Although the dinner service is in full swing, I find a time to hide in a laundry room to text you a quick SOS. It's all boiling up there in the kitchen, threatening to spill over, but no, oh no, it's not the numerous pots on the stove. We've got a new chef for this booking (12 guests from New Zealand, spent 30 hrs getting here. Honestly I don't understand why'd anyone ever leave New Zealand, let alone for Val d'Isere - literally a collection of incredibly expensive shops and chalets around a main road surrounded by ski slopes), an Italian giant Vincenzo who's always only too relaxed or too stressed, nothing in between. Currently his Roman blood boils two floors above: a second nuclear explosion in two days in between him and a chalet manager Ben is imminent and I'm stuck in the middle trying to remain neutral like Switzerland.
My blood also boiled over a few times in those five weeks here in Val d'Isere. In managing stress, under normal circumstances I consider myself on par with zen masters, so perhaps it's the altitude thing? We're at an altitude of nearly 2000 metres here, so no matter your level of fitness, you'll find yourself audibly panting and gasping even when walking downhill and no matter your drinking prowess, a single beer will bring you to your knees. There are apparently several stages that follow a formation of any type of working team - forming, storming, norming & finally performing. In these last few festive weeks (always the craziest times in seasonal contracts), I found myself storming quite a few times, but mostly due to the bizarre management decisions in regards to our rotas, shifts and hours.
For some odd reason, I've been put almost exclusively on breakfasts, racking up 40 plus hours a week, whilst David - quite possibly the strongest host in our team - is assigned to 90 mins of housekeeping duties a day. I've never seen him this under-used, un-motivated and just plain bored in the eight years we've known each other. We're also paid exactly the same, independently from the amount of hours we work per week, which makes it really hard for me to not resent him sometimes, even though logically I know it's got nothing to do with him and everything to do with the fact our rotas are chaotically created by someone in the office far far away from here.
You remember how during our first winter season in French Alps last year we took care of the whole chalet just by ourselves, right? Covering all the positions from chefs to hosts, from cleaners to drivers and still I felt like we had much more of a life than we do now. I know, bizarre. Being part of a bigger team this year, contracted for the hosting position only and as just one of the many cogs in a hospitality chalet machinery, I thought would mean less duties and more time-off dedicated to writing, reading, studying, tending to the whole mind, body and soul kalokagathia business. Ha bloody ha.
You asked me about new experiences and new friends.
Everyone on our team is super friendly but there's no real time to become friends: different shift patterns and with me being placed on breakfasts means I am in bed and asleep at 10 pm. Yes, I am also the grandpa of the team. Most of the saisonnières are in their late teens, early twenties - working hard but partying harder, dreaming about cozy office jobs somewhere in their near future. I'm considered a freak for walking in the exact opposite direction, leaving my office chair and media career back in London, trading coziness and security for discomfort and in-security. It came as a pleasant surprise to me, that in most cases when you talk to your 18 years old colleagues, you'd hardly notice any huge divide, but of course that 20 years difference must manifest at some points, even if it's just my unwillingness to hit the staff bar after dinner service and only leave at dawn on time to serve breakfast.
To be fair, almost all the seasonal workers get some extra help to survive little sleep, long hours & demanding guests. Streets might be flooded with muddy slushy, but indoors in Val d'Isere it always snows... I'm still naively shocked at how normalized a daily use of cocaine is among the seasonal staff, from management all the way down to cleaners. Similar to Mykonos, the prices here are ramped up ad absurdum in order to weed out the type of tourists Val d'Isere has no interest in, aka normal people. In effect, here in the European answer to Aspen, cocaine comes much cheaper than a cocktail in any of the local bars, and unlike alcohol it supplements your work performance rather than sabotaging it, albeit at the cost of fried neurotransmitters.
You always listen patiently as I rather impatiently try to wedge all the reasons why I should be pitied into my updates and only then you ask: 'And what about the good stuff?', and yes, once again you're right, this crazy lawless world does always follow at the very least the law of polarity, so there necessary are some positives to balance all of this out.
Even though Vincenzo has practically manipulated me into becoming his sous chef, an extra responsibility I did not ask for nor get paid for, and even though as a result my uniform that's dry cleaning only smells like fried food (a horrible PTSD to my first ever summer job of washing dishes in a pub kitchen in Ráječko more than twenty years ago), I get to learn a lot from him. Today he showed me how to do a Ceviche from Dover Sole. Japanese vs European style of gutting a fish. Japanese cut the head off first, European way requires an incision at the gills and stripping the skin in one smooth go, like removing an opera glove.
I got to blow torch Crème Brûlée just before serving it, watching in fascination as the sugar blistered and transmuted into a deliciously fragrant caramel. I learned that with no exceptions everyone loves Jerusalem Artichoke Soup, and with no exception everyone farts for days after. Vincezo demonstrated how to quickly assemble mini Croques-Madames with a fried quail egg on top as an improvised starter and showed me how to whisk up a banging Spanish Romesco sauce.
I don't love hiking up to get fresh bread and pastries for breakfast basically still at night, the town empty and dark and freezing, but I do love watching sparrows lining up in front of the bakery - having learned the exact hours when you don't get many people but you do get many delicious crumbs.
I don't love change-over days - usually Sundays. The whole team gets distributed in between different chalets, hysterically stripping beds, scrubbing tooth paste stains from the sinks, deep cleaning refrigerators, sweeping chimneys, cleaning windows (even though they freeze over right away), changing flowers and cosmetic products, preparing towels and bathrobes, emptying and re-filling hot tubs, disinfecting saunas: essentially in a few hours creating an illusion the chalets were never lived in.
But I do love the fact I can listen to my podcasts & I come home with three bags of what we call blind shopping : shampoos, jars of peanut butter, cheese, oh so much cheese - always a totally random collection of stuff people leave behind. And I can do all of that wearing sweats. For at least a part of the day liberated from our stupid uniforms that might look 'Heidi Chic' as per company's requirements but smell like fish, onion and burnt oil because there's simply no time to get them washed and dried in the brief hours meant for sleep in between our shifts. After concluding the antiseptic change-over blitz, there's sadly no time to put your feet up, looking around for a few minutes at your job well done. Instead, you'll be immediately pulled to a different chalet for more of the same (all of the properties must be ready before guests check-in at 4 pm) or worse yet- straight back into the onion-fish uniform and serving delicious first impression and dinner to the new arrivals, plating meals with hands still soggy and wrinkled from all the detergents and bleach. But you will and you'll do so with an Oscar-worthy smile because your tips depend on it.
So, in conclusion, it's all actually quite alright. The days are long and tough, and we don't see each other much, but we're lucky enough to meet in our tiny studio apartment every night, far away from the party noise and 'who's-shagging-who-gossip' of the shared staff accommodation. Our balcony faces directly a mountain wall, home to a family of foxes we 'David-Attenborough-style' spy on every night. I threw them a few slices of chicken ham the other day and they left a chewed-off duck head for us the morning after.
The long hours force you to adopt new coping tricks, which you must do in order to not lose the sense of self at the altar of hospitality service. I know exactly when to hit the swimming pool now in between breakfast and afternoon service, how many lengths I can afford to do in order to make it back on time. Sometimes, during the dinner service, I get a faint whiff of chlorine from underneath my uniform and I smile to myself, knowing that I did a bit of LIFE outside the chalet and outside my hosting commitments.
And even though we rarely get to see each other, sometimes a bit of magic happens, like when we both got the same day off on 24th of December - our French/Czech Christmas Day, and we got to do all of our traditions: an improvised Xmas tree with illegally acquired decorations, a little dessert patisserie as a poor replacement for mum's Christmas cookies, ice skating and snuggling in bed with Vodka Prosecco watching Stardust for the milionth time.
And with that - with hope - I'll have to leave you. I'm running back upstairs, hold on, let me grab a few clean kitchen towels to justify why I lingered in the laundry room for so long. Fingers crossed nobody boiled anyone's head up there in the kitchen in the meantime. We should be slowly getting past that storming phase of team work and maybe we'll all start performing smoothly soon. Three months to go! But you know what? At the end of it - in May - I'll be marrying the love of my life and beyond that, a completely new set of travelling and adventuring awaits, so I think all is good! Speak soon!