Friday, March 19, 2010

The Reluctant Skiier--Part II "Le Club"

So many of our friends raved about their vacations at Le Club, that we had to try it out. First of all, an important distinction: there are two kinds of Club Meds. The swinging singles type—“Gala Swinga” memorialized in the cult French movies “Les Bronzes” (the tan ones) and “Les Bronzes font du Ski” (The Tan ones go skiing) and the family club med (basically like an all-in-one-vacation with built-in day-camp for your children). Note: Family Club Med is Not the place to meet somebody unless you are a GO, a GM in the market for nice divorce/es with two or three children, or the teenage children of a GM.

Both versions of Le Club have their own lingo, which seems contrived to my American sensibilities (and hey, we’re the people who gave the world Disney)…or maybe it’s because interacting with complete strangers in a vacation camp environment is not my experience of what the French generally like to do; however, considering Le Club is a cultural phenomenon in France, it must respond to some something they like. The main vocabulary you need to know is that the members are called GM (“gentil membres”, nice members) and the counselors (for lack of better translation) are called GO (gentils organisateurs). The head of the vacation village is called the “Chef de Village”—village chief. The club features dress theme nights and a musical every night after dinner (performed by the GOs). At Family Club, the musical the last evening stars Your Kids.

The genius of Singles Club Med hardly merits explaining. It is perfectly captured in the Gala Swinga theme song from “Les Bronzes” (“Bienvenue a Gala Swinga, il ya du soleil et des nanas, on va s’en fourrer jusque la…” Welcome to Gala Swinga, there is sun and there are chicks, we’re going to stuff ourselves up to here…” This is a parody of the actual club med theme song, which the GMs are invited to sing and line dance to in the evenings after the musical or in the disco. You wouldn’t think grown adults, perfect strangers up until a few days earlier, would want to break into a hokey camp-type song and dance, but a couple of potent “free” cocktails at the club Med bar, and the ambiance of the Club Med Disco can change your perspective there.

The genius of Family Club Med is the realization that vacation with Your Kids, is not always a vacation. This is even more true with a family ski vacation, where the convenience of an all-included formula for ski lift tickets, hotel, meals, entertainment, adult- and kids-group ski classes and onsite equipment rental are a real selling point. You drop your kids off at Le Mini-Club at 8:30 am and don’t need to pick them up until 5 in the evening. Two hours later, you can also drop them off for dinner and after-dinner activities with their friends.

La Bouffe

There is a hierarchy of Club Meds, ranging from 3 to 5 tridents and the meals are all served buffet style, with many options to choose from (including a hamburger, fries, pizza and pasta kids buffet). The French habitués complain that the quality of the food has declined in recent years. The quality does vary according to the individual dishes. I'm not a big fan of their sushi or the buttered??? bacon at breakfast - habitually undercooked slabs of congealed fat. However to your Anglo-Saxon palate (see kids’ buffet), an après-ski snack of oysters and champagne, and foie gras at dinner is a tremendous improvement over cheesy fries. The cheese, for that matter, tends to be melting slabs of Raclette. To the uninitiated, this might smell like fermented gym sock; however after a long day skiing, accompanying potatoes and viande des grisons, it tastes like Heaven. Another note: Unless your are gifted with super-human self-control, reminiscent of Jane Fonda in her anorexic period, Le Club is not the place to go to lose weight.

Another word about dinner: as an American, packing for a ski trip, features two types of clothing—items made with lycra and items made with polartec. At Le Club, French women still dress for dinner, so unless you want to be stuck recycling your one good blouse and sweater over yoga pants like I did every night, pack a few nicer things.

Les Francais

The biggest shock, as an American in French ski resorts, is the different cultural perception about waiting in line. For the American, the ability to form an orderly line and wait your turn is a Basic Underpinning of Society. The French very simply don’t like to do this and don’t consider it rude to cut in front of you. This seems to cut across all social classes. A good friend of mine, whom I consider the epitome of BCBG (bon chic bon genre) manners and elegance told me that from an early age she was socialized into this practice by her very proper mother: “Now you go ahead of me and cut. Nobody will say anything because you’re a child, and then I’ll slip in.” This can only end in frustration. Since Anglo-Saxon good manners consist in being pathologically non-confrontational, I was reduced to seething in silence as everybody nonchalantly cut in front of me to drop off their children at Mini-Club or in the ski line.

My half-French, half-Spanish husband has no such compunctions. When women cut in front of him at the Mini-Club, he tapped them on the shoulder and pointed out: “Excuse me, Madam, but I am in front of you, as is this gentleman over here and that woman over there.” He even got into an altercation with an elderly, handicapped woman. The Anglo-Saxon perspective would be that advanced age and physical infirmity automatically confer a halo of goodness, worthy of respect. The French aren’t past admitting that these conditions occasionally coincide with your basic cantankerous, trouble-making old acid-vat.

Marc at Club Med

Grandmother-aged woman on crutches cuts in front of Marc in the après-ski buffet line.

Marc: Excuse me, Madam, but I was in front of you.
Older Woman: I’m handicapped.
Marc: Well, I have four children

Woman watches in horror as Marc starts to generously fill his plate with the remaining merguez sausages.

Older Woman: Il y en a qui se servent comme des porcs. (Some people help themselves like pigs.)

Marc: You’re rude. Calm down, there’ll be enough for everyone.

The next day, Marc is having lunch with his ski group and tells them the story of his altercation with the “vielle peau” (old acid vat). One of the women says. That sounds like my mother.

Marc replies: That’s impossible.
Ski group companion: Oh no, it’s not. She’s handicapped. Oh look, there she is.

The acid vat approaches the lunch table and smiles wickedly at Marc.

Lessons Learned with a different kind of ski instructor

When I was seventeen, I spent a lot of time with a very dear great aunt and great uncle. The bonds of kinship--beginning with the return of Rene Madec to France from his illustrious and profitable career as a mercenary in 18th century India--in Brittany, like the American South, would take several minutes to explain. Suffice it to say that these Breton relations were “cousins a la mode de Bretagne” and referred to as Mon Oncle and Ma Tante—My Uncle and My Aunt.

Mon Oncle, while retired from his job as a lawyer, spent a lot of time traveling to Paris for various post-professional and non-profit activities explained to me that occasional separation was the secret to a long and happy marriage. “Otherwise, you shall have nothing to talk about but the fact that the dog is losing his hairs and Le Service is getting insolent and senile…” Mon Oncle also cautioned against the vice of gambling. “I view it this way. If I spent all my money gambling, how would I be able to afford to see les danseuses (exotic dancers)?”

Ever since my husband and I have decided to spend most our time skiing with groups or friends who share our level of ability (see The Reluctant Skiier Part One l), ski vacations have worked out a lot better for us.

Group 2’s ski instructor was definitely older, but in very good physical condition so I assumed he must be in his early sixties. As opposed to previous group ski lessons with a modus operandi of “keep up and make it down the next slope alive,” Paul spent a lot of time on calisthenics and technique. He had us balancing on one ski, hopping in the air and skiing (waltz-style) in circles with a partner, holding each other’s poles as we went down the some of the easier slopes. Paul executed these plies, releves and little leaps with grace. While we barely approximated these movements, the inconceivable happened, we started to get better.

Paul also enjoyed logic (math and verbal) puzzles and complex “jeux de mots” (puns) that he would share with us as we waited in line or as he downed one of multiple glasses of wine at our one-hour lunch break. He had also recently discovered the joys of being on the receiving end of a group humor list, facilitated by the new and marvelous invention of the Internet. He shared these stories with us, as well as his opinion of the Swiss, from the point of view of a French-man who has lived there for many years (“a nation of denouncers”).

When Paul learned I was American. He said. “Oh les Americains! I remember the GIs well. They taught me to drive. I was only fourteen, but I accompanied them and they let me drive the jeeps as they were advancing through France.”

At this point, the group and I calculate, with amazement, that Paul must be 80 years old.

He has one son, of whom he is very proud, who brings him some of the finer vintages from Nestle’s private dining room for higher level executives—Chateau Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Haut Brion…

I asked Paul if he has any other children. “No, only one,” he replied. “But I have many siblings. I’m one of thirteen children.”

“Wow, that’s a lot.”

“Well they had to repopulate France after the First World War.”

I remark that I can’t imagine how his mother did it. I find myself exhausted and over-whelmed with four children.

“Oh, it wasn’t that hard. Children weren’t as needy back then as they are today. We had a farm (can’t remember the region, somewhere in Eastern France near Nancy). When we got home from school, we all had our chores. I was in charge of the chickens, another brother was in charge of the cows, another one took care of the rabbits…”

We discuss diet. Paul is a vegetarian. He explains that growing up on a French farm in the 30s, you only ate meat once a week, the rest of the time it was legumes and vegetables. I complain of the difficulty of losing weight. Paul mentions that he managed to lose 40 kilos in the last year. I ask how he did it.

“Oh, it’s not difficult. You just stop eating for a while (ensues a description of some fast of biblical proportions and the importance of slowly returning to eating, just an apple the first day), “but make sure you continue to exercise. It’s always important to exercise, regardless of what you do.” It’s clear, that at 80, Paul is in better physical shape than anybody in our group.

After the second day of skiing I feel like hell. All the muscles in my legs hurt. I can only go down the stairs sideways.

I go to meet Paul at the start of ski group and tell him I won’t be making it that day. He looks disappointed.

“Just give it a try, your muscles will warm up.”

Sheepishly, I explain that I’m out of my medicine. I have ibuprofen (for arthritis in my hands) but can’t take it at the recommended doses unless I also buy my omeprazol stomach protector.

He looks at me in amazement. “You have to take a pill to take another pill? No wonder the pharmacists are so rich!”

He feels sorry for me. Clearly, I come from weaker stock.

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