In all my forty seven years, I have previously only spent two Christmases abroad, both in nineties Russia. The first I remember because of the huge lengths I went to in order that my homesick colleagues had something comforting to remind them of Blighty – I assembled, as best I could in the sparce food markets of post-Soviet Moscow, the components of a roast dinner. I even made them Christmas stockings! Sadly, it was a subdued, even awkward, affair. I put this down to the extraordinary bout of drinking we had all enjoyed the night before. Vodka hangovers can be unkind and this had been a particularly heavy session. It was some weeks before I discovered that I had in fact disgraced myself on that boozy Christmas Eve. At my own party, I was the elephant in the room.
The second was less memorable, although I do remember the grey old town I lived in being transformed by a blizzard, which was the first snow we had that year. It would be stretching it to say that the concrete jungle became a winter wonderland, but it had that effect on our spirits.
This year I am away again, in Zakopane, the Polish ski resort tucked in to a fold in the Tatra Mountains. And this is a real winter wonderland – fresh snow has worked its magic, the wooden chalets transformed from tourist kitsch into something that sparkles and makes even the most hardened curmudgeon gasp at the romantic beauty of the place. I set out for a stroll on the evening of Christmas Day along the quiet streets, the chalets dotted about in the forest – pine trees, the snow, pools of light. It is absolutely lovely, and the world seems perfect.
Unfortunately, we are here for another reason altogether. To ski. My family are desperate to go skiing, and I am desperate not to. I try to explain this to friends and colleagues – they look at me as if I was mad. “What are you talking about? You’ll love it!”. “You miserable old sod – fancy grumbling about a skiing holiday!”.
The truth of it lies somewhere else. Despite attempts to persuade myself otherwise, I’m not a manly man. I can’t reverse park, I question my abilities as a lover (good intentions notwithstanding) and I can’t go down the flumes at the swimming pool. The latter is pertinent. The thought of a flume makes me feel really quite ill, and it’s the same with skiing. Every time I stand at the top of the slope and launch myself off, I feel this sense of dread. My heart races, I sweat – I want to stop. But I can’t. I am obliged to show willing and be enthusiastic so that I can support the kids in their endeavours. Naturally, they all find it easier than I do and have left me far behind.
Consequently, while they explore the mountains, I am alone on the nursery slopes, practising the basics, again and again and again and again. It becomes almost zen-like. The repetition and monotony of the activity, the snow falling silently, the isolation of being alone with my thoughts for hours at a time – it’s a not entirely unpleasant meditative state. And let’s be honest – being alone, outside on a snowy mountain, is just about the best place to be. And that’s what I focus on. The lovely bite of the snowflakes hitting my face, the sound and crunch of the snow under my skis, the delicious cold air filling my lungs. It’s wonderful, and soon I’ve almost forgotten about the skiing.