Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cry Me Down the Mountain

Tears juiced out behind my ski goggles, little plump beads of salty warm water sliding down the pinks of my cheeks.  I was sitting shivering on top of a mountain, terrified and nauseated. The blue-black of mountain crests and ridges and the rich green trees painted with snow surrounded me.  It was so beautiful, but also so expansive that I couldn't breathe.  I sat there, trying to cry quietly and wiping my nose with a tissue too old and stiff to be very useful.  How did I get there?

I was so scared, and I was so ashamed of feeling scared, and then I was ashamed that I felt ashamed.  You can imagine how the crying, it just continued.  It kept up like a rain that never stops.  My voice went quiet as the snow, and I wanted to go to the end of the mountain and wail earthly womanly wails into the valley, but these other skiers kept zipping by in their flashy snow pants and orange-tinged glasses and besides I didn't trust myself not to fall off of said mountain.  So I sat crying quietly, my ski glasses fogging and throat tightening as tears were dug up and spilled over.

So how did I get there?  Snotty and shivering in the snow, toes numb in boots too tight, layers of fiber, knits and fleece cutting off my circulation . . . up-high-induced-nausea which quit my breathing and started feelings of puking . . . ?

It's simple.

Last week, I learned how to ski.

Or, more accurately, I tried.

Last week, Kathryn and I went on a school ski trip to Slovakia.  In typical Hungarian style, there were lots of details about the trip that were not communicated to us.  For instance, no one told us that only one other student would be going on the ski trip.  I expected at least a couple other students from the high school to be on the trip, but instead it was the vice president, Zoli, and his teenage kids and wife, as well as their friends, and the biology teacher, Sandor, our driver, Laci, and one student, Daniel.  

Day 1.
In Which Skiing 101 Begins

We arrive at Tale and Zoli was my ski teacher.  A sweet man who is perpetually grinning and giggling (the best adjective for him is "jolly"), Zoli speaks around 100 words in English.  How I didn't realize this might be a problem is beyond me.  Not only do I not speak Hungarian, but I have never skiid before.  Needless to say our ski lesson that first morning was a challenge.  It ended with me crying into Kathryn's shoulder, telling her quietly, "Don't let go yet," as the Hungarians clucked while I cried.  It started with Zoli telling me about my "hill leg" and "rally leg" which later I learned was meant to be "valley leg."  He spoke to me in garbled English "Must.. kilos.. hill leg." and sometimes Hungarian, which I didn't understand.  I couldn't tell him I didn't understand, and I couldn't ask any questions, because he wasn't able to answer them.  He etched diagrams in the snow with his ski sticks, and I fought back the urge to say "igen" and "jol" ('yes' and 'good').  I couldn't fake understanding as I often do to get by in Hungarian conversations.  My life was at stake here.  As soon as I was on those skis, all bets were off.

It is a scary thing to feel so out of control.  I didn't know how to stop on the skis.  I was like a fish flailing up in the sky, or a bird in an underbelly of ocean, hacking on saltwater, feather-heavy.  Or, I was like a human who has never skiid before, skiing.  Take your pick.

I didn't trust my own feet.  I didn't trust Zoli's hands pulling the tips of my skis.  I fell over and over and sometimes I would lie there like a dead person, defeated in the crunchy snow.  I drank hot cocoa with rum in the lodge and then got back on the skis.  Eventually, Sandor, another teacher who speaks English, was called in for back-up.

"Fall!"  He instructed me.
Seriously?  I was thinking.  Haven't I done enough falling today?
"Now, move your body!  More, more.  More, turn it.  You need to avoid the great abyss," he draws an abyss in the snow with his ski stick.
"Sandor.  I don't even know how to stand on my skiis.  Isn't this a bit advanced?"
He didn't listen.  Typical Hungarian.

Sandor tells me that I am having trouble stopping because my legs are spread too wide, a common problem for women, apparently.  "Americans especially," I joke.

"All women," Sandor says matter-of-factly.

He tells me to sit down on my skis and fall backwards onto my back.  He demonstrates, his body pre-creased and folding in three places.

"Sandor," I tell him, "I don't have the abs for that."

"That is not a problem.  Your arms will get a good work-out."

Oh boy.

You can imagine how the rest of the lesson went.  Which is to say, it didn't last long and by the end of it (flat on my back, eyes closed and skis splayed out, Sandor asking, "Shall we call it a day?") I still didn't know how to ski.

Back at the hotel Kathryn and I sat at "Zoli's table" in the hotel restaurant ("He could have joined us," I say.  Bitter much?), didn't show up to the van on time (it might have helped if someone told us when we were leaving), and generally felt like the odd ones out.  Our (modified) theme song?  "Two of these things are not like the others..."

Day 2.
In Which Not Much Skiing Happens

The next morning I was spent.  Exhausted from trying to ski, exhausted from feeling fringy on this ski trip, I took the morning to drink tea in the lodge and write in my journal.  I dumped salt instead of sugar into my black tea.  It was just that kind of day.  Mid-morning, Zoli met me on the little hill for another ski lesson.  We practiced pizza position, skiing and stopping; our conversation was as awkward as my skiing.  In a singsong voice, he said "Come come!" and, pulling the tips of my skis together, he pulled me in "pizza" down the baby slope.  I shrieked, tumbling forward onto his back.  Up the slope I went again, to be told about hill leg and valley leg, "Must ... hill leg ... garbled Hungarian ..." [diagram in snow].

We drive back to the hostel and hole up in our room before dinner.  Because we chose "Zoli's table" at breakfast that morning, Kathryn and I survey the tables.  After some agonizing, we choose a different table for dinner.  When Zoli walks in, he is shaking his head and laughing.  "Zoli says you should choose a table and stick to it," Sandor says.

I chug my wine, shake my head.  I should have seen this coming.


Day 3.  
In which I decide, F skiing.

I couldn't do it.  I was too stressed out to learn how to ski on this icy snow.  It also didn't help that when I asked about signing up for a ski lesson and asked if there was a teacher who spoke English, the woman said dryly, "I hope so."  Tension from not trusting my body and not feeling comfortable on the trip seeped into my cold bones.  Dread heavied me the way it does before a break-up, or before any instance where you have to say what you want or don't want even though you know the other person will probably be disappointed.  I told Sandor that it just wasn't working out for me.  He told Zoli, who started to speak in fast-fast Hungarian, words that came to me through Sandor.  "First problem.  You have paid for your boots for one week."

"But this is not your problem.  It's okay."

Then I am told for the millionth time where I need to put my weight.  Zoli makes Vs with his hands, and I am sure he is critiquing my pizza position.

The disappointment is clear.

I feel like the odd one out, not skiing, but let's face it: skiing or not, I'd feel like the odd one out anyway.

Back at the hotel, Kathryn and I order two glasses of wine, as had become our dinner-time ritual.

Adam, Zoli's son, laughs as he walks by our table.  "Girls?  Wine again?"

"It's not funny," My voice is quiet, clipped, I am close to snarling.

Day 4.
In Which I thank god for a ski teacher who speaks English

We leave Tale for Mito, and I decide to sign up for a ski lesson.  I ski in an enclosed space with wooden bunnies, mushrooms, and other forest animals.  Luca is a gentle and encouraging ski teacher with sparkling eyes and appled cheeks.  I ski past the animals (skiing around them comes next lesson) and stop successfully a few times.  I feel more comfortable on the skis and in the snow, and my confidence grows, even though there are hundreds of toddlers who could out-ski me, hands down.

Suddenly, "learning how to ski" is back on my bucket list.

Hopes are revived.

Yadda yadda.

Maybe this is why the final day of the ski trip hit me so hard.

Maybe this is why I was so floored to be way high up on that mountain, sobbing.

Remember the beginning of this story, when I was on the mountain, having a breakdown?  Remember how I was going to tell you how I got there?

Well it all began with a ski lift.


Day 5.
In Which I got there

"You should come train with us this morning," Kathryn says.  "It's so beautiful up there.  You can ride up with Zoli's lift ticket and then come back down."

It's decided.  I pay for another ski lesson for that afternoon, and then we're off.

Ok, before I go any further, there is something you should know.

I am not afraid of spiders or snakes or needles or clowns, but I am afraid of a couple of other things.  Maybe this will sound weird to you, but I have a balloon phobia.  It's not that I object to the idea of balloons, but they could go off at any time.  I don't like that.  My future children, should I end up having any, are going to have really boring birthday parties.  I also don't like New Years Eve poppers, or the anticipation of the pop! of a champagne bottle opening.  Just writing about it is making me anxious.

Another fear?  Oh, you know, ferris wheels.  Certain mono-rails.  Anything that goes up high and doesn't feel contained.  Sometimes, when I am feeling especially anxious, driving across bridges.  And most definitely ski-lifts.

So I went up a ski-lift, which creaked and slid higher up the mountain.  I tried to be chill and failed.  Here was my routine: breathe, make-small-conversation, try not to move.  When we passed a cable and it was especially shuddery, I stopped breathing all-together.  Sandor coached me about getting off the ski lift, but of course when I did, I fell on top of him.  I wanted to cry.

There I was, toppled on top of the mountain.  Immediately my trust was gone, and even if the ground wasn't shaky, I was.  I took off my skis and walked over to warm up with Sandor, Kathryn, and Daniel.  They left me to practice my skiing while they did a run.  I was paralyzed, sitting in the sun, simultaneously crying and suffocating.  Everything was too big and slippery.  My feelings were red as my cheeks, raw and wind-bitten.  There was this layer of me, all ice, that tried its damnedest to protect the mush underneath that burped to the surface.

This is the layer that is always saying "Yes" to questions like "Are you okay?"  Liar, protector, defense mechanism, call it what you will.  This layer is ski glasses covering crying eyes, and it was in full-swing as Sandor and Kate came by to see how I was doing.

After at least an hour of nausea on the mountain, after at least an hour of anxiety about a ride down alone on the ski lift, an hour of rehearsing and crying and nose-blowing and feeling-my-feelings-kind-of, I tell Sandor I have a favor.  "Will you ride down with me on the lift?"

I am small.  I do not want to be small.  I want to be Ski Warrior.  I want to be Strength and Confidence and things rolling off my back, off my strong shoulders.  But remember where I am, on top of this mountain, scared shitless (or snot-less).  I am not feeling like any of those things, so I ask, and Sandor says yes.

The problem, as it turns out, is that the lift operator says no.  There is a language barrier as he and Sandor speak.

"It is not possible," Sandor tells me.  "You will have to walk with your skiis down the mountain."

Have I mentioned that the mountain is over 850 meters high?

Have I mentioned that I don't know how to ski?

That I am in the middle of trying to have a nervous breakdown?

I am laughing that laugh, you know the one -- it is more of a tremble than a laugh, it is the edge that comes before tears.  It is the laugh that could put me away.  I am maniacal.  I should be skiid to the nearest insane asylum, or at least a day spa.

"Great," I tell Sandor.

What else can I say?

The idealist in me knows there is a way.  Injured people have to get down the mountain somehow.  But my fate seems sealed.  I have to walk down the mountain.  Sandor takes my ski sticks, and skis down the mountain.

I am taking small, slow trudges when Daniel, the one Eotvos student, skis beside me with some of Zoli's family.  "What's up, chick?" he asks, all smiles.

I explain my situation.

"Come with us!  We will help you!" Daniel says.

"Daniel.  Have you seen me ski?  I cannot ski down the mountain."  (Also, I have no ski sticks.)

"You can do it!  You just have to believe!"

Uhhhhhh... "There is no way I am skiing down that mountain."

I am insistent, and they ski away, leaving me to my long walk to the lodge.

Sniffling and shuffling through the snow, a medic skis up to me.  He asks me questions in Slovakian, and all I can make out is "Are you injured?"  I tell him no, but I am a "Si baba" (ski baby), that I can't ski and want to take the lift down, but the lift operator said no.  I have no idea how much of this he understands, but he takes my skis and motions for me to follow him to the ski lift.  He speaks with the operator, and after a minute, I am ushered into the small room and offered a seat.

It smells like B.O. and burndt heater.  I am wrecked, an absolute mess, frozen and exhausted and stressed out.  I am also a tiny bit amused.  A small piece of me is able to watch with good humor while the rest of me is going through the wringer.

Another man comes in, and the two of them talk.  I hear "Amerikai" and see glances in my direction.  One of the guys makes a call.  I just sit quietly, wiggling my toes and waiting, not sure exactly what is happening or what I'm waiting for.  I am motioned, again, to the ski lift, and this burly man in a fuzzy Russian-style hat rides the lift down with me.  My left knee touches his leg slightly and I am comforted by the contact.

I breathe, descending through trees and white-white snow.  I breathe, coming down from being so high up.  I am thankful not to be walking down the mountain.  I am thankful not to be riding the lift alone.  Up on the lift, in that moment, I am especially thankful for what awaits me down below: solid ground.  It is snowy and icy ground, but after cracking open up there, after self-consciously losing my shit on the mountain, I am in no position to be choosy.  So I sit, and I breathe, and I finally (thank god) come down.


  1. Dear lord, Jess, I held my breath for much of this writing, terrified for you! You sure do know how to draw me in. I wish I had been there to give you a giant hug! Someday when you are back, I will have to tell you about the disastrous ski trip that my sis and I had some 30 years ago, this reminded me of it, but at least everyone there spoke English! Miss you, dear.

    1. I would love to hear about the ski trip you took with your sister! When I'm back we'll have tea! And we can hug then, too. :D I miss you Christie!

  2. You have no idea how much I see myself in this entire story. It captures so much of my grossly failed attempts at learning to snowboard (don't know how to ski, either) while the other newbies I went with picked it up right away and spent the day zooming down the slopes. It was a terrbile experience for me, physically and emotionally. Despite all of the difficulties you faced that weekend, it did make for a good story. Thank you for sharing. I really enjoyed reading it! -Kellie

    1. You're so right -- I was thinking "this will make a good story. this will be funny some day." as everything was unfolding! :) I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who has struggled with wintersports.

  3. I'd say you succeeded as a skier because you were able to avoid the great abyss....
    Shall we sign up now for next year's ski trip??
    ps- I didn't know you had a balloon phobia. These are the things you need to tell your flatmate. I'm sorry for giving you one for your bday..

    1. i love my birthday balloon! it was good practice for me to be around my fear. and it's getting cuter every day.
      r.e. next year's ski trip: pont pont pont. ;-)

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