Living in a foreign country, it can take some time to discern the patterns and rhythms governing everyday life. When are the banks open? When do the grocery stores close? What time does the baker gently chide me for my careless pronunciation, lack of vocabulary, and diminished sense of fashion?
The answer to that last question is “every time I order a baguette”, though my prickly boulangere has eased up some on the couture tips since I started casually draping the new scarf Kristanne got me for Valentine’s day before essaying my daily visit. For the other schedule questions, France eases difficulties by using the same one for the entire country. Everyone starts school on the same day. They all take the same two weeks for fall break and the same days for Christmas break. It’s a little bit like living on the world’s largest college campus, right down to the abundance of righteous political causes, emphasis on constant intellectual and physical activity, and the incredible proliferation of bicycles. There’s a charming “all together now” aspect to this, actually. You feel like you’re part of something larger…like a big team with cool accents and nifty scarves.
For the winter break, the country is divided into three zones, conveniently labeled Zone A, Zone B, and, yes, Zone C. There may be times the towering French bureaucracy expresses its innate creativity, but apparently zone labeling isn’t one of them. The three zones take turns overlapping one another for their two week winter vacations, all while lamenting the fact that they don’t have better zone names. It’s surprising a strike hasn’t been called yet to demand better zone names — frankly, it’s just a matter of time given both the appalling lack of creativity demonstrated with the whole Zone A/B/C thing and the willingness of the French to strike at the faintest hint of a perceived slight or potential grievance.
For winter vacation, the entire country comes to the Alps and skis its collective backside off. The resorts are packed and for the duration of the school holidays, they charge high season rates while lift lines extend and everyone comments on one another’s scarves, each of which is draped at exactly the rakish angle calculated to best forestall the slings and arrows of outrageous bakers. I may be projecting a bit here.
haven’t we been over this already?
I’ve already meandered and digressed for some several hundred words on French ski culture in previous installments, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time belaboring, restating, or redundifying. Well, I mean, I kind of do want to do it, but I’m resisting the urge. By which, I mean that Kristanne is looking over my shoulder as I type this, occasionally dropping little “tsk, tsk, tsk” sounds and flicking my earlobe with her index finger. Subtle reinforcement is apparently the key to long-term behavior modification. That and bruised earlobes.
One of the time-honored traditions for les vacances d’hiver is a good old group ski class with the Ecole du Ski Francais. This organization is a living testimony to the French obsession with all things ski. Boasting a whopping 17,000 instructors, each with a sweater that is rakish and red enough that they actually nicknamed themselves after it (“les pulls rouges”, or “the red sweaters”), these guys know from ski instruction. That’s them welcoming Kinsey (in the pink helmet, natch) to her first class. Interestingly, I’ve been trying the “les pulls rouges” paradigm for myself, occasionally referring to myself as “the blue sweatpants” or “the rumpled ballcap” or perhaps even “les wrinkled trousers”, on the off chance that the French article will carry the day, but so far the family is having none of it. They may be in league with the baker.
got any sweeping cultural generalizations you can use to explain all this?
The ESF standardizes a dizzying nine levels of official ski wizardry for kids, starting with the wee Piou-Pious and ascending all the way to the coveted Etoile d’Or (“Gold Star”). So, the way it works is that you get a little Carnet de Capacites en Ski Alpin when you’re a kid. This is like a skiing report card, except it’s way more important than that “Plays Well with Others” garbage, follows you your entire life, and holds the key to your eventual happiness as a French citizen. I may be exaggerating, but only slightly.
Each week-long group course is geared towards passing a specific test on Friday, after which you get your Carnet officially stamped for the level achieved. You can buy a little pin recognizing your achievement from the ESF office, and everyone celebrates while temporarily pretending that they’re not secretly enraged at the Zone A/B/C stuff. Then, everyone eats a big plate of cheesy potatoes, blows great clouds of cigarette smoke on one another’s children, and drives as unsafely as possible back to their homes. There may be some unfortunate cultural stereotypes in those last bits, though we actually are surprised to see how common smoking still is some 12 years after the last time we lived in Europe. Of course we’re also surprised that the “French Elvis Presley” is still popular 12 years later, too, so there are definitely some things we don’t quite get about European tastes.
Unable to resist the siren song of French tradition, we invested in a carton of cigarettes and hit the slopes. We weren’t quite ready to go whole cochon with the full week of lessons, so we did two instead. The kids have already done a couple private lessons earlier in the season, so this was a good way for them to solidify their skills. They’re both amazing with how much they’ve learned and how confident they’ve become, so it was a neat validation for them to pass their tests. Kinsey earned her Flocon (“Snowflake”) level and Quinn got his Deuxieme Etoile (“Second Star”). Those are the pins there below. Both their mother and Les Wrinkled Trousers are extremely proud. Not only is this an important step on their road to French citizenship, but now they also have something sharp to poke the baker with.
There’s a similar system for adults, with levels and pins, but when I asked my last ESF instructor to validate my level he just mumbled something about “l’étoile de Chevre Chaud” which is not at all on the ESF website and appears to mean the Star of Warm Goat Cheese. Not only does that sound delicious, but it would also make an excellent replacement name for our zone here in Grenoble. No more “Zone A” for le G – it’s Zone Chevre Chaud from here on out. The French love me, man.
what about kristanne?
When you look as good as Kristanne does on the pistes, you don’t need no stinking étoiles…just blue skies and white peaks. And really strong earlobe-flicking fingers, just like the ones you see her slowly drawing from her mitten/holster in that picture below, likely in threatening anticipation of the very jokes I’m making right now. Uh-oh. Trouble.
can we all have some cocoa and go home now?