He said “But Freeeeyaaaa, you must reeelaxxxxx” his teeth parting in a smile while still clutching half a cigarette. I’d said it was fine for him to smoke as we took the ski lift together, in my desperate attempt to appear not as uptight as I obviously was. On the list of things that might kill me in the next 15 minutes, passive smoking was the least of my worries.
I wanted to turn to my relaxed, slightly stoned ski instructor and say is “I’m sorry, sorry, but you’ve clearly entirely misjudged my character. I am not a relaxed person. I am not a person who can just “relax”. And if I was that person, or ever was to become that person, I would not be likely to “just relax” when we’re are hundreds of metres up in the air on a ski lift.”
That’s what I wanted to say though. What I actually said was “Yup I’ll just relax” in a high pitched squeak.
When I’d told a few people that we were going skiing in France, and that I would be trying to learn to ski, I’d made a few Bridget Jones jokes. I’d been quick to say things like ‘Oh yes it will probably be a disaster, I’ll probably come hurtling down the hill like Bridget Jones and smack into some children.’ If fact, when I told the story of my one other experience of skiing, a day on Ruapehu as a university student, I’d really hammed it up by describing myself as stumping off the ski fields while still wearing skis, so annoyed was I at my own poor attempts at skiing. I was writing my own narrative as hapless skier, before I’d even given myself a chance on the skis.
I turned up on the first day of my French skiing lessons, shuffling in heavy ski boots and holding my skis and poles, only to be told the first lesson had been the day before, and my fellow ‘beginners’ were already half a day into learning to ski (which is a lot when you’re an absolute ‘can’t put on the skis’ beginner). I immediately felt 15 again, standing in a my PE gear on the hot school field, waiting to be picked for the game of softball. I don’t think I was actually that bad at sports – I was a tall, slim teenager who was ok at netball- but in my memories of me and sport, I always feel like I’m bad.
I always remember the pain of trying a new sport and slipping over, the angst of being a teenager and wanting to seem effortlessly impressive, but in reality slipping over flat on your face. I have clung on to these memories more than the memories of my (small but there) athletic success. My graceful swimming stroke, my ease and comforting the ocean, the half marathons I’ve run, my joy at commuting by bike if only for a couple of months, the power and force that I can bring out on a rowing machine and my legs that carry me on several days of hiking. Many of these small athletic wins I have experienced after leaving high school, and I’ve allowed myself to hold on – like a deflated little balloon – my feeling that I’m not good at sports.
Because the rest of my skiing group was already ahead of me, for the next two days, I was given one-on-one lessons with an instructor, in an effort to accelerate my learning. I had a couple of instructors but my favourite was Jolon, a young guy from Les Arcs nearby who was training to be a fully qualified instructor. He’d quickly worked out that my skiing was fine (“Good Freya, you do well!”) but that I was holding myself back with my fear of getting off the ski lift. Every time, we’d ski down the beginner run without issue, queue for the ski lift, get on, ride up, he’d say “Ok when I say, just push up and stand”, yet when I came to get off the lift, I would come tumbling down and sometimes get quite bruised. A couple of times the back of the chair hit me as it continue around, and I had to army crawl out of the way. It sounds funny but it seem the right idea at the time. Jolon said “It’s all in your head. You can do it physically. I’ve seen you do it when we’re on the run. But you must be able to do this before we can progress to the harder runs. You must be able to beat this.”
My French is almost non existent and his English wasn’t great, so I didn’t bother explaining that I was not in the least bit surprised that it was a mental block that was holding me back. My body is quite strong, but my mind is the master. If my mind says we’re not doing something, my poor body will always fall into line. And that day, my mind did not want to get off that ski lift successfully.
I wish I could say I finally just relaxed and it was all magically solved, but not quite. The most successful dismounting attempts were when I was slightly distracted in the milliseconds before that stand and ski bit. If I was fluffing about with the safely bar or thinking about how good the toddler skiers were, I managed to distract my mind enough to be roughly able to do it a couple of times. I had mastered it enough to be able to progress to the bigger ski lifts, which as it turned out where a hell of a lot easier to dismount from. Partly because they actually slow down, but also because I managed to do a successful dismount first time, so it was a ‘thing I couldn’t do’ – it was just a ski lift.
On my final day, I rejoined the beginner group. And you know what, I wasn’t the worst in the group. I was in the middle to upper end of the group’s ability. Just another person out there learning to ski, and trying not to get hurt doing it, and already doing great just by being out there and giving it a go. I wasn’t Bridget Jones. I didn’t even fall over and when there was a steep bit and the instructor said ‘Look far in the distance at those trees, and just do it’ – I did it.
I wasn’t the girl I thought I was.