My first Workaway assignment in the French Alps
highlights: Nursing a nasty hangover; Nearly missing the train to the Alps; Thinking the train I caught went to Milan instead of where I needed to be; Meeting my Workaway host family.
After a big night out with Tiphaine, I had woken up with a nasty hangover. Luckily for me, most of the poison had passed during the night and only a little bit more had to be expelled before I would feel any better.
I went down for breakfast and to settle my stomach I got myself a Sprite. That did not do anything in particular for me, except to bubble up what poison remained inside me and escape my body in a messy upheaval.
My train from Gare de Lyon was due to leave at 10:40 and all passengers must board their carriage no later than two minutes before departure. I estimated that it would take me nearly an hour to commute from my hostel in the 15eme arrondissement to Gare de Lyon, which meant I needed to leave at 9:45 at the absolute latest to just make the train. I left at 9:30.
Stressing and nursing a hangover, I walked with my backpack on all the way to Porte de Vanves, the nearest metro station, though 10 minutes away. I had to change twice: Montparnasse-Bienvenüe and then again at Chatelet.
I made it to Gare de Lyon, there was 20 minutes to spare. The walk from the metro station to the Grandes Lignes was about 5-10 minutes, then when I arrived at the correct platform, the walk was another five minutes to my carriage- it was a very long platform. The side of the train had digital panels that indicated the final destination of the train: Milan. This somewhat confused me, but I perservered and continued to my carriage: Car 7, Siège 13.
The TGV train actually had two trains connected, the back half would continue to Milan, and the front half would go to Annecy. I am not sure where the carriages were made to separate, however it was well after my first stop at Chambery Challes Les Eaux.
At Chambery Challes Les Eaux, I had an hour and a half wait until my connecting train, which would take me to Moutiers-Salins. I decided to have lunch at the Traiteur Asiatique, a chinese restaurant where you just pick things from the buffet and they package it all up for you. Little did I know, but they would weigh my food and charge me accordingly. The lady kept asking if the larger size was fine and I said yes, this resulted in a lunch that cost me €12, a little more than I really wanted to pay. So much for hangovers, huh?
I headed over to the train station and caught my connecting train. I disembarked an hour later at Moutiers-Salins, and then had to get a connecting coach to my final destination: Aime-La Plagne. My host family were kind enough to pick me up at the station and thank god Mark remembered, because he thought the day was Monday, I arrived on Tuesday. Ha!
On my first night with my Workaway host family, I had the pleasure to meet most of the household plus the two other Workawayers who had already been there for a few days prior to my arrival.
• Mark is the guy we work with most of the day. Our projects are to help out with the renovations and building of the Ski Chalet that we live in. Basically, he purchased a part of the chalet years back and then a few other parts became available and he seized the opportunity to acquire those- so now he owns most of the place, save a house at the front.
• Sophia is Mark’s partner, I think.
• Alex, Viv and Caleb are Sophia’s children who live here.
• Zoe is Mark’s neighbour’s daughter, very close family friends.
• Roonui is a Tahitian traveller, Workawayer.
• Mike is a Hong Kong traveller, Workawayer.
It was cool that Alex, Viv, Caleb and Zoe were my age. I get along really well with them and sometimes we speak French, although I do it badly ha!
highlights: First work day; Emptied a freezer of frozen meat (lots of it); Moved rolls of insulation; Put up some plasterboard on the walls; Cut a piece of plasterboard that was the wrong shape and size, oops!; Dinner with family friends and drinking; Games after dinner involving contortionist maneuvers with a stick and beer bottle climbing on the floor; Shots of local moonshine called Calvados.
We rose at 8:30 and set off to work at 9:00. The other two Workawayers had already been working on some walls, so they went off to continue with that. My first task was to help Mark with the outside freezer as he wanted to move it to install a new boiler/heating system in its place. I emptied the freezer which had a large amount of meat, most pieces I couldn’t recognize- perhaps a useless Workawayer?
I finished that and then went upstairs to the other part of the chalet to help the other guys put up plasterboard. I really enjoyed doing this, there was a lot to learn, it was challenging at first and then the task became fun and relatively simple.
There was a part of the wall that needed plasterboard to be cut in certain areas to ensure that it fit into place. Namely, there was a giant log rafter that jutted out. We measured it all and even drew a little plan to help us cut the piece of plasterboard properly. Mark came up and saw our plan, said: Don’t worry about that little bit, just cut it straight across. So we did, but it kinda messed up our sketches and we didn’t take into account some of the other measurements- in the end the piece was too small for the wall and we needed to start again.
At dinner, some family friends joined us, so that meant a dinner for 12 people. It was a nice atmosphere, very jovial and lively. After the main meal was served, Mark suggested we all try some local moonshine. He brought out some plastic bottles, labelled with brands of water and poured out some shots. Calvados is made with apples and you can kinda taste it but it was so strong that perhaps it could have been distilled from rocket fuel. There was a Bulgarian plum spirit that was nice. A few shots in and Mark decided we would turn the lights off and pour Calvados on the table. The liquid spread out from one end to the other and then it was lit. The light that radiated from the flames were a brilliant blue and it was really quite fun.
Mark then decided that it would be a good idea to pour shots and light them, shoot them while still flaming. He gave it a try, burnt his lips and had flames dancing off his fingertips. What a laugh!
By this time we were all very merry, so a few games broke out. Caleb grabbed a stick, probably a broom stick and did some contortionist maneuver through it. The aim of the game was to copy it without ever letting go of the stick with your hands. I had a try and failed once, but got up again and did it! I must remember to stretch more so I can become flexible and limber.
The next game was interesting. You were to stand at the edge of the rug with a beer bottle in each hand. Then you would place yourself in a pushup position without touching the floor with your legs, arms or hands (just the feet and the beer bottles are allowed to touch the ground). You would then reach as far forward as possible using the beer bottles, leave one behind and then drag yourself back to the standing position. Being vertically challenged, I was given a foot headstart, but that was enough to allow me to win the game.
Day 3, day off and skiing
highlights: Skiing; Mont Blanc; Amazing views of the French Alps; Lunch on top of the mountain; Hitchhiking back down the mountain into town.
Yay, day off! We all headed to the snow fields at La Plagne, which was about a 45 minute drive up the mountain. I was kindly lent some snow gear and ski equipment by my host family, there was a pair of ski boots that fit rather well. The ski pants were a little large, but elastics on the waist held the pants up well enough.
We stopped at a Kiosk on the way to buy our ski passes, Forfait, which only cost us €34 each for a full day!
There were five of us going up together plus a driver, so four were squashed up in the back, yep not comfortable. We were dropped off at La Roche which is mid-way up the mountain and then chairlifts would take us up to La Plagne.
This was the second time in my entire life that I had ever skied, the first time was 2 years ago in New Zealand and I had a lesson for a day. Coming off the chair lift, I was fine. But for one of the other Workawayers, it spelt disaster.
We spent the entire day on blue runs and went up about 10 different pistes (tracks). I was snow-ploughing the whole time, which meant I pointed my toes together to form a triangle with the skis, this method is for beginners and helps to slow them down.
The views at the top of the mountains are spectacular- you can even see Europe’s tallest mountain: Mont Blanc. For lunch we went to the supermarket and bought some picnic food, bread to make sandwiches etc. We took it all up to the top of the mountain and sat with an amazing view of the French Alps.
Our lift home asked us to meet at La Roche in half an hour, but we were still on the slopes and were not going to be there on time. We were an hour late and our lift had returned home with a dead phone battery. So we were basically stranded on the mountain.
Apparently it is common for people to hitch-hike from the mountain down to Aime, so we tried our luck with that. Zoe took the first car and waved us over to hop in the car, we were then dropped off in town, where Mark would later pick us up.
highlights: Second work day; Plasterboarded the walls in the Chalet; Shovelled 700kg of sand, twice; Moved a pallet of cinderblocks from the bottom of the hill to the Chalet; Insulated the ceiling; Drove the van down to Casino for groceries.
It was our second work day, we had to plasterboard the walls and ceilings in the chalet. Mark was also planning to build the wall while I was here, so we went to get some sand from the local quarry. There was 700kg of the stuff, which I shovelled into the van and then took barrow by barrow up to the chalet.
There was also a pallet of cinderblocks to be moved, materials to be used on the wall.
highlights: Day off, Skiing, Toboganning, Roonui’s Birthday; Birthday cake and birthday drinks; Drinking games; House party.
It was Roonui’s birthday today and we had an absolutely amazing day out on the slopes. I could say that it was probably one of the best if not the best day I have ever had in my entire life.
We left at 8h30 and I drove the van down to the Kiosk. We had only three seats at the front of the van, and two people in the back where there were no seats. There were police at the Kiosk checking cars, so we drove into the carpark next door and got out on foot. Two of us hitch hiked up the mountain to avoid running into any trouble on the way up.
When we reached La Plagne we had to find a parking spot and of course there were no available spots since it was already beyond peak hour. We drove around for about 45 minutes and eventually found a spot next to a bus stop at the bottom end of La Plagne. We put on our ski boots and headed off to the snow.
Our first stop was the toboggan slopes, unfortunately the piste was closed in the morning, so we opted to go there before 18h30 when it was due to close. We spent the entire day skiing, mostly blue runs.
It was amazing, I was getting heaps better at skiing. My technique was improving from snow-ploughing to somewhat parallel skiing. One of the slopes we went down was a long downward slope, the other guys just raced each other to the bottom.
Being somewhat more confident with skiing, I wanted to try and go hors-piste (off-track). There was a part of the track I could see from the chairlift that looked relatively flat and the powder was deep, so I asked Alex to take me there. She misunderstood that as taking me hors-piste to the bottom. It was terrifying, the track was completely steep and bumpy, but I made it.
Lunch was a similar deal as Thursday, we bought something from the shops and took it up the mountain. We had views overlooking Courchevel, which is a pretty ritzy ski resort on the otherside of the mountain. I bought pâté de foie, pâté de campagne, a single tomato and a single banana. We shared some baguettes and cheese.
Roonui wanted to go up to the glacier, but it was late afternoon so I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with them going up there. They separated and Zoe and I went down to Montalbert for some serene skiing. The tracks down there was very gentle and quite relaxing.
Just before it started to become dark, we all met at the Toboggan Piste for a spot of snow-sledging. Going up the chairlift gave us some idea of what to expect: there were lots of very steep bits, lots of twists and turns, and it looked very fun from what we could see.
We got to the top and picked up our toboggans. I sat in mine, goggles on and coat zipped up, then pushed off the snow and began to gain some speed. There is a handle on each side of the toboggan that is controlled by your hands, pulling the right handle up will turn left and vice versa.
It was clear from the outset that controlling these things was not an easy task. My toboggan always wanted to go backwards for some reason and I actually ended up going down the whole steep bit backwards, that was a terrifying experience (though I would imagine it to be less terrifying that facing the correct direction).
We did the toboggan piste twice as it was so much fun! Then it was time to head back down the mountain to go home for dinner and birthday drinks for Roonui. We put the gear in the back of the van and two of our ski buddies hitch-hiked back home.
I got into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition, but as the engine was too cold we had to jump start the thing. I have never in my life jump started a car, let alone I did not know how to. So, I turned the key in the ignition and put the gear in reverse, this moved the car somewhat as I got two of my ski buddies to push. I put the van into first and let it roll slightly. I turned the key and voilà, ignition!
We stopped in at Dia% on the way home to buy some alcohol and drinks for the house party. They were literally just about to close the shop, but they kindly let us in.
We got two six packs and two bottles of vodka to get us started.
Dinner was the most amazing homemade fish pie I have ever eaten- seriously! Yum! There was a chocolate cake for Roonui as well and we sang Happy Birthday as he blew out the candles.
Alex’s friend, Tommy, came over to have cake and drinks. Then it was on to drinking games.
The first one we played was a card game of inventions and discoveries. Basically, you have to create a continuous timeline with the inventions/discoveries and guess correctly where each one belongs. The beginning of the game can often be the easiest as the time differences can be wider. However towards the end of the game there are lots more dates that are closer together so precision is required to win.
We simply turned that into a drinking game by adding the rule of taking a shot/drink with each incorrect guess.
We then played a game called Pyramid. There are cards laid out on the table in the form of a pyramid all facing down and also each player has three cards in front of them (they can look at them but not show anyone else). Each card is turned over, if anyone ‘claims’ to have that card they can make someone of their choosing take a shot/drink. The nominated person can call Liar, which doubles the penalty for the claimant. If Liar call is incorrect, then the nominated person must take the doubled penalty:
• the bottom row has four cards; each card is worth one shot/drink to be nominated; penalty is two shots/drinks
• the third row has three cards; each card is worth two shots/drinks to be nominated; penalty is four shots/drinks
• the second row has two cards; each card is worth three shots/drinks to be nominated; penalty is six shots/drinks
• the top row has one card; this card is worth cul-sec (bottoms up) to be nominated; penalty is two cul-sec
I nominated all my drinks to Toby, the youngest one at the party. Ha!
We ended up going to bed around 3h00 in the morning, which didn’t leave much time for sleep before working at 9h00.
highlights: Third work day; Plasterboarding on the ceiling next to a void in the floor; Nursing a hangover; Falling asleep in the sun on the terrace; Sunday roast for dinner and amazing Apple Crumble.
We managed to pull ourselves out of bed ready for work at 9h00. I had about five and half hours sleep and was feeling tired, but not really that hungover.
There was some plasterboard to be put up on the walls and on the ceiling. I had to climb up a ladder to hold up the boards and this was next to a void in the floor, we were on the second storey of the chalet but about 15 metres in the air. That was scary!
I was on go-slow mode being hung over most of the day, I even fell asleep on the terrace sitting there in the sun! Ha!
The dinner that we had was amazing, a typical English Sunday roast and then homemade Apple Crumble. Jenny and Ewan joined us for the meal with their baby, Ted- they have been coming over for dinner every Sunday for the last 6 years!
This would be the other two workawayers last night at the ski chalet.
highlights: Fourth work day; Concrete mixing and cinderblock wall building; Replacing a toilet and getting shit all over me.
Today was a heavy-lifting day. There were 50+ cinderblocks to lay, which meant six or seven wheelbarrows of concrete to be mixed.
I learnt that a good mix of concrete would have one bucket of cement to four buckets of sand. Then you add water as needed to get the consistency right- it should be pasty but not gluggy.
It did not take us long to lay the bricks, though we did run out and had to go to the Builder’s merchant to get some more.
In the laundry next to my bedroom, there is a toilet but the flush was leaking so it was manual flushing only. There was a second-hand toilet that we tried to install in its place, but the ‘out-pipe’ was not the correct angle, so it continued to leak.
After removing the existing toilet, all the bits that didn’t go throuh the s-bend properly in a manual flush spilt all over the floor. Gross. I got shit on me.
Day 8, 9, 10
highlights: Plasterboarding the ceiling; Filling the gaps in the plasterboard with MAP; Taping and joining the plasterboard; Built the foundations of a stone staircase; Got more sand from the quarry; Dug a hole for a concrete pylon; Moved slate and large stones.
highlights: Free day; Went to La Folie Douce for day-clubbing on the ski slopes; Got crunk in the snow and stumbled home; Threw up in the car, eww; Passed out.
We went to La Folie Douce in Meribel, which is a day club on the ski slopes. Usually, skiers will ski to the club, but we were piétons and walked up to the cable car and walked down to the club.
It was about 15h00 when we got there, we had brought some picnic food to eat. As you weren’t able to eat your own food in the club, we chowed it down real fast outside. I had salami breath!
We were also carrying two bottles of cheap rosé, which both got confiscated at the gate. Oops!
We got a bucket of Sol for €35, then we changed to Rosé at €40 a pop. Four bottles of wine and six beers later, we were trashed.
There were gogo dancers on the tables and live music and everything. The terrace overlooking the mountains was reserved for people who could afford to buy magnums of Dom Perignon, GH Mumm, or Moët et Chandon. By the way, mangum is a three litre bottle.
Everytime someone ordered a magnum on the terrace, a glass box on the pulley system would flare different coloured smoke to signal its arrival. The Hôte de club would collect the bottle from the glass box and deliver it to the rich kids on the terrace.
As piétons, we had to get the last cable car down the slopes, else be stuck in the snow overnight. We literally stumbled up the slope to the cable car and Toby threw up inside without warning.
Day 12, 13
highlights: Free day again; Half a day of skiing at La Plagne; Went to Les Menuires to visit Zoë’s sister; Went out clubbing all night; Came home in daylight; Hitch-hiked back to Aime; Had a burger in Moutiers; Worked hard in the afternoon on 3 hours sleep and a mild hangover.
highlights: Last work day; Concrete mixing and slate/stone staircase building; Collecting half a tonne of sand from the quarry; Afternoon barbecue with the sun, beers, friends and lots of meat; Fantastic way to end a workaway.