The Ski Bummers Blues

Changing beds and waiting tables, for the privilege of those few months - and precious few hours - on the slopes

On The Town | Christian Cummins | March 2010

It’s little more than a huddle of farmhouses - a satellite village of a glitzy Alpine ski resort. You’ll find the ski bums at night if you go through the low door into the village’s only significant drinking hole - a cavernous cellar bar which profits from the lack of better alternatives. The bums are lined up along the bar, rosy-cheeked from the wind and the altitude, and buying beers with the paper tokens the bar sells at reduced cost to workers.

Nearest the door, clasping his glass with obscenely large hands, sits a huge Russian in his mid 30s, his shaven head slightly reddish from the sun. He says we should call him Franky "because you fools wouldn’t be able to pronounce my real name."

Every summer, he works ten hours a day welding metal together in flat Lincolnshire, spending night after night in a cramped flat with no companion but supermarket vodka; all this to fund his five winter months of boarding-bliss in the Alps.

But when he gets there, he seems determined not to enjoy it. Right now, he’s complaining to me about the snow conditions - "too warm" - and the local scene - "just stupid kids" - and promising that next year he’s taking his board across the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains.

Mike, the barman, laughs. Franky has been saying the same thing for 5 consecutive years now. Mike himself is on "a career break." He graduated from university at 21 and went straight into a high-powered, well-paid job in London. Regretting his lost youth and fearing that he was going to burn-out before his 30th birthday he decided to take a few months off.

It’s his second season behind the bar, serving cocktails called "Gorilla Brains" to naïve teenagers and forcing the drinkers to share his ‘90s fuelled passion for the Stereophonics, the Chemical Brothers and the Smashing Pumpkins.

He says he is going back to the city in May: "Gotta get on with my life, mate." Now it’s Franky’s turn to laugh.

To ease the mid-season boredom, and perhaps recapture his lost youth, Mike has set up a league table of sexual conquests. His fellow competitors are Greg the Australian ski-teacher, who is for some reason dressed-up as a priest tonight, Dan the dish-washer, who is telling some unfortunate girl the story about his trick on the half-pipe, and, finally, Matt the delivery guy.

The scoring system is simple: 2 points for a holiday maker, 5 for a fellow seasonal worker, 10 for a local and 50 points for the so far elusive Holy Grail of bored and promiscuous ski bums – love in the gondola lift.

The season is three months old and no one has reached double figures yet. Michelle, a chalet girl, says it’s a ‘stupid game’. She’s sitting there in the corner tonight, drinking red bull and vodka and talking to a dread-locked local musician known universally as Side-Show Bob.

No one knows how the chalet girls and boys manage it. They’re up at 6 a.m. making breakfast for their guests, then quickly cleaning up and changing the beds, rushing off to the supermarket and then preparing the afternoon’s cake.

They’re on the slopes before midday, but back by 4 at the latest to start cooking a three course evening meal. And they do all that for less than 80 euros a week plus board, lodging and the leftovers of their own cooking. It sounds like modern day slavery, but the daughters of Middle England are queuing up to do it.

"It’s all in the mind," Michelle says. "You tell yourself you’re not tired and so you’re not tired." She takes another sip of vodka, "Besides, I’m from Norfolk. How else am I going to get to spend a season in the Alps?"

Next to Michelle sits Sven, the handsome but melancholy Swede, glumly nursing his beer. Every summer, he cooks breakfast on the boats of rich yachters who look for seasonal workers in the cafés of Gibraltar; every winter he guides holidaymakers around the 400km of the resort’s ski-runs. It seems such a perfect life.

Every year he looks a little more tanned and yet a little bit more glum. I ask Michelle why? She laughs and shrugs her shoulders: "He thinks all our lives are pointless."

It’s 2:30 a.m. and the bar has mostly emptied. Dish-washer Dan has left with an 18-year old from Bournemouth on her first week on skis, but the rest of the bums are still lined up along the bar talking about north-facing slopes where the snow is still good. "Tomorrow night there’s a big night up the hill in the main town," says Greg.

"There’ll be a dirt-cheap cocktail happy hour, decent music - not just this 90’s rubbish - new people, something different. We’ll all go," insists Greg. "We’ll share the taxi back. Something different," he enthuses, "finally something different!"

Everyone nods, but they know they’ll be sitting in exactly the same seats this time tomorrow.

The barmen don’t accept drink tokens up the mountain.

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