ALPS & ORIGINS
In the summer of 1975 my friend Bob and I decided to spend the winter skiing in Europe. And so, on our last night in Vancouver before flying to Amsterdam, we took a friend of ours, who was going to drive us to the airport, out for pizza and a movie. We couldn’t find a movie all of us wanted to see, so in what seemed a brilliant idea at the time, we took her to a movie none of us wanted to see. In retrospect, how could we have known that we would soon have cause to remember every scene of the movie in disturbing detail ? And so we found ourselves at the theatre watching Black Christmas as an unknown crazy terrorized and murdered girls in a sorority house over the Christmas holidays. The movie was memorable in that every character was accounted for by the end of the movie, mostly dead, without revealing which one was the killer, only to reveal in the finale, with one last gruesome murder, that the killer was none of the characters in the movie ... a most unsatisfying ending.
The long flights to Amsterdam in those days were called champagne flights, characterized by copious amounts of alcohol served, and occasionally, if you were lucky, as we were on our flight, a polar view of the northern lights.
Upon landing in Amsterdam, we proceeded to initiate the first step in our plan and immediately went to the train station and got tickets to Bern, the financial capital of Switzerland, with the express purpose of opening Swiss bank accounts ... we thought being able to say we had Swiss bank accounts would be very cool ! We had purchased first class Eurail passes in Canada and were told in the station that the conductor on the train would activate them. Now we were intending to be hard core skiers and sleeping on the mountain whenever possible, so as well as skis, boots, and poles, we had roles of thinsulite strapped crossways on our packs. This made for difficult navigation of the corridors in train cars, but we finally got settled in a first class berth.
When the conductor came along and we presented him with our unactivated Eurail passes, and our tickets, he informed us we would have to get them activated in the station. But since there was no time, he said to do so at the first stop that allowed enough time. Well the thing about trains in Europe is that they run like clockwork, and we were in Germany before there was a stop long enough to do so. But before we were able to do so, we had our first encounter with a German conductor, who couldn’t speak English. That encounter is best characterized as ... confusing. He got a little excited and kept pointing down the train, so we gathered all our gear and headed in the direction he pointed, finding ourselves now in a second class berth. Our interpretation was that he was punishing us for not having our Eurail passes activated. When he came back a while later, he got even more excited and started pointing again. And so, once again, we were banished and this time found ourselves in the baggage car sitting on our packs. He returned a third time and got even more excited than the last time. We wondered what could be worse than the baggage car ! This time he escorted us, and as he took us through the cars he pointed to plaques in each car with the name of a city, and finally took us to a first class berth in the Bern half of the train. We finally realized that the trains were organized so that each car always went to the same city, with first class berths at the ends, then second class berths toward the centre, and then third class bench seating, and then baggage cars in the middle. At some point the train would split in half and hook up with different trains going to different destinations. So we had gotten on the wrong half of the train. With our sense of adventure still intact, we arrived in Bern.
We entered the bank with the expectation of maximum coolness ... we left the bank with travellers cheques, swiss pens, and the reality check that Swiss bank accounts would not serve us well ... the best laid plans ...
Next stop the Canadian embassy, where we were immediately asked if we were there for meal vouchers. We clarified that we were there for information on the best place to ski in Europe. They clarified that their expertise was on Canada, not Europe, but there was a map in the other room we were welcome to refer to. And so we found ourselves around a table about twelve feet long with a paper machete three dimensional map under glass. We spotted a place in Austria called “St. Anton am Arlberg”. Since Arlberg was a ski binding, we reasoned that they must ski there, and, through no fault of our own, made what turned out to be the perfect choice.
By now it was time to get a room for the night and my most pressing need was to empty the results of my last few meals. I went immediately to the WC, found nothing familiar, only what looked like two footprints in front of a hole in the floor alongside a hand railing. I went back to the main room, having noticed in my hasty passing what looked like a toilet in the middle of the room. It was only after I was considerably lighter that I realized that the outlet of the strange toilet was too small to accommodate the result of my effort. I won’t elaborate further on that, except to say I eventually learned the difference between a toilet and a bidet ... adventure indeed !
We arrived in St. Anton in the early evening and were contemplating suitable looking snowbanks to spend the night ... hard core skiers, remember ? ... when a Volkswagen van stopped beside us and two rather gregarious characters accused us of being Canadian. Our surprised reaction elicited the explanation that our down coats gave us away, no one except Canadians wore down coats. They, also in down coats, were from Toronto. They asked if we were looking for a place to crash. Now I was far less enthusiastic about the whole sleeping-in-a-snowbank thing than Bob was, and didn’t quite equate it to hard core to the same extent, so I replied in the affirmative before Bob could venture an opinion, and accepted the invitation to “jump in !”
As we drove up to St. Jakob, a small village within walking distance of St.Anton, our new friends explained that we would have to share our accommodation with cows. By this point in the conversation, or more accurately, the dual monologue on their part, both Bob and I realized we weren’t going to get a word in edgewise, and assumed they were referring to girls when they said cows. It sounded distasteful to our ears, but seemed to fit the way they talked, and we figured it must be a Toronto dialect. And so, on a clear moonlit night, we arrived at Kelly’s Cow Palace.
Now Kelly, aka Bob Calladine, was a ski racer from Vancouver, who at the time ran the crash-pad in St. Jakob and offered black market private ski lessons at St. Anton. The Cow Palace offered very reasonable rates and featured a kitchen and a dining room on the main floor, and a couple of big rooms with mattresses spread across the floor upstairs. And so we splurged and hired Kelly for our first day’s skiing at St. Anton.
It was a legendary winter in the Alps that year, the ski season ran from September to May. A storm would last three days and dump seven feet of powder, and then it would clear up for a week and a half, not a cloud in the sky ... and then do it all over again. Europeans didn’t ski powder in those days, they general only skied the piste, ie groomed runs, while they concentrated on perfect form. So there was deep powder to be had any day you wanted it. As we stood at the top watching Kelly pull a snorkel out of his pack, and wondering what the hell that was all about, he laughed and took off, claiming first tracks as he disappeared into bottomless powder. Bob and I struggled to keep our heads above snow to breathe, often having to stop to catch our breaths. It wasn’t pretty but we were having the times of our lives !
The Austrian Ski School in those days was considered the best in the world. All the instructors were Austrian, except during high season when they allowed a few Swiss to teach at the lower levels. The only other way into the Austrian Ski School for a non-Austrian was to first go through the Red Devil Ski Instructors School at St. Christoff, which was connected to St. Anton on the back side by ski lift. They were very serious, had a curfew and were not allowed alcohol ... breaking the rules meant expulsion. They wore red uniforms and occasionally we would see a group of them skiing in perfectly synchronized formation. We decided to sign up for some lessons, and while a group of instructors watched, people skied down a gentle little slope and were put into groups. Bob was a much better skier than I was and the instructor he was put with was developing a method to ski crud ... he would look for the worst possible crud and go there.
Every day we would walk down to the Bonhof train station in St. Anton, and order ham and eggs for breakfast to start our day. After about a week Bob said he was getting tired of ham and eggs, and suggested we order something off the printed menu, which was in German. I wanted to ask what the items were, but Bob insisted we just pick something. When our orders came, mine was an interesting change ... the look on Bob’s face, on the other hand, when he realized that after ordering ham and eggs for a week in English, he had just ordered the same thing in German, was priceless.
Our days generally consisted of skiing all day, with lunch at the Krazy Kangaroo on the ski hill, then a stop at the deli for some fixings for supper, then a walk back up to St. Jakob, eat supper and early to bed. We usually had the place to ourselves in the evening as everyone was out partying. We had been there about a week when one evening we were eating supper at the little table in the kitchen when we heard the front door open and some footsteps ... then nothing. A while later more footsteps, then the door again. After a while the same thing happened again ... the door and then footsteps. I went into the lobby and the big dining room, but there was no one there ... strange ... usually when people came in they would check in the kitchen and dining room to see who was up and about. Bob made some comment about Black Christmas, but when it happened again, we started recalling the scenes of the movie vividly to each other, not entirely without some nervousness. And then footsteps on the stairs ... we both went upstairs ... no one there. By this point we were staying together in the same room instead of being in different rooms for some space. It was getting to the point of “that’s crazy but what if ...”, when we immediately went to the lobby on hearing the footsteps and found a man with a bucket of milk, and solved the mystery. The man was a farmer who owned the building and did, in fact, keep cows in the other half. In the lobby hung an old cobweb covered purple velvet curtain that concealed a doorway into the other half of the building. It looked like it hadn’t been disturbed in years, and didn’t attract our attention. There was another one just like it at the top of the stairs. The farmer had been going in the bottom door to milk his cows and in the top one to throw some hay down.
There was a great little expat community from English speaking countries ... Canada, the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa ... we would periodically get a group together and cross country ski to a neighbouring village for a night out. On Christmas the Cow Palace hosted a dinner for all the expats and the big dining room was filled with merriment. Being away from home seemed to heighten the Christmas spirit.
For New Year’s we went to Amsterdam and stayed in a pensione just outside the Red Light District. It was my favourite city and the area around the Red Light District was the best part ... great coffee houses with great music. We took a bus to a museum we wanted to see, but it was closed for the holidays. We did go to Anne Frank’s house though, and walking through it gave me goose bumps. We took a boat tour on the canals. On the day of New Year’s Eve we stopped at a McDonald’s and as we stood in line, two girls behind us said “Canada, right ?” and the two guys behind them said “Toronto here !” So there were six Canadians in a row standing in line at McDonald’s. The girls were sisters whose family was stationed at the Canadian Forces base in Lahr, Germany. The older sister was going to university in Ontario and had come over to visit her family. So the six of us hung out for New Year’s.
To be continued ...