14 April 2008

Travel writing?

I have been toying with the idea of travel writing for some time and I decided that a short trip to Switzerland with my girlfriend Shion and her Japanese mother and cousins was a good opportunity to have a go. All of this is true. Apart from where I look like a twat and then it’s just to get a laugh. Obviously.

Switzerland I

I was groggily trying to convince myself that sleep deprivation was part of the holiday excitement when the taxi arrived. Despite the fact that we had left the house with plenty of time to spare the taxi driver seemed to have created an alternate imaginary scenario whereby we only had ten minutes to get from Richmond to Heathrow Airport and he was our heroic Keanu Reeves figure risking life and limb to get us there. And risk he did. Swinging round the corner at the bottom of Richmond Hill at 40 mph is not only recklessly stupid but also entirely impossible as this man found out when his catastrophically misjudged turn took us to the other side of the road for 2 seconds of bum clenching panic. The driver’s awkward laughter afterwards confirmed that he too had just shat himself. I was glad I had arranged my holiday insurance. Skiing is as dangerous as it is fun. No, I take that back. Skiing is as dangerous as the skier is shit. And I am a pretty shit skier. Anyway, ten minutes later we were at Heathrow Airport, still dazed by our early morning near death experience and moving our bulging luggage onto trollies with all the care and tenderness required to avoid the zip bursting and a discharge of colourful waterproofs all over Terminal 2.

Despite the fact that my knees tend to quarrel with the seat in front, I don’t mind planes. As I sat happily chomping on the cardboard sandwich that the British Airlines had cunningly named a “brioche”, my attention became focused on the TV in front of me. The flight was apparently too short to warrant any in flight entertainment and so we made do with a map of Europe over which flew a plane the size of Belgium, leaving a red line behind it. This, I gathered, was our plane and as I was reminded of the Indiana Jones films in which his travels were mapped in a similar fashion but enviably Indiana Jones’ journeys were carried out at a speed that even our taxi driver would have been proud of. Upon landing we took part in the obligatory but entirely inexplicable race to get to the conveyer belt to wait for our luggage. And then we waited.

After waiting four hours for BA to graciously arrange for the last of our bags to join us in Switzerland, we found our way to the train station and headed for the mountains. The views were amazing and I was impressed by the speed at which cameras were drawn for the occasion. Shion’s mum and her two cousins, Yorji and Taka, are Japanese and if I didn’t know it already I now know for sure that no-one on the planet is as wholeheartedly devoted to the documentation of every remotely exciting holiday moment as the Japanese. When my girlfriend’s grandmother came to visit from Japan she brought with her a memory card holder, like a miniature credit card holder, containing 6 memory cards. She went home with four filled memory cards and was probably disappointed with her lack of commitment. I decided I would try and fill my one memory card by the end of the holiday and did my best to keep up with the whirring cameras of my companions. The tram up to the hotel felt like the relaxing part of a rollercoaster and as I snapped away at the sunset happily I thought that was probably ominous.

I’m not sure about cheese fondue. It’s cheese sauce. It’s basically the same thing you put on macaroni cheese or cauliflower cheese except it’s on its own and you dip bread in it. Why make such a big show of it? I mean, it was nice and warm and cheesy but to be honest I expected more. Chocolate fondue I understand; dipping strawberries into hot melted chocolate is almost overtly luxurious. Dipping bits of bread into a big communal pan of cheese sauce is a meal from a Dickensian workhouse. I could mention that this was the nicest cheese sauce I’ve ever tasted but I wouldn’t want to ruin my dramatic condemnation. While I’m ranting, why do hotels sell you a double room and then give you two single beds pushed together? As far as I’m concerned that’s like sellotaping two radios together and calling it a TV. A double bed is one bed. Rant over. Goodnight.

Switzerland II

The next morning my excitement was matched only by my fatigue as my girlfriend dragged me down to the breakfast buffet. I love breakfast and as we would be skiing all day I made sure I ate twice as much as I normally would. Feeling uncomfortably full I put on my fifteen layers of clothing and got my skis. I wasn’t sure how to respond when the guy in the ski shop asked if I was any good so I said “medium” which to me was a simpler and less shameful way of saying “I can go forward and turn comfortably in at least one direction.” As we sat bulkily in the tram up to the mountains I was slightly nervous. Everyone else had been skiing since they were young, Shion and Miki had lived in Switzerland and Taka and Yorji regularly went skiing in Japan. I had been once and, although I had vague memories of being able to ski fairly well by the end of the trip, I was not confident in my ability. I was soon to realise that my nervousness was entirely justified.

Reaching the top of the mountain I was feeling good. As well as creating the illusion that I was a proper skier, my carefully planned layers of warmth and waterproofing were successfully keeping out the cold. I put my skis on and slid myself awkwardly along behind the others who were excitedly planning our first route down the mountain. I assumed that a blue run would be for children and disabled people so I was glad when we decided on a red run. There were quite a few people around, in fact the top of the mountain was fairly crowded, and the crowd slid towards the edge and gracefully zigzagged their way down the mountain. All I had to do was follow the crowd.

One moment I was shuffling towards the edge of a slope, the next I was facing downhill and picking up speed at a rate at which I was not entirely comfortable with. Gripped with a rush of sheer panic I clumsily turned and managed to slow myself, looking back just in time to see Shion’s mum tumbling into the snow. Secretly pleased that I may not be the worst skiier and reassured by my ability to slow myself down I carried on downwards, following behind Taka who was skilfully zipping past the other skiers. Once again I felt the adrenaline rising as my speed became more and more adventurous and, noticing that the slope was narrowing into a sharp, rather tricky looking bend, I decided once again to turn into the snow and slow myself. It didn’t work. I realised at this rather unfortunate instant that although I was fairly comfortable turning to my right, my skis refused to oblige in the same way when I asked them to turn left.

I picked myself up and shouted a friendly “Sorry mate” to the young man who I had smashed into. I accompanied it with the awkward laughter of a novice - someone who is both embarrassed and amused by his absolute lack of proficiency. He didn’t seem to respond, although I knew he was alive because he was standing up trying to work out where his other ski had gone. Somehow he had come out of it worse than me; probably because he wasn’t expecting to be wiped out by somebody going round a straightforward turn by going straight forward. His friend, or possibly relative as he was much older, skidded up and lifted him to his feet while offering me such valuable advice as “get a grip” and helpfully underlining the fact that I was “a danger to myself and others”. Highly amused and mildly traumatised I once again offered my awkward laughter and an apologetic response and without further ado decided it was a good time to continue making my way down the mountain.

I am pleased to say that this incident was the last of my catastrophes for this day and I won’t bore you with descriptions of the spectacular views of the white mountains that surrounded us other than to say that Switzerland has some of the most inconceivably beautiful scenery I have ever seen. Emerging out of the fir trees and being greeted by these impressive landscapes became more and more enjoyable as the day wore on. This was probably because of the obvious difficulty in appreciating a view while your skis amuse themselves with a tangle at your expense. Anyway, having ridden myself of the morning’s trauma, I was beginning to feel fairly confident and had it not been for worsening weather on the top of the mountain I would have happily been out there until it was too dark to identify which runs were blue.

Miki, my girlfriend’s mum, was very excited about the idea of us trying all the classic Swiss dishes; In fact I suspect that she had planned our daily food intake around the same time she booked the flights and hotel. So far she had excitedly introduced us to sausages, schnitzel, cheese fondue, and some sort of terrible alcohol that Swiss people make. Tonight we were going to eat meat fondue. Meat fondue is something I was not familiar with in any way. I knew cheese fondue was when you dip stuff into melted cheese and chocolate fondue was when you dipped stuff into chocolate so the idea of meat fondue was alarming and confusing. Would we be stabbing our little elongated forks into a saucepan with a lump of meat? I just didn’t know. But the reality of meat fondue was even more bizarre than I had imagined.

We were presented with an elaborate array of carefully folded rolls of thinly sliced meat, the kind of “chicken breast” meat that you buy in Asda for £1 and you have to throw it away after a day because as soon as you open it it hardens into a brown plastic sheet and starts smelling of gravy. These folds of meat were frozen into little icey toilet rolls of meat and in the middle of the trays of food, which I should mention also included olives and fruit and some other illogical additions, sat a saucepan full of what looked like stock or some sort of watery soup. The idea was that you dipped your meat, which incidentally broke like glass if you went near it with a fork, into the soup and then ate the thawed out meat, which at this stage looked like a wet handkerchief on a stick.

After this edifying experience we went back to the hotel room and, after noting that tomorrow, our last night, would certainly have to involve the “Rock and Roll band all the way from Southampton” who were playing in the bar downstairs, we went upstairs to collapse with exhaustion. One thing which I didn’t remember from the last time I had gone skiing was how much the motion of skiing stays with you even when you are off the slopes. As soon as I closed my eyes I felt myself moving from side to side and feeling the icey grind of the skiis skidding as I turned, spraying the snow up as a moved left to right to left…. Then I smashed into an imaginary South African and lay back happily, making the effort every now and then to cross the small but dangerously unpredictable gap to see how my girlfriend was doing on her irritatingly separate bed.


messytimbo said...

hey Steve. I’m sorry I’ve not got back to you on that bad mans thing sooner, I’ve been mad busy sorting my portfolio for a course I’m applying for so I’ve not been that sociable of late but i’ve slapped it in now, plus I’ve had some other next mad stupidness in my life going on as well.

I did listen to it. but only once or twice and I wasn't in the right frame of mind to say anything constructive, so I was planning on getting back to you but I never did. Sorry.

I’m gonna listen to it again tomorrow and I’ll send you an email with my thoughts.

Also I’ll have a good read through this as well.

So sorry I’ve been slack, hope you’re cool.

messytimbo said...

Very good. That’s a strong piece of writing, a lot of texture and very funny. I think it's hard to beat actual life experiences. I’m mean the ski trip we went on was one of the best experiences of my life, so many joke things happened on the that trip, I still tell that story about Greg getting bummed by that mounting dog. You just can’t make that shit up.

I think it's good that you’re using life as a key source for your inspiration, and I think it was such good idea writing about your travel experience. Was you writing it as you went a long or when you got back?

Steve Stamp said...

Thanks for reading man, I looked at it after I put it on there and realised it's actually a pretty long bit of writing... (and its still unfinished!)

I wrote some notes on the journey home but it's taken me so long to write them up properly. It's difficult to pick out things that you think other people might find interesting/funny.

Also I find it hard to write about the country itself, I end up just focusing on joke people/incidents. But fuck it that's what I look at when I'm on holiday - I'm not gonna start pretending to be cultured now am I?!

Steve Stamp said...

Oh yeah and I think I have told the Supergreg ski stories to just about everyone I have ever introduced him to. He must hate me so much...