It was the first morning after my arrival to the ski resort hotel in Borovets, Bulgaria, 1996. I’d retired to my room the previous evening, having dined with a reluctant but polite couple and was resigned to more humiliation at breakfast, although my mood lightened at the prospect of the day ahead. I knew I’d need to get into my borrowed ski suit and take the lift down to the ‘boot room’, where I’d be kitted out with boots and skis and get to meet the instructor.
The boot room, in the bowels of the hotel was a hive of activity, with instructors marshalling differing ability levels to make groups. I gravitated towards the call for beginners, nervous grins and feeble jokes giving their status away. Whilst I was on the fringe of this group, it consisted of those whose partners were seasoned, or at least intermediate skiers and had gone to other groups, so I was not to be the only single person during the daytime, at least. There was common ground in our shared nerves and soon we were confessing our anxieties as we were kitted out and shown how to put on the boots. Then our long-suffering instructor, Georgi led us, stumbling, out into the bright, white snow as we carried our skis and poles and I thought I’d never worn anything so uncomfortable as ski boots in my whole life.
Outside the hotel, on the nursery slopes, we got our skis on. We were to learn to sidestep up the slope and, most importantly, how to stop, using the famous ‘snow-plough’ method. We all set to, following Georgi’s instructions as best we could and with varying levels of success. We fell over a lot, the tumbles causing much hilarity and I could understand the term ‘break the ice’ as we all bonded over our ineptitude. By lunchtime we were already a bunch of mates with a shared purpose and I could feel the warm relief of belonging even in the freezing snow.
You can’t underestimate how tiring learning to ski is. At the end of the day we were all ready to collapse. I couldn’t wait to get out of the boots, which I was sure had given me blood blisters on my lower legs. But everyone was eager to debrief our experiences in the hotel bar, myself included, so before hot showers and dinner we repaired there for hot chocolate and brandy, a beverage whose restorative powers were a match for the exaggerated recounts of our day.
‘You must come and eat with us!’, one friendly couple told me. There were no more lone dinners. Hereafter we skied, dined, drank, shared stories and spent our evenings as a group-joined by spouses or friends from other groups but firmly a set of companions with experiences in common.
The following day we were to learn to master the button lift. This dastardly contraption was to become my nemesis. A circular seat attached to a line must be grabbed and straddled in order to ascend the slope. Skis, however remain on the snow and must be kept in perfect parallel throughout the ascent, otherwise you must let go and start again. Could I keep parallel? No. I could grab the seat. I could get onto it. But my skis became wayward, uncontrollable limbs, veering off at angles after a few metres. Each turn was a failure and I needed to be fed back through the turnstile by the ever-patient Georgi while the remainder of the group waited at the top. Seven times I tried, finally making it to the top on the eighth go, arriving to a cheering group of what had now become firm friends.