When visiting Geneva Airport, you can walk in and out of Switzerland as many times as you like. This is because a third of the airport is in France, and two thirds in Switzerland. The downside of being a complete idiot, and getting pleasure from going back and forth from one bit to the other, is that you wind up with 28 text messages from Vodafone. Fourteen welcome you to France, and fourteen to Switzerland, and they all give the phone rates for one or the other.
None of them ask WTF you think you’re doing at your age, but that’s automation for you: computers cannot frame their own enquiries. I read somewhere last year that by 2038, computers will be a million times more intelligent than us. If it’s true, then they need to get a move on: we’ve had them now since 1958, and to my mind – while they may have the IQ of Boris Spassky – they also have the autism of Mr Bean, and the sh*t-from-putty discernment of Ed Miliband.
I’ve endured ski resorts in many places around the world, but the greatest contrast is between French and Swiss venues. Quite how a nation of organisational surrealists wound up sharing some of its borders with a country run by regimented anal retentives is completely beyond me, but it happened. The public khazis in Switzerland have loo-seats with oil-damped closure. The shiny new ski cabines and chair-lifts look like they came from a James Bond set. A little man with a curling sweeper follows every skier as he goes down the piste.
There is no litter in Switzerland. Not wearing a seat-belt gets you the death penalty – twice if you argue. You can be deported to Devil’s Island for putting your washing out on the wrong day. And in many suburbs there are municipal signs warning ‘Annoying noises prohibited’. Amazingly, that last one is true.
As we all know, it’s not the same in France. But here in our chalet, things are well-run without being antiseptic. The chalet we’re all sharing is probably the most perfectly insulated thing I’ve ever been in. It is so efficient that if you put a heater on for longer than thirty seconds, old people dehydrate.
But the reason I talk about enduring ski resorts is partly to do (outside of supremely perfect Switzerland of course) with the odd people who get elected in ski-resort municipal elections….and partly to do with the sport itself.
The main (downhill) sport I don’t do any more. The reasons are a mixture of age, cowardice, terror, and inconvenience. But the clincher was the inconvenience. Arriving at an overcrowded place, and rushing immediately to overcrowded shops wherein people bark impertinent questions at one, is not my idea my idea of a great start to a holiday. Schlepping skis down icy streets to a telecabine centre while encased in Frankenstein shoes, and sweat trapped behind layers of thermals, is my idea of a contemporary staging of the Twelve Stations of the Cross.
Then there’s the sheer push and crush, and multiplicity of things attached to one’s body. Put the elasticated ski-pass in the machine; feel excruciating pain as, on removal, it flies backwards at high speed into the upper lip. Wonder in panic where the gloves went, realise that they are the thing trapped in the telecabine door while also being clicked onto the ski jacket now surprisingly crushed onto the increasingly numb thigh. Look around in horror as the world turns green, only to realise that those expensive designer goggles previously perched fashionably on the hair got pushed down onto the nose by the elbow of the unfeasibly tall Austrian to one’s left.
These are just a few of the reasons why I long ago decided downhill was not for me. Langlauf is better exercise: there are no chairlifts or crowds, the shoes do not make you look and walk like a tragically disabled person, and the silence as you skim through silent valleys is one of life’s great experiences. But in the infinite quest to add additional neuralgia to the ski-resort experience, the good burghers of such places are hard at work trying to make it possible.
Bus stops are their main concern. Every year they change the location, and every year the siting of the bus stop is more dangerously insane than the last. Icy corners, poubelle centres, road forks – nothing is too silly for a bus stop location: and every one will be deemed useless if it does not produce a line of frantic, hooting French motorists behind the bus of at least 400 metres in length.
Signage is the second priority, although at times there’s a photo-finish required for first place in the Madness Stakes. In Chatel, where we are, there are signs showing the visitor where toilets, pharmacies, bus stops, gift shops, crooked chimneys and cracked roof-slates are, but not one saying where the telecabine station is. The assumption behind this Council decision can only have been that Chatel attracts incontinent, prescription-addicted shopaholic roof inspectors, and these far outweigh all those who might want to indulge an ecentric minority interest like skiing.
The elected officials of Chatel are also very obviously of the view that what this tiny, cramped little corner of the Alps needs is the maximum number of private cars clogging up the limited number of roads from dawn until midnight. You can deduce this not only from the bus-stops-at-traffic-lights location policy, but also by the fact that the bus station is called Place de L’Eglise. Not Place des Autobuses or Place de Transport Publique, but Place de L’Eglise. If there are no buses parked there (and there usually aren’t) it might just as well be called Place des Folies Municipales for all the difference it’d make to your ability to tell it from a petanque pitch.
Up the mountain itself, the Chatel councillors have surpassed themselves with the dearth of sensible signs, and surfeit of misleading information. At a key point in the pedestrians’ hike stand nine directional guides fashioned in wood. Only three of them refer to anything on the tourist map, and of the remaining six, two point in the same direction to places which – according to the self-same map – are complete strangers, located as they are in opposite directions. Somehow, having set off on a randonnee of two kilometres, we wound up back where we’d started within fifteen minutes. I am a man of many talents, but I can’t walk two kilometres in fifteen minutes any more.
However, some things never change whatever the location or nationality of the resort. By far the most reliable of these is the curious practice of charging roughly three times what any form of food is worth up at the piste cafes. The consistency of the ripoff, I find, tends to give the game away: plate of chips, 10 euros, bowl of undressed salad, 10 euros, pint of beer, 10 euros, charcuterie selection, 10 euros, and not forgetting ice cream, 10 euros.
But the sense of endurance is completely overwhelmed by good company, and I’m lucky in having a maritally adopted family who are fun, easy-going and like a drink. The chalet is fully catered (given the price of food outside, this is an excellent way to cut costs) and the cooks Jana and Robert are pretty damn good. Yesterday, however, Robert broke his collarbone while snowboarding: will Jana be able to manage on her own? We don’t really care. She is so beautiful, we’d happily accept Heinz Spaghetti on hotel toast if she served it up.