Canadian Christmas

I love Christmas. I love Christmas because it's one of the few aspects of my life that has remained more or less constant since birth. Every year has an identical format: getting up at silly o' clock to open presents with the family, being dragged to church to sing songs about some guy whose birth is somehow relevant to the day (not santa, the other one), returning home to devour more sausages wrapped in bacon than my metabolism is physically capable of processing, vaguely intending to watch the Queen's speech but never actually doing so, drinking red wine and eating peanuts, playing board games that are too confusing for my grandparents to properly follow, decorations that smell like the attic, paper hats, smiles, warmth. Turning my back on all this was something I felt seriously apprehensive about doing, but given my situation (I'm in Canada, you'll remember) it seemed unavoidable. As the big day approached, I became more and more jealous of my so-called friends announcing their perfect-sounding Christmas plans on Facebook. A grey cloud of homesickness floated over me for the first time in six months.

It ended up being fine though. Here's an account:

My alarm woke me up at 5am. I'd made the rookie mistake of staying up until past midnight watching Arrested Development so didn't feel much like being conscious this early, but today was Christmas day and I had things to do. I showered and got dressed into my ski gear. I fired up my laptop and called my parents on Skype as per our arrangement. The arrangement was also supposed to include my brother, currently in Australia, but he never showed up, clearly above spending time with his family on Christmas day.

I opened the presents they'd mailed me (a christmas pudding and some London 2012 memorabilia) and they opened theirs. We chatted for a while until conversation dried up and it was time for me to go. I gathered my things and rushed outside to the catch the 6:25 into the village, a devious bus which once outwitted me by arriving ten minutes earlier than scheduled. Today it was five minutes late so I needn't have bothered.

I met some work friends at the gondola station and we joined the already substantial line for Fresh Tracks. After fifteen minutes of standing around in ski boots (fifteen minutes too long), we were herded into a fibreglass box and sent up the mountain where fresh breakfast and fresh snow awaited. The sun began to rise as we elevated above the sheet of mist hugging the lower mountain and the scene it illuminated was spectacular. I couldn't take a picture (retrieving my camera from my bag in such a confined space would have ruined everyone's Christmas) but if I had done, it would have won awards.

Breakfast at the Roundhouse Lodge was equally spectacular, and this I did manage to photograph. An unlimited supply of everything one could possibly expect from breakfast was provided, with the notable exception of baked beans, which Canadians don't really go for. Pictured is my first glorious plate.

After about twenty minutes of relentless eating, a uniformed man stood up and rang a bell to dually announce "the slopes are open!" and "please stop eating our food now, we only have a limited budget and some of you are starting to take the piss." I stuffed some banana bread in my bag and we made for the door.

That first run on Christmas day down Emerald chair was beyond awesome. There were no obstacles to worry about, no moguls, no ruts, no fellow skiers, just one huge, untouched, powdery canvas on which to paint. It was the most fun I've had in a long time.

The second run was fun too, but significantly more challenging. My friends, all far superior skiers than I, managed to peer-pressure me into doing some crazy off-piste run through some dense trees. It was my first off-piste experience so I took the whole thing very slowly and while my dignity may have taken a knock or two, my spinal chord didn't, and at the end of the day, that's all that matters, right?

Work began at 10am for three of us, so the group split in half and we tore down the mountain via Olympic run  and Crabapple ■ in about ten minutes. Skis over our shoulders, we marched triumphantly through the village against the flow of traffic and arrived at work with fifteen minutes to spare. I sat down to get changed and realised I was absolutely shattered.

Perhaps ten minutes after clocking in I realised I was not only shattered, but sick too. I'd noticed feeling slightly feverish earlier in the morning, but the excitement surrounding breakfast and skiing had masked it. My condition deteriorated rapidly and before long I felt terrible. I began to feel very sorry for myself. Loading semi-frozen chickens arsehole-first onto metal skewers was the last thing I wanted to do feeling the way I did. And on Christmas day, of all days. Boo hoo.

Soon I realised that sulking about the situation was helping no one, not least myself, and I resolved to fight the illness. I craved fruit, so during my break I ate a whole cantaloupe and four servings of a smoothie that was supposed to contain 150% of my daily vitamin C intake per serving. Eating lots of vitamin C always seems to make me feel better when I have a cold despite the evidence resolutely stating otherwise. It's a placebo I'm completely aware is a placebo, but somehow it still works.

And sure enough, my condition and mood did noticeably improve in the period following my fruit gorge. I still had to work on Christmas day, but it no longer felt like such a trial. My mood was further enhanced two hours later by a free Christmas lunch (roast turkey with all the trimmings and pumpkin pie for dessert, a Canadian tradition that almost matches Christmas pudding for deliciousness) in the staff room, accompanied by the view of my first proper white Christmas in ages.

The remainder of my shift passed uneventfully and I was released back into the wild at 6:30pm. I got changed into my third outfit of the day and hailed a taxi from outside the store. I passed the driver a scrap of paper with Pat's address on it and made smalltalk about our shared misfortune of having to work on Christmas day. I didn't mention having a potentially contagious illness.

Pat is a very nice lady I know through Noelle, another very nice lady I worked (and occasionally drank) with in Long Lake. Quite a bizarre connection that makes the world seem very small. Having exchanged emails prior to my arrival, Pat was first person I knew in Whistler and she's treated me very kindly ever since. When she and her husband, Peter, invited me to a Christmas party they were organising especially for international "orphans" like myself, I wasn't going to turn it down. I had a great time. It was a perfect opportunity to relax after a ridiculously busy twelve hours. I drank lots of good red wine, ate lots of good food (including venison that had been shot and prepared by one of the party guests in Whistler), and met lots of good people. I got particularly close to a New Zealand couple whose contact details I managed to extract by the end of the night. Useful to have, given my next stop.

The party wound down at around 11pm. I accepted a lift home from someone who lived in the neighbourhood adjoining mine and despite my polite objections, he insisted on dropping me off at my actual house instead of making me walk the five minute walk from the highway. I located my house, thanked him kindly, and slammed the car door behind me. Two or three confident strides down the driveway revealed that, in fact, the building ahead of me was not my house, but my neighbours' house. To avoid embarrassing myself by acknowledging the error, I continued trespassing (albeit slowly) until my ride had driven away. When it did, I turned on my heel and made for my actual house, but not before someone appeared at the window and shouted something at me.

Fortunately, it was friendly shout inviting me to their own Christmas party, an offer I gladly accepted. This party was a bit less civilized than the one I had just left, but great fun nonetheless. More new faces, more food, more booze (plus some more questionable substances), and lots more dubstep later and it was 2am. At this point, I realised I had been awake for 21 hours, wished everyone a merry Christmas and retired to the house next door. I gobbled up the banana bread from my bag which tasted even better than it did in the morning (see: questionable substances) and collapsed into my bed, ready for whatever the hangover goblins had prepared for me in the morning.

And that was my Canadian Christmas.

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Late again, sorry.

The top of Upper Whiskey Jack, the first run I ever attempted on Whistler mountain.

Slightly further down the same run.

I arrived home from work one evening to find this assortment of unopened mail waiting for me on the kitchen table. Apparently my landlady had dropped them off assuming they were mine, despite my surname and address being completely wrong. I found the correct Simon on facebook and messaged him to let him know I had his stuff. Thanks, 21st century.

My trusty skis and poles. The deli stickers are a good talking point on the chairlifts.

The view of Blackcomb from Whistler, with Emerald chair in the foreground.

Friday - my day off work - began badly but ended well. The bad part consisted of me discovering my mp3 player had gone missing, then dropping my entire lunch on the carpet, then destroying my only UK/US power adapter by standing on it. The latter was particularly annoying because it rendered all my electrical appliances from home (phone, laptop, kindle, camera, mp3 pla-oh wait) unchargeable. Eager to clean up this mess (a metaphor for the whole situation, not just the pasta sauce, which wasn't coming off in a hurry), I decided to visit Walmart. The nearest Walmart is 50 minutes south of Whistler in the non-town of Squamish, referred to locally as "Squampton". The bus to Squampton costs $14 each way which would have negated any potential savings made at Walmart, so I decided to hitchhike the distance instead. I've only hitchhiked once before (on Halloween, remember?) so didn't really know what to expect, but it turned out to be a great experience. Five different strangers were lovely enough to pick me up, provide good conversation, and strengthen my faith in humanity. Walmart was good too. I picked up a new mp3 player and universal power adapter for almost nothing, along with as many groceries as I could physically carry, including this monster tub of peanut butter for $5.

The UK/US power adapter I accidentally decommissioned by standing on it and bending the prongs. It was a pathetic excuse for a power adapter that sorely needed replacing anyway. I had cobbled it together in Long Lake by linking a UK/EU power adapter and a EU/US power adapter, having broken my original UK/US power adapter, again by standing on it.

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Oh god I'm behind.

Sunday was the orientation day for my volunteer job on the mountain. Everyone else got a proper name badge except me.

It took me over a month to figure out how the post works here. Just like everywhere else I've lived in North America (Long Lake and Martha's Vineyard), mail in Whistler isn't delivered directly to houses. Mail is delivered to boxes. When I finally located my box and applied for a new key to open it (my landlady had lost the old one) I found 23 items of mail inside, six addressed to me. One envelope contained my social insurance card which entitles me to work legally in Canada, something I clearly haven't been doing thus far. Another contained a Nationwide debit card my parents had forwarded to me when my old one expired. I cancelled it about a week ago assuming it had got lost in the post, which I suppose it did.


Wednesday night was the IGA staff Christmas party. It was a strange evening, exemplified by the fact I walked away with this Fisherman's Friend bag. Your guess is as good as mine.

I never got a chance to show you my old room, but this is my new one. We had a big switch around for reasons I'm still not clear about (it was explained to me in Japanese), but it ended up working in my favour so I'm not too fussed. While my new room doesn't have a door (just a curtain), it is considerably warmer than my old room (cold room more like) which often plummeted to sub-zero temperatures at night.

My road.

I've started planning Christmas Day, my first ever away from family. I've decided I really want to go skiing in the morning with Christmas tunes blasting in my ears, but I start work at 10am so it's going to be tricky. To buy myself some extra time, I've purchased a Fresh Tracks ticket which lets me upload at 7:30am instead of the usual 8:30am. It also entitles me to a huge breakfast buffet on the mountain which I've heard is amazing.

Skigress: Episode three

I've decided to ignore what I said before about Skigress being fortnightly because that was just a stupid idea. From now on, I'll update whenever I have enough to talk about, and today I do, so I will.

When you last heard from me, I'd skied just five times and had made some pretty decent progress. Actually, that's an understatement. In my first week, I essentially went from having almost no control on the most basic of green runs, falling over frequently and having to stop every hundred metres to rest my burning legs, to being able to zip down most blue runs with relative ease and comfort.

Well, I'm afraid to say that since then it's been mostly downhill. Downhill both in terms of the physical act of skiing, and in terms of progress made. I haven't got any worse, but I don't think I've got any better either. In my mind, a few things have contributed to this:
  1. The learning curve was always going to level out sooner or later. If it hadn't, I would have reached Olympic standard by the middle of December. I've heard it said that skiing is like chess: "easy to learn but hard to master", and only now am I starting to appreciate this truth. Of course, this is the only comparison one can realistically draw between skiing and chess. I've hardly encountered any bishops on the slopes, let alone ones that can only move diagonally.
  2. The conditions have been bad. I realise this sounds like a classic case of a bad workman blaming his tools, but it's hard to underestimate how the quality of the snow affects a newbie like me. Whistler hasn't had any fresh snowfall for over a week but it has had rain. This has transformed the formerly soft, fluffy terrain into one big, gripless, speed-inducing plate of ice.
  3. I'm doing something fundamentally wrong. There's something about my technique that's causing me to fuck up the most basic stuff. One minute I'll be cruising along nice and steady, feeling in complete control, the next I'm on the floor, covered in snow, legs splayed, trying to mentally replay what the hell just happened. This usually happens once or twice each session and it's very frustrating. I'm sure it's related to my balance or applying pressure in the wrong places or something like that. I'm considering lessons.
Since this has been a fairly bleak update, I'll try to end with something positive. Yesterday was the orientation day for my volunteering job at the race centre (where I begin work next week) and it went really well. I met loads of nice people from all across the world and learnt about gatekeeping, mountain safety and how to ski with snow drills. I skied down the course with the other recruits and was thrilled to discover I wasn't the worst skier there (I was the second worst) which hopefully means I won't get fired. The job itself seems really awesome, basically a lot of herding people around with ample opportunities for "laps" during quiet periods. I still can't really believe I'm getting a free season pass for this! Lucky me.

Lastly, a few stats. I'll try to include these in every update from now on:

Days spent skiing: 7.
Minor crashes: loads.
Major crashes: 2.
Favourite Runs: Burnt Stew Trail  (stunning views), Rock 'n' Roll  (long, challenging, no traffic).
Least Favourite Run: Franz's Run  (imagine an ice rink tilted 30°).

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Pictures from week seven of Whistler.

Cheap beer and cheap orange juice: the two defining drinks of my trip so far.

My neighbourhood, Alpine Meadows, is without question the third most beautiful place I've ever lived, just behind Lace Street, Nottingham and Church Road, Northolt.

You're probably starting to wonder how many of these I have in my possession. 

I joined the gym on Thursday because I was getting fed up with people mistaking me for a rake and using me to sweep the leaves and small branches from their gardens. I'd never been to a proper gym before so it was a pretty enlightening experience. I'm hoping to go every morning I'm not either skiing or hungover, hopefully something like three times a week. Let's see how that goes.

My favourite picture from Thursday's stroll. I don't own a tripod so I improvised by constructing a small mound of compact snow, resting my camera on it and setting the exposure time to 2 seconds. The result is a bus stop that looks considerably warmer than it really was.

If I had a dollar for every time I've fallen on my arse trying to climb down these steps, I'd have exactly one dollar, because it happened for the first time on Friday.

Once again, I resort to taking photographs of my feet, this time covered by ski socks. The socks would usually have cost me $16 for a single pair, but I was given them for free as part of that amazing website deal I mentioned before.

Christmas lights

I couldn't face being stuck at home this evening so I hopped on the bus and strolled around the village taking photos of the Christmas lights. Below are some of my favourites. Note that I could have milked these for weeks as "daily" photos but didn't because I'm an honest guy.


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Tricky week, this one. Seen a lot of cool stuff whilst up the mountain, but never when I've had my camera handy. You'll have to make do with things from around the house until I'm brave/stupid enough to take my extremely expensive, extremely non-waterproof camera skiing with me.

Rent money. There's something quite nice about being back in a country where the queen's head is printed on banknotes. Thanks for that, imperialism.

I got back from work one evening to find a Domino's delivery car parked upside down just outside my house. Sadly, I didn't get a chance to photograph the scene until it had been flipped back over and driven off. I did get some free pizza (with superficial inversion damage) for helping out though.

Mum sent me a postcard to test whether my address would be safe to send Christmas presents to.

Like I said, tricky week.

Waiting for the bus in the snow. I really like how everything appears black-and-white except the bus shelter, Pleasantville style.

Some people like to adorn their skis and snowboards with stickers of their favourite brands or musicians. Me? I'm just proud to be working in a deli.

I feel slightly bad about posting this because I'm sure some people are quite upset about it, but I think it's absolutely hilarious. This article from The Whistler Question - published just a few days ago - announces the installation of a century-old antique canoe in Whistler Public Library. In the article, the canoe is described as being "absolutely gorgeous", "beautifully restored", "such a beautiful and important artifact", an "exciting display", "not just any old canoe" and "perhaps the most significant artifact acquisition the museum has made in many years". The canoe was hung proudly from the ceiling of the library by a series of ropes for the public to enjoy in all its glory. I think you know where I'm going with this. By some wonderful coincidence, my friend Dan happened to be visiting the library at the time of the falling, and he described the noise of historic Peterborough cedar-strip canoe meeting hard ground as being "so loud". Hilarious.