Monday, January 3, 2011

A look back at my time in Leysin so far

January 3, 2010

It’s one of the first days of 2011 and I’m at home, nursing an extraordinarily painful tailbone, memento of a heavy fall on an icy slope two days ago while trying to re-learn snowboarding. It's probably not broken, but the bruising and swelling make any sort of sitting down, standing up or lunging forward pretty agonizing. Luckily (in some sense), snow conditions are so poor that I don't feel as though I'm missing much by not being out there every day.

I still need to write up a bit about my trip to Newfoundland this summer with my mother, Audie, Saakje and Serge, but that will have to wait for another day to do it justice.

The past four months have hurtled past rather like a luge track, and it’s only now, two weeks since classes finished, that I’m starting to feel alive again. Teaching can be a draining experience at the best of times, and when my students are neither particularly gifted (in general) nor particularly motivated, running through the donkey work necessary to run a class can be mentally pretty tough. My surroundings, perched on a mountain surrounded by higher peaks in the Swiss Alps, is pretty spectacular and the recreation opportunities they provide have been a sanity-saver since my arrival here 4 months ago, but I still find myself a bit tired and de-motivated as 2010 winds down.

My friend Kent, who visited me at the end of August, called me “the world’s laziest blogger” in a post on his excellent (and un-lazy) blog The Dromomaniac. The charge is true; keeping my blog up-to-date has been one of the casualties of teaching. Now that I have some time to myself, I should really bring you, my faithful and long-suffering readers, up-to-date on my travels this fall.

Part of the problem with living in a Western European country is that it’s not really very exotic. Searching for the unfamiliar is one of the main motivations I have for travel, and so I have perhaps travelled less than I would have otherwise. As well, not having a car is an impediment to travel here, despite the extensive public transport network. I hope to remedy that later this year, although used cars are more expensive and less reliable than in Japan, where most of my car ownership and driving has been done up until now.

Leysin is a great location for cycling, with lots of mountain passes available for riding, and small tertiary roads and logging trails to escape from the heavy traffic. I tried to get out regularly for the first two months I was here, although I should have done better at taking advantage of the terrain. One of my favourite rides was in early September, when I rode down to Aigle (a very rapid 1000-metre vertical drop) and then up to Villars (another ski resort/international school town nearby), over the Col de la Croix, down to Les Diablerets, up and over the Col du Pillon, down to the gorgeous glitterati gathering place of Gstaad, along a pretty valley to Chateau d’Oex, over the Col des Mosses, down to Sepey and a final 500-vertical-metre climb back into Leysin. By the end of the day, I had climbed over 3000 vertical metres and covered part of a stage of next year’s Tour de Romandie, a professional cycling race used as a tune-up for the Tour de France.

I also did a bit of cycling down along the Rhone Valley, where a well-designed bicycle path carries cyclists through forests and along the Rhone, far from the maddening traffic of the main roads. A lovely ride up to Morgins and down to Evian with fellow teachers was another great day in the saddle. Perhaps my favourite cycling of the fall, though, was a weekend spent riding through Burgundy with Terri, the Kiwi teacher I have been seeing here in Leysin, reliving my time as a Butterfield and Robinson cycling guide. I had forgotten how picture perfect the medieval stone villages and high-end vineyards are, and, to cap it off, we stayed in an atmospheric old castle, the Chateau Bellecroix.

I also played some good quality tennis and squash here; there are a number of keen and competitive players at LAS, including one teacher who played collegiate tennis and who subsequently was a teaching pro for five years. Leysin is also a perfect spot for running, with forests and fields traversed by a network of trails perfect for trotting along.

With my sister Audie eight months pregnant, she and her boyfriend Serge and another friend Daniel and I headed out to the mountains one Saturday to climb the nearby Dents du Midi, the 3000-metre peak that dominates the nearby stretch of the Rhone Valley. It was a long slog, but the weather was perfect and the views from the summit absolutely epic. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day out in the mountains. Some of our students were on their way the following weekend to climb the mountain

I got away from Switzerland briefly in October when I flew on EasyJet to Belgium to visit my friend Wido and his family. Wido is working for a company in Geel, a small town in the Flemish countryside, and it was great to see him again after a number of years. I spent a day poking around the city of Antwerp, which I had never seen before, and another playing tennis with Wido and his two boys, followed by a long ride through the countryside on the well-organized bicycle paths that run everywhere. The weather was perfect, and it was all in all the best possible way to spend a rare long weekend.

Shortly thereafter, I took part in a couple of genuinely Swiss festivals. First of all I made it, slightly late, to the desalpage of Etivaz, a celebration of the seasonal migration of the cows that produce the famous local cheese from the high summer pastures to the warmer lowlands. The next day I went with my mother and Terri to another cow-centred event, the famous cowfights of Martigny. Swiss cows (the females; we’re not talking about bulls here, although these cows are bigger than most bulls I’ve ever seen) are bred to be territorial and aggressive, and in early October the local farmers bring their biggest and butchest to the 2000-year-old Roman amphitheatre of Martigny to test their alpha dominance against other cows. Ten or so of these bovine behemoths are turned loose together, and after lots of ritualized snorting and pawing at the ground, eventually pairs of cows lock horns and the losers are escorted back out of the ring. I can’t say that I followed all the niceties of the rules, but I don’t think the crowd, big on biceps, mustaches, tattoos, motorcycles and wine, did much better than I did. It was a fascinating display, and one that I’m not sure occurs in many other parts of the world. It was a nice physical-cultural combination to have a wonderful bicycle ride along the Rhone to get to and from the Combat of the Queens.

I accompanied a group of high school students on a school trip to an Outward Bound centre in the Bavarian Alps in Schwangau, Germany, a few kilometres from Mad King Ludwig’s fantastical Neuschwanstein castle at Fussen. The setting was excellent, and we had heavy snow to make the surroundings even more fairytale-like. The students were, by and large, not terribly enthusiastic or good company, but a few of them enjoyed it. We did some rock-climbing, a ropes course and built a home-made flying fox across a forest ravine. The highlight (for me) was a three-day hike up to stay in a back-country hut and a climb to the summit of a nearby mountain through a wonderful sugar-frosted treescape. I think the mountain guide and I enjoyed the walk far more than our seven students. I was struck, not for the first time, by the fact that the children of the hyper-rich seem to lack a great deal when it comes to motivation, determination and toughness. A wander through Neuschwanstein on the way home and an evening soaking in 19th-century thermal baths added a veneer of cultural to this “cultural trip”. Having our van engine crack and die on the way home, necessitating a long pit stop and then piling everyone into one overcrowded bus for the long haul back to Leysin was some sort of icing on the cake of this experience.

In mid-November, I headed south of the Alps on a one-day marathon expedition to see a soccer match, the fabled Milan Derby between AC Milan (Silvio Berlusconi’s team, the most successful Italian team of all time) and Inter Milan (champion for the last 5 seasons and last year’s European champions). It was a long drive, and the weather in Milan was rainy and grim, but the atmosphere at the game was electrifying without there being any real threat of violence. The chanting, the flares, the banners and the cheering was great to see, although the game itself was a bit of a damp squib, with AC Milan winning 1-0 on an early penalty (scored by a former Inter star, Zlatan Ibrahimovic) and Inter barely making a single meaningful attempt on goal. The drive back was interminable, and I was glad I had packed my pillow so that I could sleep most of the way back. We arrived at 3:15 am and I had to be at work by 7:40 the next morning. Sleepy times! The game was a definite turning point for the Italian soccer season, with AC Milan now 13 points ahead of Inter and marching on inexorably towards the league title.

Now that it’s Christmas break, my family, who have been gathering in Switzerland over the past couple of months rather like a tribe of steppe nomads, have spent the holidays together for the first time in 20 years. It’s been great fun: building a gingerbread house (or actually, a model of an entire street), luging on crazy Airboard inflatable luges, skinning up the mountain behind us, drinking wine, playing cards and board games and generally enjoying life. As I age, I realize that gatherings like this might not happen too many more times, so it’s been important to take advantage of having everyone around. The only downer has been a distinct lack of snow, curtailing real skiing. I hope the new year brings a lot more frequent powder dumps!

So as 2011 begins, I hope to find more time and inspiration for writing and travel, and more powder for skiing. I hope that the new year finds you, my readers, enjoying the things that are important in your lives. Bonne annee!