On French & South African Whine: An Observation from Val Thorens

Val Thorens
Val Thorens

A few weeks ago, I was privileged enough to go skiing in France. The resort our friends recommended was Val Thorens, part of the Three Valleys (made up of Val Thorens, Meribel and Courcheval) in the French Alps. The nearest airport is Geneva which is approximately two and a half hours’ drive from Val Thorens. When I met my friends in Geneva, they had heard news at Charles de Gaulle airport that the road to Val Thorens was closed because an enormous boulder had fallen onto it the previous evening.

"Concerted Mobilisation to Get Road Back into Use"
“Concerted Mobilisation to Get Road Back into Use”

Soon enough, this rumour was confirmed by, Thierry, our taxi driver. He had been delayed getting to Geneva because of the road closure and as we drove, he listened to radio up-dates about the situation. Since 6am that morning, a tiny alternative route was being used. This road was so narrow it only allowed for one-way traffic and, as such, the local authorities had chosen to allow traffic down the mountain. It was a Saturday and the second last day of school holidays for the Paris school zone so it made sense to try to allow the people whose sojourns were ending that day, to exit the village.

At one stage we heard that vehicles would be allowed up the mountain at 2pm. But 2pm came and went and that wasn’t the case. By then we’d been in our mini-van for about four hours, driven alongside the magnificent Lake Annecy.

Passing Lake Annecy
Passing Lake Annecy

We’d managed to avoid a fair amount of bottle necks, thanks to our taxi drivers’ knowledge of back routes. We finally came to a halt in the village of Moutiers – at the foot of the closed road – and drank beer and espresso inside the local Carrefour’s cafe, where men still in ski gear, sat. They had made it down the mountain via the one-way road, but I overhead them saying that some had chosen to walk the last six kilometres as it was the quickest way down at that stage. The latest official information was that the (two-way) road would re-open at 6pm.

At about 4pm, our taxi driver raced into Carrefour and hustled us back to his van. He’d heard a rumour that the road might be opening. Once again, this proved untrue and instead we read our books in the van, while Thierry chatted to fellow taxi drivers and locals peered out of their windows at the curious sight of stationery cars lining their streets. By this stage of the day, there were cars lined up in every direction, up and down every nearby road.

At around 4:30pm, the authorities made way for buses to begin lining up in front of the closed off road as there were to be allowed up first.  At exactly, 6:05pm, the road was opened to all traffic. Thanks to Thierry, we were well positioned towards the front of the queue.

We then began making our way up the mountain. Besides a crane and other machinery, there were no signs of any disruption.

About half way up the pass, a woman taxi driver from the region was being interviewed about the situation. Her emotions were running high and she went on and on about the local metro police, about how unreasonable she had found them and how she vehemently disagreed with the way things had been handled. Lots of anger, lots of superlatives and lots of repetition. I confess if the rant had been translated into English and given a South African accent, I would have felt completely at home – as though I was tuned in to Radio 702 and someone had called in to complain about our local metro cops policing a road closure. In short, it sounded exactly like a quintessential South African whine, but instead it was being delivered by a French taxi driver in the Alps.

I try not to seek solace for the troubles of my country by finding fault with other countries, but hearing this woman losing her marbles and lambasting the authorities, did make me smile, in spite of the latter. This takes absolutely nothing away from France – the world’s most visited country with 84 million tourists per annum. It has just given me another perspective on whining: I no longer regard it to be quite so unique to privileged South Africans.

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Thierry’s  response to the crisis is probably one of many reasons France has such a booming tourist industry. He fielded calls from clients and potential clients all day and was ultra professional throughout. He must have lost out on a fortune of revenue that day, but he never showed an ounce of frustration. He simply did what he could to make our experience as comfortable as possible, under the circumstances. He even went as far as to lend me Euros to buy lunch until we could get to a bank machine.

Despite the possibility that we may have been stranded in the village of Moutiers along with thousands of other tourists in the same boat, we were in our hotel having dinner by 8pm that night.

Sometimes, no matter its provenance, the glass really is half full…

Alibi – Zippen your Lippen


By the last night of our ski holiday, we decided we were finally ready to brave Saalbach’s hardcore, after dinner night life. The first spot did not disappoint. It was shaped like a gazebo with an inner circle serving as a wrap-around bar. On the one side of the bar was a ladder leading up to a little dancing platform, just big enough for one person. By now, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a Tyrolean milk-maid doing a folk dance up there, but what greeted us was even better. A drunken Hans from amongst the crowd had somehow managed to haul himself up the ladder and was doing the Lambada against the balustrade. He’d obviously got a little warm at some point, because he was bare-chested and down to his ski pants, which were (thankfully) held in place by their all-in-one breeches. Miraculously, he managed to finish up his little gig and he got down the ladder in one piece. Here he is in the pic below, getting a “heil five” from the barman after his performance.

Not one to let a vibe die, the barman soon had another party trick up his sleeve. He came over to us with a microphone and asked our names. As we responded, he triggered a hidden remote in his mike. The mike must have been attached to a deer’s head which was mounted on the wall of the bar, because the animal promptly started moving its jaw as if in speech. A talking buck – I now feel I’ve seen it all.

Once we recovered from that, we somehow got to playing Liar’s Poker. No-one would agree that the loser of each round should be made to dance on the little overhead stage (LLLLosers!), so the penalty was to down Flugels instead – a huge shooter of cherry vodka and Red Bull. (The founder of Red Bull was apparently Austrian, so while the stuff is banned in some European countries, in Austria, they patriotically knock it back like water. We even witnessed parents giving it to their five year olds kids on one occasion. So much for the squeaky clean Von Trapp family image.) Anyway, I managed to get so thumped at Poker, I would’ve spent the rest of the night looking down at everyone from the top of the ladder, so a little Red Bull and vodka went down well in comparison.

Just as we were preparing to leave, they started playing the coolest song. It had the requisite techno beat to it, but this time we could actually make out the chorus: “Alles ist cool in Istanbul!”. How uber cool are those lyrics? I’ve subsequently discovered who’s behind all the Austrian ‘umpah-umpah’ stuff. It all started with a dude who calls himself “DJ Otzi”. (The rather immodest musician apparently named himself after “Otzi the Iceman” – a 5000 year old mummy discovered by archaeologists in the Austrian Alps in 1991.) DJ Otzi is identifiable by his signature white beanie (see pic) and has taken the charts by storm (I kid you not) since he first hit the music scene around 2000. He’s possibly best known for his hit single “Ich bin Anton aus Tirol”. The music video for this song features “Anton” standing in the midst of the Tyrolean countryside – looking not dissimilar to the average Boksburg dweller – singing his heart out. (If you feel like a laugh, check it out on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRe3gLoE0wU&feature=related )

He’s also had several hits with souped up, umpah-umpah remixes of old classics, such as Do Wah Diddy (can’t you just hear it?). And if you thought he only appealed to very drunk Germanophones in Tyrol and Bavaria – think again. The man became an international sensation when one of his chart-toppers made it to number one in Japan! Thanks DJ Otzi and “Don’t Stop the Alpenpop”. (The latter is the ingenious name of one of his hit albums). Next stop for the night: Club Alibi. Alibi is the Rolls Royce of night spots in Saalbach. I’d love to tell you all about it, but I feel compelled to remain true to its ethos and to zippen my lippen…

Ich Bin Eine Kleine Schwein Haxen

I managed to take this pic while Hans, the waiter, was concentrating on ordering our wiener schnitzels on his little waiter computer. How d’ya like the new buck leather knickerbockers? They must drive the frauleins mad.

Anyway, back to the wiener schnitzels. You know how we’re constantly marvelling at how the Europeans manage to stay in shape, with books like: “Why French Women Don’t Get Fat”? Well, after some on-the-slopes research in Saalbach, I’m happy to report that one can’t necessarily say the same for ALL Europeans. In Zermatt, it was highly unusual to see someone with a serious belly, on skis. To give you an idea, it was like being in a sauna with five people wrapped in towels and one butt naked person – i.e. you’d notice. But here in Austria, I’ve lost count of the number of severe bratwurst boeps I’ve come across on skis – and I speak only of the tums that are defying even the puffiest of ski jackets. (An excess 5-10kg won’t show sufficiently in a ski suit for a social observer to group the skier amongst the bratwurst brigade). I’ve conducted this casual study only because I have long been fascinated with the whole why-French-women-don’t-get-fat phenomenon. So, using different groups of European skiers as my sample, I can conclude the following: if Austrian skiers are relatively porkier than their Swiss neighbours, it follows that cheese and chocolate is less fattening than schwein haxen (pork knuckle), schnitzel, apfel strudel, schnapps and beer, ja? Good news, except when you’re in the heart of the Austrian Alps. Here, ve have cold meat vir breakfast und dan bratwurst oder schnitzel vir lunch und vir dinner, ve have schwein haxen oder veal mit pork dumplings. Ironically, the conversation has turned to calorie counting at virtually every meal. I have to say that the topic is usually introduced by The Husband with his newfound awareness of health and fitness ahead of the Cape Epic. “Do you know that sausage is 70% fat?” he’ll say while munching on a frankfurter. “This has at least 1,500 calories”. Then, after the meal, he’ll be rolling on the bed, clutching his stomach, vowing never to go near another schnitzel so long as he lives.

Aside from skiing itself, the Austrians have come up with a novel way of burning calories while you wait in line for the ski lift. There is usually a little pub next to the lift, which blares out such catchy tunes, you simply can’t help singing along and doing a little jig in your ski boots. As cringe-inducing as the local folk/pop stuff is, at least the tune is forgotten as soon as you’re on the ski lift. Unfortunately, though, the local tracks are interspersed with a bit of Bananarama here, and a bit of Boney M, there. Actually, quite alot of Boney M. The favourite seems to be one of the their more annoying hits, namely, “Brown girl, in the ring, tra la la la la,” You know the one I mean? “She looks like a sugar in a plum…..blah, blah, blah TRA LA LA LA LA”. I’ve always thought the lyrics went: “Brown owl in the rain, tra la la la la…”. So I was curious (if a little concerned) to know what the heck “brown girl in the ring” refers to. Someone in the group then told us that the reference is highly racist, though this is a little known fact. Perhaps because of this insight, my evil side won’t stop playing the song over and over in my head. It’s as though Boney M has set up camp inside my head. I finally Googled the words to get the full story. As far as I could tell from Wikipedia, it’s the name of a game played by pre-teens in the Caribbean – sort of somewhere between ring-a-ring-a-rosy and spin-the-bottle, where the kids dance around a girl in a circle, while singing this delightful tune. Perfectly innocent, really. Once my conscience was clear, I figured I’d finally get this damn song out of my head. It was gone for a blissful two hours but then someone in the group started singing it out loud and now it’s back with a vengeance.

I could bang on about the delightful ski slope DJ’s here, but it’s 7pm and Boney M, the brown girl and I need to dash to dinner. Tonight, on ze menu, ve have eine “Farmer’s Buffet”. I have absolutely no idea what they farm around these parts but I’m pretty sure it’s not organic chickens. So I’ll be back in Jozi next week looking like eine kleine schwein haxen, but it’ll all be in the name of international research.

Top-of-the-Mountains Treffers in Saalbach


After my two prior skiing experiences in the cosmopolitan resorts of Zermatt and Vail – Saalbach, is proving to be a bit of a culture shock. Our group (consisting of 5 Saffers, 1 Russian and 1 Bahamian) pulled in to this Austrian Alpine resort on Saturday afternoon and decided to hit the après-ski scene immediately. It was about 5pm and the party was pumping. To be precise, I don’t think I’ve seen people this paralytic since Monday nights R5 drink-all-you-can at Springfield (circa 1998) or Sunday afternoons at the Pitcher & Piano in Putney. At first I thought we must have accidentally hit happy hour at the student local but when my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realised that the average age was somewhere between 45 and half-dead. And then I saw two wasted old-timers, beer in hand, sucking face like standard sixes. Gross! I have to admit I couldn’t stop staring. No-one else seemed to bat an eye-lid – perhaps because they were all so dronk they couldn’t see straight. They did, however, have just enough co-ordination to bop to the beat of the music.

Speaking of music, it appears that the beer is not the only thing that’s home brewed in this part of the world – the tunes are delightfully local too. The “Top of the Mountains” CD in the picture for this posting should give you a sense – the one with the cover photo of a brunette, looking as wholesome as Heidi from the chin up and as tasteful as a Teazer’s billboard, from the chin down. Sort of Amor Vittone on top, but a lot more risqué below eye-level. The music itself is kind of hard rock meets Eurotrash pop, meets folk, meets rave, with some “yodely-yodely yo’s” thrown in. Und one more thing: alles is in Tjerman – ja? Not to knock Germanic music talent – what with Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and all those wunderkinds – but there’s just something about German song lyrics that make them sound like someone barking out orders. It’s just so guttural, so…so scary, ja? So to numb our fears we reached out to Herr Jagermeister. In defence of the music (and the Jagermeister) it did inspire some priceless holiday in-jokes. Not least was the famous “heil five”. This involved two individuals (i.e. two wasted Saffers) looking at one another earnestly, raising their right hands in a militaristic semi-salute, shouting “Heil Five!” in their best German accents and then slapping their palms together in mid-air, before collapsing into fits of very macho giggles.

By 7pm (8pm on our body clocks) we were ready to return to the hotel for dinner. The Husband and I just needed to collect our skis and poles and we’d be right there.

Right.

The Husband could not remember what his skis looked like and we spent the better part of an hour searching for his gear amongst thousands of skis and poles all stacked up outside the bar. He eventually located a pair of skis that he thought looked familiar but his poles were nowhere to be found. Finally, we decided to take advantage of the ski gear insurance and he grabbed a pair of poles that best matched his ski suit. (We later discovered that the name “Angela” was etched onto them so we’re still waiting for a Germanic-looking shot-put champ to attack him on the ski slope. So far so good…)

With all this excitement, it took us a while to join the others back at the hotel. By this time, we were late, sweaty, flustered, exhausted and ravenous. We flew into the dining room, trying to locate our mates. The restaurant staff was looking at us askance as we swished through the dining room in our ski pants and thermal Cape Storm tops. (The next day we came across a discreet little note, which read “Please to dress appropriately for dinner, please. No ski gear or sweatsuits”. Oops). We finally found our table and, as we sat down, we realised that while we were out stealing ski poles, our friends had managed to get spectacularly wasted. The waiters looked decidedly unimpressed with our table (it’s worse when they give you the hairy eye-ball in German – trust me) and the other diners were clearly “not amused”. It was then that I noticed that our fellow diners were actually the PARENTS of the old-timers in the bar. My God. We’d booked into the old age home. Seriously: the guests were 75 in the shade and they were sitting there in their bow ties and dinner jackets. WTF? Any hopes that we’d simply have a great time and ignore Shady Pines, were dashed when the dronkest member of our party decided to audibly enquire:

“What the eff is up with all these OLD PEOPLE???”

Needless to say, we’re about as popular as puffadders in our hotel, but I still maintain that, until the folk dancing entertainment arrives, Shady Pines is lapping up our table’s conversation – not least because it’s the only conversation going down in that dining room. Plus, the waiters asking us to “keep it down” are grown men in New Buck leather pants. I mean, what does one say to them, except for “Yodel-ay-hee-hoo!”

Pinky & the Brain – Again

It’s official: the more The Husband and I travel together, the dumber we get. First there was the time we missed our international flight out of the Bahamas because we meandered to the check-in desk 61 minutes before take-off. We sort of subconsciously assumed – since the whole of the Bahamas has a population the size of George – that backwater airport rules would apply. I mean you don’t need to rock up at cute little George airport a full hour before your flight, right? Turned out that check-in closed 60 minutes before take-off and so (after being duly cr*pped on) we were hastily checked in. We then got stuck in an almighty US immigration queue (yes, US immigration INSIDE the Bahamian airport – who knew?) and missed our flight to Miami. So instead of flying Nassau-Miam-Vale, we flew Nassau-Miami-Dallas-Vale. Perhaps the greatest punishment of all was not the three back-to-back flights. Rather, it was having access to nothing but Delta’s wholesome selection of on-board potato chips and peanuts for 12 hours straight.

Next, there was Pinky & the Brain Part One. This occurred two months ago, when we (okay, I) miscalculated our arrival date in Buenos Aires by 24 hours, leaving us without a hotel room the day before Christmas Eve.

Thirdly, ladies and gentlemen, may I present the absolute coup de grace on the International Travel Dumbometer. Pinky and the Brain Part Two has a similar beginning to Part One. At 5am on Thursday 4 February The Husband awakes with a start. We are booked to depart for a skiing trip in Austria at 5pm on Friday 5 February.

“Do I need a visa for Austria?” he goes.

We both freeze. Okay, deep breaths. Let’s apply our minds. (Where are our minds?) We locate the passport. We check the Schengen visa expiration date. 31 January 2010. Four freaking days ago! We are screwed. I can’t quite believe it. We planned this trip months ago. We’ve been lining up our gear on the bedroom floor for the last week: ski jacket, snow boots, ski goggles – the works. We even have the little thin, thermal gloves that go under your ski gloves. But the rather huge matter of eine kleine visa for Osterreich just did not cross our minds. Not once. Not until 36 hours prior to departure.

On the bright side, yours truly is A-for-away with my British passport. Screw Stuyvesant cigarettes: an EU passport is the international passport to smoking hot, travel pleasure. Every time my eyes rest on that burgundy beauty I sigh happily and thank my grandmother over and over again, for giving birth to my father in the snow.

I pretty much resign myself to the fact that it’ll be solo skiing for me for at least three or four days until The Husband can sort out his paperwork. I spend the whole of Thursday moping around and wondering who the heck is going to carry my skis from the hotel to the ski lifts? Those bad boys weigh an absolute ton. Life is so unfair. (And we are such morons).

In the meantime, the husband manages to secure an interview at the Austrian embassy first thing on Friday morning – i.e. the day of our supposed departure. Upon arrival, he is greeted by the following sign: `’POOR PLANNING ON YOUR PART DOES NOT NECESSARILY CONSTITUTE AN EMERGENCY FOR US” Er, good point. The only option is to plead complete and utter stupidity (not an act, if you think about it), to apologise profusely and, well, to beg. All of which The Husband duly does. He then endures a justifiable amount of finger wagging and tongue lashing from Klaus von Whats-his-face (deservedly so), before – miracle of miracles – Klaus marches over to a computer terminal, starts punching in data and tells The Husband to report back at 12pm when there may or may not be an answer from the Motherland. “But,” Klaus counsels, “don’t be too hopeful because all civil servants knock off at 12pm sharp on a Friday.” ’Course they do. Das is der government!

Mercifully, Pinky and the Brain Part Two has a happy ending. At 12pm yesterday The Husband was issued with a 7 day, multiple entry Schengen visa. Look out Austrian Alps – Dumb and Dumber have arrived! (Plus we’re Saffers on skis which means we’re armed and dangerous…)