Ernie goes to Austria (Dec 2013)

Alps+Italy 2013-14-39

I’ve got a tricky history with snowboarding. When I was a younger lad, I broke a woman’s leg when I caught an edge and tumbled into her like a freight train jumping the rails. My snowboarding activity declined precipitously – I avoided the hills for years afterwards – and in the few times that I did venture out, I felt rusty and out of sorts. By the time we had decided to spend the 2013 Christmas season in Europe, a snowboarding trip was all but guaranteed, and I approached it with equal parts apprehension and anticipation. The last time I snowboarded had been in the winter of 2008, a gap wide enough for technique, muscle memory, and balance to fall through into the forgetful abyss. Mr. and Mrs. Leung had asked their local Swiss friends on resort recommendations, and they came back with a place called Damüls in Austria. None of us had heard of it before, but we were told that it was more of a local scene, with less of a crowd than the more popular resorts. So it was decided: On our second day in Europe, we would make a road trip to Damüls and spend a few days snowboarding in the Austrian Alps.

Schaffhausen is located in the lowlands on the western shores of Lake Constance. The 2.5 hour drive to Damüls would take us eastwards, towards the foothills and, eventually, the snow-capped peaks of the Austrian panhandle. We set off in two vans, our little convoy snaking its way through the valleys and towns of northern Switzerland, before abruptly emerging onto a snowy plateau. From our vantage point, we could see the ground gently slope into the small valley below, and, just on the other side, the mighty Alps awaiting our arrival. The Damüls resort area was about another hour’s drive into the mountains, and, by the time we had checked in to our lodge, there wasn’t quite enough time to get any runs in. The group of us rented out two suites – Ashley and I would share one with Sam, Fiona, and Lucas, while the Leung family and Alex would take the other one.

Mrs. Leung came fully prepared to cook massive amounts of food for each meal, and when she swung by the local grocery to stock up on supplies, one of the cashiers mentioned that there would be a Christmas concert that night. Thinking that some live Christmas music would be a delightful way to spend an evening, we headed over to the local community hall and immediately stuck out like so many sore thumbs. Our every step into the hall was watched by a hundred pairs of eyes, and as we took a seat at a table by the back, the decidedly unsubtle observation continued. Finally, a woman came over and, with a confused look on her face, asked us how we came to find out about Damüls. It wouldn’t be the first time we’d find ourselves the centre of attention in Austria, and throughout the next few days, we’d slowly realize just how rare it was to see Asian faces on these very white slopes.

We woke up bright and early the next morning, ready to hit the slopes. After grabbing our rental equipment, Alex, Vikki, Ashley, and I got started on the hills, while Sharon went to take snowboarding lessons. The views from the chairlifts and mountain tops were incredible, surrounded on all sides by a tumultuous stony sea, frozen in time. This was very different from my previous snowboarding experiences, looking forlornly out from the crowded, dinky molehills of southern Ontario. The crisp mountain air filled my lungs, and, inspired by the sacred stillness of these ancient peaks, I threw myself into the arms of gravity and came up battered and bruised.

The process of re-learning how to snowboard, how to shift my balance at the right times, how to lean into an edge, how to read the lines of the mountain, and how to get off the chairlift without crashing into a heap was a painful lesson in “the bigger they are, the harder they fall“. Sharon joined us after lunch, preferring to skip the afternoon portion of her lesson. She too learned that the mountain is unforgiving. After a day of mostly pain, punctured by a few brief moments of bliss, I dragged my broken body back to the lodge to rest up before grabbing dinner at the resort’s formal dining establishment.

We had booked a table for dinner that night, eager to try out the local Christmas menu. There was a set start time for the meal, as the evening would follow a predetermined schedule, including light drinks beforehand, the dinner itself, and the singing of carols afterwards. It was very much a community-oriented event, perhaps the same families had been attending the same dinner for years, so when we showed up right when the meal began, having missed the entire pre-dinner drinks, we were once again met with confused looks. The food itself was delicious, and the service was more than friendly, but we couldn’t shake the strange feeling that we were somehow crashing a family reunion. We didn’t stay very long after the dinner either, leaving after the first carol or two due to fatigue and sore muscles. All the guests had gathered in the large foyer by the front entrance to sing, and it was indeed quite awkward as our motley crew of Asians slid our way through the crowd and out the door. The cherry on top of our night was revealed when we got back to the lodge, where Sharon and Alex revealed that they had taken an entire plate of cookies and a wooden tray full of cheese. Some poor server had told them that they were free to take from the dessert table, and, for whatever reason, these two jokers thought that gave them permission to take the entire dessert table. Thus ended our first full day in Austria.

Our second day began with a massive breakfast spread, courtesy of Mrs. Leung. There is very little quite like the joy of seeing a plate full of steaming sausages in the morning to perk up lethargic spirits. The agenda for today would take us to a different part of the resort, and I was feeling much better about my incremental progress. Sharon would go back to the gentler runs for the day, so it was up to myself, Ashley, Alex, and Vikki to conquer the other side of the mountain. We made a significant error while taking the chairlift, however. Our intention was to ride it all the way to the summit, where we could take our time carving down the gentle face. What we didn’t expect was for there to be an exit point halfway up the slope. In the confusion, we mistakenly got off the chairlift, leaving us stranded on what turned out to be a ski trail. The narrow path clung to the side of the hill with barely any change in gradient, which is a nightmare if you’re strapped to a snowboard. For over an hour, we struggled along the flat cliff side, though, admittedly, the view across the valley was absolutely stunning. We eventually reached the end of the trail, where it joined up with the much steeper downhill runs, and we dipped into the slope with a sense of great relief.

That night, we gathered in one of the suites to do a gift exchange, as well as enjoy our own home-cooked Christmas dinner. As Mrs. Leung busied herself in the kitchen area, the rest of us took turns helping out with dinner and lounging by the couch with baby Lucas. While we were out snowboarding for the past two days, Sam and Fiona had been busy introducing their son to the joys of playing in snow. We don’t get anything close to snow in Hong Kong, although on the coldest days we very rarely get frost in the higher elevations, but Sam and Fiona had grown up withstanding the brutal Canadian winters, and they wasted no time in Canadian-izing Lucas. In just a few short months, their family would uproot themselves from their comfortable Hong Kong lives and move to Beijing, where Sam had found a job as a high school teacher. This trip would turn out to be one of the few remaining moments we’d be able to spend with their family, uninterrupted by life and circumstances, though on slow, worry-free evenings such as these, time seemed to slow down and Beijing seemed impossibly far away.

On our third and last day in Damüls, we took it easy and spent most of our time together on the bunny hill. We built snowmen and rode toboggans with little Lucas, as Mr. Leung practiced skiing in the background. I had no issue with our change of pace, and it seemed like most of us were in agreement. In the late afternoon, we packed up our bags and set out on the road back to not-so-distant Schaffhausen. By and large, the snowboarding trip was a success, though I consider any amount of snowboarding free of serious injury as a reason to be thankful. There was an unexpected cultural element as well, or maybe it was more of a sociological issue. I really do wonder what the locals were thinking when they saw us out-of-towners waltz into their familiar spaces, demonstrating an incomplete grasp of expected behaviours and etiquette. Though I’d like to think that most of us know how to conduct ourselves with respect, taking entire plates of cookies and cheese notwithstanding, perhaps there was nothing that could be done about their reactions to our non-European countenances. In any case, everyone we met and interacted with was perfectly polite and courteous, and I wouldn’t expect anything different.  Now, with the more active part of the holiday out of the way, my risk-averse self was free to look forward to what lay ahead: another relaxing Christmas market, though perhaps this time it should be called Marché de Noël.

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