Curieuse Guide to Skiing in Verbier, Switzerland

A collection of useful information for the skieur or skieuse wishing to spend a few days in the Swiss alps.

  1. Don’t eat the yellow snow.
  2. When taking the egg lift down to Le Châble, be sure to raise the window to avoid snowballs in your face, launched from the hooligans on the balconies below. At least until you get into the trees.
  3. Taking a tumble in the powder is the perfect time to sneak a snow angel.
  4. When ordering the plat du jour from a resto on the mountain or in the valley, ask your waiter for a “petit supplément” to get a small refill of your pasta bolognaise or poulet émincé. And use all of the parmesan cheese on your pasta; after all, it’s free calories.

Powder to the People

Just days before I arrived, a bumper snowfall in Verbier ensured a solid base of vast, glittering alpine slopes for many sunshiny days to come. Compared to the years before, the skiing here has been incredible. So much so, in fact, that I can only wonder that more people aren’t out here to enjoy it.

The air is cold, much colder than last year, but no one seems to mind, not least the brave Scotsman who faced the slopes in a kilt, exposing the curly hairs on his bare legs to the elements (and let’s not wonder what else besides).

My skiing, I am happy to report, has improved considerably this year. From those first tremulous plough turns, to skidding sideways across the slope before stopping to make a grand turn, and shooting back the other way, reaching the lift below some forty minutes later, I now fly down the slope with skis straight (as opposed to the plough formation), making turns when I intend to make them, and even managing to get on edge once in a while. I can even keep up with my party for once (when I’m not stopping every few meters to take pictures), even if I am still the last one down. And I am getting better every day.

And as I continue to hone my skills, I often watch other skiers and notice their form. Interestingly, modes in skiing exist just as much as in fashion. I used to think that the best skiers were those who sped gracefully down the mountain, standing straight atop skis held closely together, turning with the hips and using the back ends of their skis as breaks when needed. Gentleman skiers, I call ’em. Apparently, this is the old-school, 70’s style of skiing, back when women wore purple and lime green snowsuits and men wore blue spandex jumpers, and all had thinner, longer skis. These days, modern-day skiers use their full body, bending their knees to make harder turns and getting on edge with their skis, carving the slope of the mountain as they go down.

I think the hardest thing to learn about skiing is that, the steeper the slope, the more you have to lean downwards towards it. This is like telling someone at the top of a high building that the best way to get down is to jump. It’s a good thing I wear a helmet.

In Switzerland

The first time I came to Switzerland, in 2002, the Swiss Franc (CHF) was roughly two to one against the dollar. This meant that I could simply divide the price of Swiss goods in half (more or less) to get an idea of its worth, instead of converting to the Euro, which was at an odd value, 1.28€ to every $1.00.

This year, I’ve found, is even easier, as my request to withdraw 100CHF cost me $97 and change. At roughly one to one, this made it especially convenient when figuring out the actual cost of a single hamburger at the airport in Geneva, which was 7CHF or 10CHF with cheese.

O Fare Thee Well, Sweet

Winter in Switzerland
Up here in the mountains, with no proper internet connection to speak of, we are left to humour ourselves as best we can with what will amuse us, no matter how trivial. Such as the little white dog who chased his master-on-skis all the way down the slope, barking incessantly at his heels. Or the black dog on the side of the road, another Jennifer incarnate, pulling its owner to the side to make little doggie angels in the snow. Or Markus, who, after sticking his head out of the tele-cabine, sneezed loudly, causing the people passing just at that moment to jump in their seats as if hit by a blistering gale.

Ah, yes, mountain life. I will miss it here. The coziness, the delicious exhaustion after a long day of skiing, the ruddy cheeks, the evident irresolution in our faces when faced with the prospect of re-dressing for the slopes after lunch, the hot coffee and fruit cake on a sun-drenched balcony, the long dinners among one’s beloved..

Tomorrow night, I will be back in Saarbrücken, but at least I can look forward to next year.

UPDATE: I have just uploaded pictures from the trip, which you can see here.

Happy Birthday in Swedish

Ja må hon leva,
ja må hon leva.
ja må hon leva uti hundrade år!
Ja visst ska hon leva,
ja visst ska hon leva,
ja visst ska hon leva uti hundrade år

Och när du har levat,
och när du har levat,
och när du har levat uti hundrade år,
ja då ska du skjutas,
ja då ska du skjutas,
ja då ska du skjutas på en skottkärra fram.

Ett fyrfaligt leve! Hon leve
Hurra! Hurra! Hurra! Hurra!

Yes, may she live
yes, may she live
yes, may she live for a hundred years!
yes, surely she will live
Yes, surely she will live
Yes, surely she will live a hundred years.

And when you’ve lived,
and when you’ve lived,
and when you’ve lived,
Yes, then you’ll be shot,
yes, then you’ll be shot,
yes, then you’ll be shot forth in a wheelbarrow.

A fourfold hurray! May she live
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!

First Snowfall

After twelve days of blue sky, shining sun and green mountains (not to mention the grassy ski runs), my birthday present this year is a miracle of white, fluffy, delectable snow.

Verbier has turned into a winter wonderland, just as it was the first time I arrived here. When it first started, we couldn’t ski due to bad visibility and the wetness of the snow, but the swirling flakes were just calling out to me and I had to follow.

The Swedes, being used to miserable Swedish winters, had no desire to go out on such a day. But the Californian just could not stay cooped up inside when it was so lovely out there. I went for a walk, reveling in the whiteness and the soft flakes falling on my lashes and tongue. There is something liberating about walks in a light snowfall. The turbulence, the frenzy, the delicious cold. Oh, how I love the snow!

New Year’s in Verbier

This is another of my favorite parts during our holidays in Switzerland.

It begins with another fabulous dinner by John’s father, Per Erik, whose former lives were as famous imperial chefs. This year he made us pan-seared fois gras, served with toasted brioche and baked apples. Followed by braised duck legs in a delicious red wine sauce, potatoes au gratin, and a green salad, ending with slices of brie and reblochon. We finished everything off with one of my own creations: a real New York cheesecake. Two and a half pounds of cream cheese, eight eggs, cherries on the top … the works. We would have had coffee with it, but no decaf was to be found.

Then the fun starts. Actually, it starts much early on. There are no laws in Switzerland against individuals setting off fireworks. That means that anybody and everybody does it. And since Verbier is situated on the top of the mountain in the Alps, overlooking the valley and facing the mountains on the other side, and since our cabin is likewise situated above all the other buildings, and downtown included, we had a view of the entire show. All during dinner, all across the valley, fireworks went off in different directions and provided us with a nice backdrop.

Midnight, however, is when the show-offs emerge. As Verbier is a ski resort town, there are many very wealthy people. These many wealthy people then spend hundreds of thousands of francs on pyrotechnics to give the best firework displays. There are usually several such shows set off from different places, such that it is sometimes difficult to choose where to look.

There seems to be someone only a few doors down from us who gives us a show every year sometime after midnight, and this year was exceptionally good. The sparks just rained down on us and were magical. They were perfectly coordinated, amazing and big. With glasses of champagne, we toasted the new year and kissed, then went to bed with the curtains wide open to the mountains where the boom of fireworks lulled us to sleep.

A Swedish Christmas

Even though we are in Switzerland (which is easy for us Americans to confuse with Sweden), we nevertheless uphold proper Swedish traditions during Christmas. So what does that mean?

First of all, Swedes, like much of the rest of Europe, celebrate Christmas on the 24th, Christmas eve. This is a fairly strange custom for me, although I am used to it now. My family, of course, always celebrates on Christmas day (i.e. opening presents, eating a big dinner, etc).

Christmas eve here is quite nice, however, and begins with a traditional Swedish dinner. As a starter, we have smoked salmon on tunnbröd, a kind of large, round cracker made from flour, and topped with a tangy dijon-dill sauce. This is also accompanied (for those who can stomach it) pickled herring with a small glass of beer (Swiss, in our case). Next we have cold, sliced ham with mustard (very traditional), savoykål which is chopped cabbage baked in crème fraîche, different kinds of cheese along with fresh-baked bread, and homemade apple sauce. Finally, we end the dinner with hot Swedish meatballs, which are absolutely wonderful. For dessert this year, we had figs and cracked walnuts.

After the dinner, comes the gift-giving part of the evening. This is my favorite part. The Swedish tradition is to write a short poem for each gift that hints at what’s inside. Usually, one leaves out the last word which rhymes with the last word from the line before, and which gives away the gift. Some examples of the evening were:

A cd of Xavier Naidoo for Anna:

Top of the crop,
Best in German ___.

An ipod shuffle for John’s mother, Britten:

Small and hip with a convenient clip.

And the accompanying flashlight keychain:

When you shuffle around at night, use this little ___.

For the French novel by Balsac, Illusions Perdues:

Weeks in Verbier with no frost,
Talk about illusions lost.

And my favorite, for a book on evolution called The Ant and the Peacock:

How a roll of the dice,
And the fight against lice
Can get you stuck in a rut
And give you eyes on your butt.

I think Marcus got a kick out of the last one, although you’d have to read the book for it to make sense. Something about how lice messes up the symmetry of the eyes on a peacock’s tail, which makes it harder to find mates…etc.

Finally, after the excitement of the day and despite the early hour, it’s off to bed in preparation for another long day of skiing.

Actually, the days haven’t really been long of skiing due to the lack of snow, but that’s another story.

Holidays in Switzerland

I was never a fan of global warming until I started coming to Verbier for Christmas.

I remember arriving here three years ago in a flutter of white fluffy snow, a giant snowman down below our window, white rooftops everywhere. The skiing was incredible. That was the year of my first powder adventure.

The next year, we were lucky enough to have one snow fall the night I arrived and lovely, white, uncut mountains the next day. But then after that, the sun was bright and the groomed slopes revealed more and more rocks and twigs.

This year, then, was something of a shock. The roads were dry and almost empty as we drove up to the pretty alpen resort. In fact, one could see muddy, brown grass in the lift on the way up to the slopes more often than white patches of snow. Surprisingly, the skiing was not so bad. There was just enough snow to make the slopes nicer than last time, but barely so. However, not many slopes are actually open, and they have only so many snow-making machines. Last year, they had to close parts of the glacier run due to melting, and who knows if they will even open any of it this year.

The good thing is that we have had almost empty slopes for the past three days. Even Christmas eve was fairly calm. After all, John was in an awful accident last year because of too many irresponsible skiers, so it is an awesome experience to have the slope to oneself.

John and Marcus still expect a holiday rush tomorrow and the day after. We’ll see. I happen to think that many people decided not to come here this year since the slopes were so bad last year. TeleVerbier, of course, doesn’t seem to mind. For me, as an American, I would tend to take the view that with bad snow conditions, the company should do even more to attract and keep the customers that still come. The Swiss, however, think differently. To them, it’s as if there’s no point in even opening the lifts, since no one’s coming anyway. Which was why, I believe, the Savoleyeres lift fellow opened at 9:15am this morning instead of at 8:45am and had distinctly red eyes as if he had been partying pretty heavily the night before..