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The International Writers Magazine: Working Away

Ski Chalet Winter
Zoe Saker-Norrish
I couldn’t ski, I couldn’t bake, and I most certainly couldn’t cook- so when my partner Dave and I were hired to run a chalet in the French Alps for the winter season, I was more than a tad apprehensive. 

chalet

Considering the bulk of the job description was to provide breakfast, afternoon tea, a three course dinner, and occasional ski guiding for the clients, several occasions arose when I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

We had been travelling Europe for three months, when the inevitable decreasing budget and cooler weather began to weigh on our minds. After hearing from several people about work in the Alps and how most salary packages come with a season pass, we thought it would be a great way to spend a European winter. After firing out applications for any jobs which looked remotely feasible, we waited patiently and heard nothing. Just as it seemed we’d have to book the next plane back to New Zealand, an email arrived from an English couple who were interested in our application. Two phone interviews and one week later, we were hired - the position: Chalet Managers for a ten bedroom chalet (sleeping up to twenty-six people) in Samoens, France.

samoens Samoens is a charming little village in the Haute-Savoie region, which dates back to the sixteenth century.  It sits at an altitude of eight hundred metres and is right on the doorstep of the “Grand Massif” ski area, which boasts over two hundred and sixty kilometres of piste, the highest point being over two thousand five hundred metres.

Activities available other than skiing or boarding include snow shoeing, husky rides, ice skating, and paraponting. The steady increase in tourism can be attributed to the town’s atmosphere- it has that cosy ‘French village’ feel, as opposed to being just another purpose built ski resort.  This ever increasing demand for chalets can only result in the need for additional enthusiastic individuals who are willing to take on the challenge of running them. 

On a typical day breakfast for the guests was to be ready by eight in the morning. We could be up on the slopes by eleven, and then be back at the chalet by four in the afternoon to prepare for the evening. I may have slightly embellished my culinary skills in the interview, so for the first few weeks cooking three course meals for large groups was nothing short of terrifying. It wasn’t a “luxury” chalet- so the food didn’t have to be five-star restaurant quality- it was more in the ‘hearty, home-style cooking with nice presentation’ category. Previously, my speciality dishes were meals I had picked up at uni such as spaghetti bolognaise and nachos - unfortunately neither of which were on the chalet menu. Early in the season the kitchen was a tense environment to say the least, with poor Dave feeling the brunt of my stress and getting snapped at for not peeling the potatoes fast enough or slicing the carrots incorrectly. Surprisingly, the season passed without any serious kitchen incidents - a few baguettes were on the crispy side and some crème brulees didn’t set properly, but no major catastrophes. People actually seemed to like the food, with one guest even asking “so whereabouts did you train as a chef?”  By the end of the season we had our routine, so there was more time spent skiing, and a three course meal for twenty was smooth sailing.

It was duly noted that skiing and drinking went hand in hand. This was exemplified by our first clients - a horde of Jehova’s witnesses – whose daily routine would follow:  up the mountain by late morning/early afternoon, boozy lunch at a mountain restaurant, maybe do a couple of runs, back at the chalet at about three, then drink the place dry until the wee hours. They informed me (in between sips) that since alcohol is consumed in the Bible, they are free to drink ‘til their heart’s content. This was certainly taken very seriously. The last group we had of the season - a group of friends in their thirties - would wind up in the hot tub every night at two in the morning without fail and without clothes, singing and carrying on until our dear French neighbour would appear screaming and throwing their towels into the water, then stride off muttering something about ‘ze English’ under his breath.  These two examples frame a season full of revelry, and although it could get rather exhausting week to week trying to keep up with the guests, it was a lot of fun and well worthwhile (aided in part by some of the hefty tips we received from satisfied clients at the end of their stay).

From start to finish, there was never a dull moment.  In the beginning the work was extremely daunting and more than once did I question my ability to feed entire groups without poisoning anyone, but in the end it shows you can achieve what you would never have thought possible (cheesy as that sounds). Not only was it a chance to learn to cook, but also to ski regularly – and considering how pricey a sport it is these days, it was an amazing opportunity. I take away with me many fond memories, contact emails with invitations to stay from clients scattered throughout Europe - and perhaps an ever-so-slightly damaged liver.
© Zoe Saker-Norrish July 2010
zsn01 at hotmail.com

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