You’ve just come back from an amazing week in the mountains, your head is full of candy-popping memories of deep snow and blue skies, your belly is happily gurgling its way through 15kg of melted cheese, your kids’ cheeks are all a-glowing and rosy red, you’re all riffing on “that eurocarve" and the amazing run you all had through the trees, your better half is looking at you like they did on the first night of your honeymoon when you bust out the body lotion, and then you start thinking back to the frothy days of being a saisonnaire – the hedonism, the shred-energy, the pot-washing, the soggy baguettes in your coat pocket… and you think… maybe we could do it again. Maybe we could do a season en famille?
Act on that instinct. Go do a season. Get the kids, get your other half, pack up the bags, stuff all the spaces left in the car with Marmite and porridge oats, and just go.
"We did a season together last winter, and it was the best thing ever. Here’s how you can too..."
Now, I don’t usually go in for the back-of-a-cornflakes-packet Facebook-grade rent-a-quote philosophy that is so beloved of digital people in shared workspaces, but this is one of those occasions where the phrase carpe diem is not out of place. Kids grow up so fast, and time goes way too quickly, just like my Grandma told me it would – so don’t wait. We did a season together last winter, and it was the best thing ever.
Here’s how you can too. By the way, if you want lots of detailed practical advice, this is not the article for you.
DECIDING WHAT KIND OF SEASON YOU WANT
Are you doing this for fun? Are you doing this to broaden the kids’ minds? Are you doing this to road-test a completely new life? Your answers to the above will dictate how you tackle your season and which bits of advice you ignore.
"Stop spending all money immediately, and instead divert it into your 'wahoo' pot"
If you are doing this for fun, I would seriously suggest you try to save up in advance and just spend as much time snowboarding with your gang as possible. There’s plenty of time for work in your life (say…about 50 years’ worth), and I think it's better to put some extra nose to the grindstone while back in the UK than soak up precious snowboard time doing a badly paid temporary job in resort. Stop spending all money immediately, and instead divert it into your “wahoo" pot.
If you are doing this for more sensible reasons (e.g. reducing a tax liability or making your children into better people), then you are reading the wrong article. You need to speak to your national embassy and use a spreadsheet.
The fact you are thinking about doing a season probably means that your job is not the most important thing in your life, so you should feel comfortable about walking away, even if they slam the door behind you after they have stuffed your resignation letter into your mouth and lit it with your flaming pubic hair.
Jobs are two-a-penny these days; you will easily find something to do when you get back. Worst case scenario, you could sell a kidney, become an accountant (no one else wants to do that) or if that fails, become a journalist writing about snowboarding – because there are loads of those gigs going and they pay a shit-load of cash for really short articles.
b) Kids’ school
Considering that some people would quite happily eat beyond-sell-by-date dog food and wear their testicles on the outside for years and years just to get their kids into a good school, the idea of extracting your progeny from school once you got “the place" can bring folk out in pustules, itchy hives and a host of other stress-related conditions.
This wasn’t an issue for us, as we live in rural West Wales where the schools are generally under-subscribed (for which the blame lies with capitalism, FIS and above all Step-On bindings) so it was a piece of cake to leave and have the kids waltz back in six months later…
Just walk out the door and shut it. If you are worried about burglarists, you could pay an art student to house-sit for six months or a year. Yes, they will probably cover the walls in abstract graffiti when high on LSD and soak the bed linen with undiluted cynicism and deadstock CK One, but you may be able to sell some of the rubbish they left lying around for millions after they’ve gone (if you wait until they die).
There are of course a million desperately boring things to worry about whilst you are away (bills, post re-direction, lawn-mowing, keeping the local drug dealer sweet) but this is so dull that every time I try and write about it my fingers turn into carrots.
CHOOSING THE LOCATION
OK, so here is some sensible advice: pick a resort where you can assimilate. I write this as a bog-standard Brit, so please excuse the ingrained cultural myopia - other nationalities may have a more enlightened viewpoint.
People (including myself) get very snobby about resorts full of Brits, because they imagine themselves (despite being British and wearing Union Jack underpants) to be more culturally attuned to the French/Austrian/Swiss/Italians than other people.
The reality is (and I say this having lived overseas in a few different places, made local friends and even copulated with natives) that you are inevitably more likely to find common ground with people who have seen the Magic Roundabout and know the difference between a Star Bar and a Boost (i.e. Brits). So be realistic about being welcomed into the bosom of local society. You will be an outsider for at least two generations. Even if people like you, you are still “from away".
"The school gates are a good place to make new friends and push small volumes of crack cocaine"
Whilst you will be an outsider, having kids in school is a good way to assimilate with the locals (the school gates are a good place to make new friends and push small volumes of crack cocaine). We found ourselves on mildly friendly terms with several locals (both “proper" French locals and British “arriviste" locals) thanks to our children being in the same school class.
What I am basically saying is that it’s not so terrible if you go to a resort where there are other Brits. You will at least find people who understand your fart jokes.
b) Pick somewhere you can ride together
You may want double-black-diamond gnar-gnar terrain so you can justify the £2000 you spent on mountaineering gear and beard grooming products, but your kids probably want something different. Pick a resort where you can spend lots of time having fun on the same terrain as your offspring/husband/wife.
"A happy family is a family that shreds together"
A happy family is a family that shreds together. An unhappy family is one where daddy goes off for hours hiking and the kids are left screaming and peeling their faces off an icy black run back into the resort (for example – this never happened to me).
c) Pick somewhere that has other stuff to do
Whilst I want to snowboard every day, I have discovered that nine-year-old children are less keen, especially when it is minus 15 degrees or sleeting. Having a range of other things to do (especially when the weather is crappy) will be keep everyone sane. The indoor swimming pools, trampoline park, tennis courts, cinema, skate park and knitting club all helped me to break the monotony of landing back-to-back triple 1440s with mute grabs, and kept the kids motivated for their time on the snow. What small resorts gain in authenticity and away-from-it-all-ness, they can lack in civic amenities and shit to do on down-days.
d) Pick the right abode
Personally, I would sacrifice space for being in town/on a bus route. Big chalets with amazing mountain views look tempting, but this is – in my totally biased and not especially humble opinion – trumped by being able to walk to restaurants/bars/the lifts. Some people will be looking to do the opposite during their season i.e. get away from civilisation, in which case you will value seclusion and a long drive to get a pint of milk. I have enough seclusion already, so having more than one restaurant within walking distance was like being taken to another (and wondrous) planet.
"You should be snowboarding as much as possible. This is why you are here. Don’t waste time doing cultural things"
Remember, the school run is still a massive pain in the arse. Just because you are overseas, it still sucks when you have to drive for ages to get your children to school on time. Bear that in mind when you are drooling over the eight bedroom chalet with incredible views five miles outside the resort.
WHILST YOU ARE THERE
Notwithstanding the point above about alternative activities for the kids, you should basically be snowboarding as much as possible. This is why you are here. That’s all there is to say on the matter. Don’t waste time doing cultural things like visiting churches, ruins, lakes or nearby European cities. Just spend as much time in the terrain park as possible learning that elusive frontside seven off the toes or how not to zeach. Your family will appreciate this when they are older when you show them all the GoPro videos…ahem.
"On powder days the kids were mysteriously 'ill' but somehow managed to summon the energy to shred with us"
We were given some very sensible advice by some other parents which went along the lines of “you can really mess up your kids if they see you disappearing off to go snowboarding whilst they have a day of hard work at school". We ignored this wisdom, and frequently revelled in the eight hours of free childcare that was payback for all the times I had to break my back picking up the kids when they were learning to snowboard in powder.
Joking aside, we did feel some guilt – so on powder days (of which there were only a handful during our season) the kids were mysteriously “ill", but somehow managed to summon the energy to shred with us. Those days with the kids, riding and smiling together, were some of the best days of my life.
People will be tut-tutting about this no doubt, but I am not someone who subscribes to the idea that “every day you miss at school can negatively impact your exam results/degree options/first job/total lifetime earnings/happiness". I spent most of my youth missing school to play sport, and I can still spell real goodly and tie my shoelaces (with some assistance) so I done OK, like.
Also, I would recommend taking a guide early in the season, or making friends with people with dogs (see the seasonaire section below). Get that knowledge of the hill in your memory bank early on, because it will serve you well for the remainder of the winter. Even though I know the Portes Du Soleil like the back of my hand, it turns out that there are still loads of bits of my hands I didn’t know about. The sooner you do this, the more you can exploit that knowledge when the snow comes.
PS. Your kids will not become Olympians just because you did a season. So relax.
b) Helping the kids in school
I am a terrible teacher at the best of times, but I plumbed new depths of parenting ineptitude when I was helping my kids with their Spanish homework, in French. Prepare yourself for next-level homework challenges, make sure you get Google Translate properly dialled (you will need this, a lot), and make sure you are really friendly with some other parents who can bail you out when you have no idea how to calculate a hypotenuse.
"I plumbed new depths of parenting ineptitude when I was helping my kids with their Spanish homework, in French"
I actually speak fluent French and I found French homework to be nigh-on impossible. The only way this will resolve itself is when your kids get fluent (useful advice warning: this takes 12-18 months based on most estimates, and depending on how much you speak French in your own home).
P.S. We simply dropped our three non-French speaking little girls into a French school and expected them to “just deal with it" (my words, not those of my wife I hasten to add). This went OK for two of our kids (eventually, after some tears), but pretty badly for our eldest daughter (who had admittedly just become a teenager). Be prepared for some family drama.
P.P.S. If you are going to France like we did, the local school is obliged to educate your children if you live in the vicinity. So even if we go for a full-English Brexit then there will be a slot for your kids if you live locally during the winter season. There is a ridiculously convoluted system to go through before your groms are allowed into school (they have to sit literacy and maths proficiency tests), which of course involves lots of form-filling in triplicate… basically you need to allow for a 3-4 week lead time after completing the test before the kids can start their schooling.
Be prepared for a lot of cheese and meat and potatoes, and to slowly adopt the complexion of a Russian farmhand. You will need regular vitamin C injections to get through your season, or be prepared to spend a fortune on vegetables.
Food in ski resorts food is expensive. You can’t just stumble down to the supermarket and grab something for dinner, because if you do you will end up spending 400 euros. You need to get your food planning game dialled if you are going to have any chance of surviving without spending more than Lewis Hamilton spends on hair gel per month (that’s a lot by the way).
"You can’t just stumble down to the supermarket and grab something for dinner, because you will end up spending 400 euros"
Oats… fucking hell. Despite being the perfect thing to eat before a day of shredding, porridge costs more than beluga caviar. It is at least 500% more expensive than in the UK, so if you want a good bowl of gloopy slop that peasants/high powered yoga bunnies normally eat, then I suggest you bring it from Blighty. Either that or pay your relatives to bring it out when they inevitably come to see you. If you are already European you won't give a shit about porridge and will be happy eating slices of strange re-constituted pink meat for breakfast, so please ignore this advice.
A rare moment of earnestness… It would be remiss of me not to mention school meals, which are amazing. The kids had a two hour lunch break and a four course meal every day, and they didn’t have the same meal twice in all the time they were in France. Incredible. The French treat food and mealtimes with the respect they deserve, and there were (I would suggest as a consequence) pretty much no fat kids in the town we lived in. It depresses me when I see kids back home queuing up outside the burger van in town at lunchtime, holding a 500ml can of Monster Energy and wheezing as they walk back up the hill. We don’t value food; there is so much we could learn from the French.
They could ease off on the cheese a bit though.
d) Dealing with visitors
You will have some friends who consider your doing a season an open invitation to come and stay and have a free winter holiday, with their socks off. This is not an unreasonable expectation, as the kind-hearted and thoughtful amongst you will agree. Others, however, may find the steady stream of relatives, friends, people you last saw in school (and didn’t like) and ex-work colleagues to be tiresome – especially when they think you are on a constant ski holiday and expect you to have cake ready for them at 4pm and go on the piss until 4am on Tuesday night.
"Be prepared to annoy your friends or become very good at chalet hosting"
I became (more) misanthropic as the season went on, and found it easier to tell even the people I quite like to f*ck off and find somewhere else to stay. Be prepared to annoy your friends or become very good at chalet hosting.
You can potentially solve this problem by living somewhere tiny so it is impossible for anyone else to get in.
e) Dealing with other seasonaires
Here’s the pecking order in a ski resort (starting at the bottom):
- - Skier
- - Dog turd
- - Punter
- - Seasonaire
- - Second-seasonaire
- - Multiple seasonaire who high fives the liftie
- - People with dogs
- - Locals
It almost goes in reverse order, with those at the bottom most acting like “they own the place" and being the most annoying. You will inevitably get wound up when people in the lift queue really loudly make reference to the fact that they work in resort/are not just there for a week so that everyone knows they are not a punter and are “doing a season". They usually can’t ride for shit and never hit the big jump line. Try not to whack them over the back of the head, they will grow out of it after about a decade.
Find people with dogs, they are usually the most friendly/sanguine and are masters of the subtle humblebrag about their localness (ref: dog ownership). They don’t shout in lift queues.
f) Enjoying the nightlife
“Yes, we’re doing a season, this is rad… we can go drinking whenever we want and party all night… oh, shit… That’s a 7am alarm and the kids need to be in school in 45 minutes..."
I rest my case.
Literally the hardest thing ever. Worse than taking off a plaster. Worse than lancing a boil. Worse than extracting your own tooth with pliers. Worse than dragging yourself across China in a pair of Y-fronts carrying a fridge, worse than being spat on by dwarves, worse than having to eat cockroaches without any water to wash them down, and definitely worse than letting your mother in law see you with an erect penis whilst you are standing in front of a full length mirror. Literally, the worst.
So… you may consider not leaving. You may consider buying a dog. You may consider the merits of the French Lycee system. You may consider a life spent doing odd-jobs, but snowboarding four days a week. You may find yourself with a duct-tape habit. You may consider being poor but happy.
But even if staying isn’t an option… Go, go do a season. Do it now.
Your knees will be worse next year. Your kids will be a bit older and less inclined to leave their friends. Your bank balance isn’t getting any bigger. Just get the hell on with it. Carpe diem, baby.
Dedicated to Nigel MJ, the boss. RIP.