Sunday, December 13, 2009


Growing up, money was tight. But that changed after my dad pursued a job opportunity in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  Perks included funds toward international travel every six months. When I was 11 and 12 years old, we spent Christmas in Kitzbuhel, Austria. 

We traveled with families who were living in the same compound.  From a climate of neverending summer, we arrived in a winter wonderland. The town was picturesque with quaint storefronts and cobblestone streets. The bars were of special interest to the adults in the group, as the only alcohol readily available in Saudi was marginally drinkable homemade wine.

But we were there to ski. The first day of lessons on the bunny slope was a shock to my middle brother and I. It was awful. We held on desperately to the lift, skis and poles slipping around wildly. We suffered jolting falls on the way up and back down. We were offended to have been tricked into spending our vacation this way. We talked it over and decided we'd just tell our dad that we quit when we met him for lunch.

Our dad was quiet as we explained to him over goulash and apple strudel that we hated skiing and we weren't going to do it anymore. I don't remember what he said but the answer was . . . you're doing it. End of story. I really don't think he understood how scared we were. The rest of the two weeks included hours of terror as our teacher led us to increasingly difficult slopes. There were moments when I was stuck in the deep snow, charged with adrenaline, that I was literally fighting for my life.  The walk back to the hotel after each day on the slopes was torture: trudging along in ski boots that felt like buckets filled with sand, balancing skis - or maybe it was just poles - on bruised shoulders. What the hell kind of vacation was this? Our dad would walk a little ahead of us, just out of earshot of our whines.

A group of local kids were greatly entertained by their American visitors and followed us around a bit. They loved to watch our awkward skiing - swooshing effortlessly around us while taking pictures of our mishaps - and openly making fun of our baggy Sears ski clothes. We giggled at their names and funny English. A boy who called himself Gayheart positioned himself as our official host.

I appreciated the experience much more when we returned the following year. The snow was thick and billowy. The ski areas were massive . . . you could go the entire day without repeating a single slope.  And the town looked like Christmas should . . . snow-covered roofs trimmed in spiky icicles, an ancient candlelit church giving midnight Christmas mass in Latin, horse-drawn sleighs with jingling bells. I tried to memorize everything, even the gamey broth with rubbery dumplings that seemed to be the specialty of the hotel restaurant.

The second year, I met a girl from Canada in the hotel hallways. Our parents agreed to let us share a room for part of the stay. We had a lot in common . . . our favorite hobbies included telling people what to do, brooding, and writing. Really, our families were relieved that we found each other. We holed up in our room, writing poetry, playing writing games, and ruminating on life's big questions (so much fun). At the end of our visit, the girl asked me in a formal manner if I would be her pen pal, and for the next couple years, we exchanged lengthy letters. It became a competition in who could send the most pages.

To the adults of our group from Saudi, the winter vacay was a hard-earned, two-week party.  I have a memory of sitting on the floor of the hotel lobby with the other kids (my middle bro and I might have been playing poker . . . we passed many hours of traveling that way). The adults were sitting around a large round table just outside the hotel bar and probably had a couple rounds of Schnapps before my dad got up to leave. He was mortified when he realized he was taking the tablecloth with him, glasses and all. The worst of it was the tablecloth was stuck in his fly (try to explain that one). Of course, us kids were always watching, soaking it in to be re-told to anyone who would listen (guess what, Grandma!).

Our most dramatic story came out of the New Year's Eve festivities on the second trip. I was left in charge of my brothers at the hotel. My parents wrote down the phone number of the bar they would be frequenting and left amidst talk of drinking from a boot. One of the locals had given my youngest brother a marzipan pig, something to be eaten for good luck in the New Year. After my parents left, I let him gobble it down. He proceeded to throw up all over our room at midnight. I called the bar. Someone picked up but the roaring sound of the crowd in the background was the first sign that my parents wouldn't be found. We had been abandoned in a true vomit emergency.

We eventually found a hotel employee who was willing to help us. She wasn't too excited but set her beer down and grabbed a mop. We put ourselves to bed, full of the self-righteousness that would be unleashed on our frail-looking parents first thing in the morning. We must have been very pleasant travel companions.

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