ways. The Scottish dealer enjoyed pulling the strings: I managed to rub him up the wrong way by simply mentioning weed the first time we met, and after that he made himself unapproachable – which was problematic, because at the time of departing for France I was smoking at least two joints a day.
Whether management knew about the dope I cannot say. Certainly guests wandered into our room on more than one occasion while we were blazing up. But no one got the sack, so the likelihood is we got away with it, or a blind eye was frequently turned. Booze and weed stratified the social scene, eventually splitting the Roc group between those who smoked and those who didn’t, and those who socialised after hours (which the stoners generally didn’t).
Further social stratification occurred thanks to the cultivation of an us-and-them mentality against the reps of the resort’s rival companies. A large group decamped every night to our bar, taking over all the seats meant for guests and drinking the bar dry almost every night. Because they spent their wages in our bar they were tolerated, nay encouraged, by our bar staff colleagues, but it didn’t make them any less irritating, particularly when their reveries culminated in a nightly rendition of Toploader’s interminable anthem-for-cunts, ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’, just as we were bedding down in our cave below.
Our social integration within the wider community similarly left a lot to be desired. Suffice to say, some of the chalet maids were better at maintaing d'entente cordiale than the male contingent. Being stoned, self-obsessed and completely engrossed in a dysfunctional pseudo-relationship with one of the maids – which boomeranged from besotted lust to adolescent despondency on my part – I didn’t pick up on a lot of the simmering resentment and festering enmity between some of our number. Perhaps I was blithely complicit in it without realising: I was exhibiting the bi-polar tendencies of the lovelorn for much of that time.
We all suffered from cabin fever, being unable to get off the goddamn mountain. Only the chefs and a couple of the guides were able to drive down to Bourg once a week to pick up supplies, buy a Big Mac or just return to normality. The majority of us were stuck, with little to do but drink, smoke, bicker or fuck.
The shit hit the fan on the first themed party night held in the Roc bar, sometime in February. Wednesdays were the seasonaires’ official day off, so everyone cut loose on the Tuesday evening, knowing full well we wouldn’t have to rise and shine the next morning. Someone - most likely the Canadian chef - decided that mixing flavoured vodka to sell to guests and locals would be a great idea. Thus ensued a day of mixing cheap vodka with assorted confectionary: Skittles, Mars Bars, Bounty. It was utterly, utterly vile stuff. And it sent everyone off on an E-numbers-and-booze-fuelled rampage.
Over the space of a couple of hours people started barking at one another in protracted arguments, using their extreme inebriation as an excuse to vent a month’s worth of bitterness and recrimination. In a stoned fuge, I witnessed a large, shouting nursery assistant punch her aristocratic stoner colleague in the face. One of the ski guides was (falsely) accused of assaulting his girlfriend – it was nasty. That night things turned a little darker. Relationships had soured, and for a while it seemed the social fabric of our little microcosm was beyond repair.
It wasn’t, of course; difficulties are always conflated with crises in young minds. We lumbered on: a few people left, others came. A good deal of bed-hopping ensued. Rooms that had to be closed to guests were requisitioned by the staff for midnight trysts. New arrivals sometimes found it hard to gel with the group: one girl literally lasted a fortnight; yet in that short time, she was seduced by the bar manager.
Bus-loads of harassed, fatigued would-be skiers pulled up every Saturday evening; we sent them off the following Friday with a raucous gala dinner. Halfway through the season Friday nights suddenly transformed into the new Tuesday, with the chefs necking bloody Mary’s and oysters, me drinking bottles of beer with a whisky top. Entirely counter-productive given how busy changeover day was, but incredibly fun - and by that point we were sleepwalking our way through our daily duties.
In March the snow threatened to disappear, so we sunbathed on the hotel balcony instead of skiing. My father and a friend came to visit, and claimed to have found a flea in their room. The snow returned in great abundance the week before we were due to come home. Closing the resort at that point seemed a gross aberration. But that’s what happened, and we boarded the blue minibus and started the return journey with no small degree of sorrow.
One the motorway somewhere south of Paris, in torrential rain and driving wind, a poorly-secured bag of clothes (mine) slipped loose of its roof-rack mooring and was thrown under the wheels of an articulated lorry. A car flashed us and passed us, the driver pointing at our roof. We doubled back to find a lane of the motorway closed while they rescued the bag; an apologetic-looking Frenchman handed me the sodden, tangled remnants of my possessions. I didn’t get a penny from my employer.
I often find myself wondering what became of them all – then I stop myself. It’s futile to speculate. And besides, I can always log back into Facebook to find out. The only thing I do know is I’d do it all again in an instant. Only this time, I’d kick his bloody crutches away.