07 January 2008

A Ski-Phobe Cured

My childhood memories of skiing are few but very well defined. Sometime during my childhood, we were certainly living in Dryden at the time so I must have been 8-10 years old, our mom took my brothers and I to Mount Holly, SELMI's* favorite ski resort/ex-municipal dump. I remember renting the equipment, the boots were wet when the creepy guy behind the counter gave them to me. In remember getting frustrated and hot in my winter coat trying to put the boots and skis on. I remember that my mom got me into a group class and I remember using the rope pull to get up the bunny hill with the group. I remember being extremely frustrated (which, it must be noted, was a rather common situation for me at the time) and wanting to leave. I remember seeing my mom lining up to take the chair lift. I pointed my skis down the hill and held my balance until I crashed into her at the bottom. I cried a bit and told her that I didn't want to do it anymore, just as I did with Little League baseball, that it wasn't for me. My mom agreed, set me up in the lodge with a hot chocolate and that was the end of skiing for me. From then on I would tell anyone who asked that I didn't ski, that I tried once but that the best skiing I had ever done was running away from the group lesson. That was it, no skiing ever again for Kurt, it was certain, no debate to be had, just a simple, immutable fact.

Then came Esther. Marriage can make a man do strange things, things that he would never have done otherwise, that he would think were beyond his capacity. I'm saying this as if our Silver Anniversary is bearing down on us though, in reality, Christmas Day was our four month “anniversary”. Nonetheless, I am certain of this fact, no one could have ever made me strap on the narrow death sticks that most people call skis except Esther.

During the planning to go to the central mountains of France for the New Year we talked about going skiing, I gave the “ran away from my class” speech and was pretty sure that I'd find something else to do when Esther and the others went skiing. Once we were at the farmhouse in the foothills though, for some reason my confidence was higher than it should have been and I decided to give it a try. What's the worst that could happen?

“I immediately regret this decision.” Standing on top of the first hill, that phrase was cycling through my mind on repeat. It was incredible how every detail immediately recalled my experience from 15 years ago. The too-tight boots. The awkward feeling of the skis on my feet. The feeling of impending disaster as the tips of my skis crossed. The unhappy meeting of face and snow. And most of all, the self-consciousness of falling in front of people who know what they were doing. It wasn't the pain that bothered me, not 15 years ago and not this time, it was the embarrassment of looking like a fool in front of others, that wasn't going away.

Granted, during a period in high school I would purposely fall in public locations to either (a) embarrass my family or (b) make my friends laugh. The salient difference, though, is that I was controlling my fall, in fact I was timing it for optimal comic/embarrassing value. On the ski slope I was falling because I had no idea what I was doing nor how to prevent the fall.

In addition to the fear of embarrassment was the fear that I would run over and kill some 6 year-old who could control himself on skis (and perhaps in other venues) better than I could. I was falling, uncontrollably, into my 9 year-old persona. I was largely irrational.

The first ride up the chair lift was terrifying. I was pretty certain that I would fall off before I got to the top. If I made it to the top I was absolutely certain that I wouldn't get off in time and I would succumb to either a horrible, mechanical death or an extremely public embarrassment. No matter what, I knew that I surly, French lift operator was waiting at the top to tell me that I shouldn't try things that I don't know how to do. The lift continued silently to pull us to the top, to my death, whether it be physical or figurative, which awaited me at the top. I told Esther that I was pretty sure that I couldn't do it, that it was a bad idea to have tried.

We got to the sign saying that we were 30 meters from the end and instructing us to lift the lap bar. We did, I was in a panic, I was going to have to do something that I didn't know how to do at a moment not of my choosing. I could see the end, was it a nice flat area, free of people? No, it was about 10 meters of flat covered in women, children, puppies, disabled people, and endangered wild flowers. That, my landing zone, was followed by a shockingly steep slope. It must have been a 45 degree angle, did she trick me onto a double black diamond? Was it a sick joke? No time for thought, I had to move quickly to get off the chair and then immediately stop myself without killing anyone or anything. We reached the end, Esther glided of and gracefully to a stop, spraying the finest mist of snow off of the edge of her ski. I let the chair push me, the first 500 milliseconds were amazing, I was doing it! But then it happened, the tips of my skis, my old enemies, crossed and twisted my left ski perpendicular to the right, the torque disengaging the left ski, and my face hit the snow. Not a good start. I knew that there were other skiers being disgorged from the lift behind me, to prevent myself from being cut in half by the razor edges of their skis, I stood up, picked up my left ski in my hand and walk/shuffled over to Esther. I told her that it wasn't a good start. She knew that already.

What followed was a lot of patience on Esther's part and a lot of falling on my part. She showed me the basic principle of slowing down for beginners, the snowplow. Then she told me about turning, the cool person's way to slow down. Apparently to turn I had to gracefully transfer my weight from one foot to another while moving down a hill at speed, all the while making sure that the downhill edge of my ski didn't dig into the snow. She said it would be automatic. I told her that I didn't have entire confidence in that fact.

By lunch time, in the resort cafeteria over a plate of salty noodles and mushy fries (the vegetarian options), I told Esther that the sensation of gliding down the slope at speed was not valuable enough to offset the cumulative cost of the physical pain and humiliation of falling, the bone chilling cold, and the cost of the day pass and rental. I wasn't giving up for the day, rather saying that I wouldn't do it again in the future. Since the day pass, rental, and cold were sunk costs, I might as well try to get as much pleasure from the act of skiing as possible to offset those costs. Esther suggested that I maybe think about it, that I didn't have to continue if I wasn't having fun. I told her that I wasn't having fun but that was precisely why I had to continue, to get the fun/pain (F/P) ratio back up, maybe even above 1.

The afternoon went much better. I was turning with confidence 50% of the time, soon that was 70%, then 80% of the time. I wasn't doing the snowplow, I gave that up pretty quickly because it felt stupid. Instead I jumped into the turns. I learned that it was basically putting all of my weight on the uphill edge of the downhill ski. I was able to avoid the children and puppies and even react to skiers falling in front of me. When things got out of control I fell, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. My left hip is still tender from falling on the same spot 15-20 times, but it never bruised too much. Moments of fun were starting to flash through the intense concentration, pain and fear.

We took two chair lifts to get to the top of one of the mountains. It was at about 6,000 feet above sea level and 2,000 feet above the station where we started. At that elevation we were above the clouds, looking at mountaintop islands in the sky, with only seas of clouds in between. It was breathtakingly beautiful and bitterly cold. We took a blue hill down and all was going pretty well until we entered the clouds. All of a sudden visibility was reduced to about 15 meters, not an ideal condition when I'm needing every visual clue about the upcoming terrain to stay on two feet. I fell back into irrationality. Some part of my monkey brain was yelling at me, “You are going to fall off of the edge of the mountain if you continue!” I told Esther this, she told me that falling off of the edge of a mountain was unlikely. We continued down slowly, finally getting below the clouds, even into some areas of sun. Soon I was feeling a bit proud of myself, proud that I had done something that I had written off forever, something that was intermittently terrifying and painful.

I feel a bit guilty for having learned to ski in such a stunning location that would have been appreciated much more by someone who actually knew what they were doing. That said, at the end of the day I was disappointed that the sun was going down and that we couldn't go for one more run. I had gone through the painful parts and wanted to get the F/P ratio even higher though it did already have a value slightly exceeding 1.

I guess by that, I'm trying to say that I had a good time. We're talking about when to go again.

If you're curious, the ski station that we went to is called Super-Lorian and was very impressive (for a complete novice) and relatively inexpensive (22 euro day pass and 16 euro boot/skis/poles rental). I recommend it!

Here is some photographic evidence of my skiing, if you still have reason to doubt it:

Skiing in Auvergne

*SELMI = South-Eastern Lower MIchigan

05 January 2008

New Years in Auvergne

Esther and I had the great pleasure of spending a few days around New Year's in Auvergne with some of her friends from Sciences Po. It was a great time, we had beautiful weather and a great time with everyone.

Moreover, I successfully conquered (with plenty of help from Esther, of course) one of my most deeply buried fears from my childhood; I learned to ski! At times it was genuinely terrifying and often quite painful (I must have fallen at speed at least 20 times over the course of the day), but at the end it was approaching “controlled” and “fun”. I feel that I should dedicate an entire post to the skiing experience as it was rather memorable, rather than taking up a bunch of space with it here.

We rented a fantastic old farmhouse in the town of Salihes (Population: 40, Cheese makers: 3) and had a bunch of fun together. Our numbers varied from 12 to 15, we ate dinners together at the big table (just like at the co-op!) and had fires in the fireplace which was so big that you could sit in it with the fire.

We had a good time hiking around, getting in snowball fights, skiing, playing games, and celebrating the New Year. It was a great time, really more or less ideal, the only fault being that it was too short. Hopefully we'll get back there sooner or later. Thanks to Renaud for organizing everything!


Non-Fumeur Partout!

Woohoo! Finally, the monolithic French government imposes it's will upon the people in a way that I really appreciate. January 1st (actually, January 2nd following a one-day reprieve) marked the final step in the implementation of the nation-wide smoking ban in France. Now it is strictement interdit to smoke in any public place, including restaurants, bars, and clubs. Where it used to be the case that the “non-smoking” area was a table amid all of the others without any ashtrays, now any public interior space is a non-smoking area. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles! Here's a NYT article on the event:

Under a sweeping decree that took effect Wednesday, smoking has been banned in every commercial corner of “entertainment and conviviality” — from the toniest Parisian nightclub to the humblest village cafe.
No matter that cigarette is a French word. Or that the great icons of French creativity — Colette to Cocteau, Camus to Coco Chanel — all smoked. Or that Paris boasts a Museum of Smoking. Or, in fact, that Paris has named a street after Jean Nicot, the 16th-century French diplomat who took tobacco leaves imported from America to Catherine de Medici to treat her migraines. (Nicotine was named after him.)

One concern that I have is the fate of les bars chichas, the small smoking clubs, predominantly owned by Arabs, that are a central part to their subculture in France. Again, from the NYT article:
Indeed, in writing the ban, little thought seemed to have been given to the country’s 800 water-pipe tea houses, most of them extremely modest enterprises owned by ethnic Arabs.

“We have sacrificed everything to open these little places, borrowing money from our family members, using our cars and apartments as collateral, and what’s going to happen to us?” said Tariq el-Hamri, the 33-year-old owner of Dar Daffia (House of Hospitality), a water-pipe bar in Paris. “If the government wants to have healthy people, it should stop selling cigarettes — and alcohol.”

Mr. Hamri belongs to the Union of Hookah-Pipe Professionals, which plans to challenge the ban in French courts and is lobbying for the same exception for water-pipe smokers that is in effect in parts of the United States and Canada. Expensive and space-consuming hermetic sealing is not an option for most of them. “We are second-class citizens,” said Badri Helou, president of the union, which was created last February and has 270 members. “The reason you come to a water-pipe club is to smoke a water pipe. The mint tea and the pastries come afterward. We cannot survive on them. It would be as if you go to the movies and there’s no film — just popcorn.”

Apparently, there is a petition circulating to grant them an exception. I am sympathetic to their situation, but at the same time I find it difficult to justify giving them an exemption and no one else. Smoking at the bar with the morning coffee is also an important aspect of French culture for many of its citizens. It is true that the hookah bars have little else to offer, it will be interesting to see how they adapt.

For now, it's off to the cafés of Paris to enjoy a nice salade composée and the freshest air the city has to offer which, admittedly, is not that fresh to begin with.

04 January 2008

Les Fêtes 2007

Having missed publishing anything in December, I also missed out on putting up any pictures or stories from Hanuka and Christmas. Here's how it went:

Pretty quiet all together. Ilan and Suzy left for China after the first night so we didn't see too much of them. Also, since they are the natural masters of ceremony, we didn't do too much after the first night. (Why China? Ilan was participating in a conference relating to his job, Suzy was going along to see a bit of the world.) It was a nice night together, though Esther was totally exhausted from work and being a bit under the weather. I got a pedometer.

Throughout the following nights, Esther and I lit candles when we remembered, which was almost every night, and she told me the meaning of Hanuka. Maccabees.

Arguably a bit more exciting because it involved intercontinental travel (for me, at least) and completely surprising my family. I got on a plane on Dec. 22nd and flew back to Detroit after stopping off in Philly. Mike picked me up and took me back to his house where he was preparing a party for family and friends which was, naturally, a perfect opportunity to surprise everyone all at once. When we arrived only Pete was there. He was working on something in the oven so I walked up behind him and poked him in the side. He turned around and was visibly confused for a few moments. Happiness ensued.

Later, Mom and Dad showed up. I hid in the bathroom until what I judged was the right moment to spring my surprise. I walked out and said hi to Mom and Dad, Mom cried a bit, Dad was more or less blown away. I couldn't figure out why Dad was wearing the medium brown corduroy suit that I bought for Homecoming 2001 (an admittedly awesome Salvation Army find). Then I remembered that it was a Cousin Eddie (the classless relative from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation) themed event. Apparently Dad was “that guy” who actually got dressed up according to the theme. The party continued, some of my friends showed up. Dad learned two things that night, 1) what a Jägerbomb is, and 2) that he really likes Jägerbombs.

The rest of Christmas went just like Christmas always has gone. On the 24th we had dinner at Oma and Opa's house and on the 25th we had brunch and presents at our house. One odd aspect was that my mom had already sent me my presents in the the mail to France so I had to bring one of them back so that I would have something to open. Through the magic of the intertubes, we were able to have Esther with us via Skype. She opened our other presents which include a book of monkey portraits by Jill Greenberg, a fantastic series and a perfect gift. We look at it at night before falling asleep in the hopes of having monkey dreams.

On the evening of the 27th I flew back to Paris on a one-way ticket. It was quite sad and I couldn't escape wishing that all of the people that I love lived closer together. It's quite unpleasant to be pulled back to one location only to feel that you're being torn away from something else. Unfortunately, the most geographically central landmass between Michigan and Paris is Greenland. Any takers? I hear Godthåb is beautiful...uhhh...er....11 days a year.

In summary, 2007 was a great year for end-of-year holidays. It was wonderful to see everyone in the US, please enjoy the pictures below.

Les Fetes 2007


Kind of missed out on December there. Sorry for that one, I know that there are a few of you that have checked this blog everyday since November 25th and I'm sorry that I haven't posted anything since then. Sometimes the act of living life gets in the way of the act of reporting on life and, unfortunately, that's the best explanation that I can give for my internet absence over this past month.

Here's a brief rundown of what's been keeping me busy:

  • Plugging away on everything Ravenchase. It's turned out to be more of a challenge than I had expected and there was an element of shock in that. That said, I've got a pretty clear plan on how to move forward and plenty of support from my colleagues in the US so, hopefully, things will get rolling soon.
  • Sneaking back to the US from Christmas! I did a good job of seeing almost everyone so it should come as a surprise to very few that I was in the US for a few days before and after (and, of course, including) Christmas. It was really great to see everyone and especially fun to surprise everyone. Thanks to Mike for his help in getting me home!
  • Going to central France for the New Year. Esther and I departed for Auvernge the day that I arrived back from the US and spent a few days there with some of her friends from Sciences Po. It was a great time, pictures to come.
  • Starting a little bit of work on the side for Kiela Consulting, a small firm run by an acquaintance of Esther's. French companies are required to pay for a few days of training for all of their employees every year and Kiela offers trainings in a variety of subjects. I'll be giving English and environmental trainings.

So, it's been busy, but I'm back. Expect a posting binge to follow this.

Happy New Year to all!