Saturday, January 06, 2007

Ski Trip to Austria

The following is a summary of a 7-day trip that I took with my wife and the kids to Austria. We stayed high in the Alps in Bad Gastein, and learned to ski on the trip. We rode a bus to Austria with a group of families from my daughter’s school. This was the only organized trip that we have taken since we have lived in Germany.

First of all, a little background on this trip. We don’t normally travel with anyone else. We had wanted to learn to ski for a long time, and we had looked at a number of destinations. In December, while my wife was with the kids in the U.S., and I was preparing to go to the U.S., I attempted to finalize a trip. I knew that there was a ski committee at my daughter’s school, so I thought that I would call one of the members to get a recommendation. I was told that there was a trip already organized for families with kids in the ISD (International School of Düsseldorf). All arrangements were already made if I was interested. Since this would save me a lot of time, I said that we were interested. I also felt like my wife and the kids would have more fun since we would be traveling with other Americans (and Brits). This was a partial miscalculation on my part.

Day 1, Saturday, February 24, 2001 – We were supposed to be on the bus at 6 a.m. I woke up at 5:00, got dressed, and then woke the kids up. I was really tired, because I had only arrived from a meeting in the U.S. at 3 p.m. the day before. When I took the first suitcase out to the car, I was surprised to discover that the ground was covered with snow. We loaded up and drove to the meeting place, my daughter’s school. Although we were supposed to leave at 6, we did not actually move out until 6:30. My son and I ended up in the back with all the kids, and my wife sat with my daughter near the middle of the bus. At the beginning of the trip, a kid of about 10 years got into a fight with his sister. His dad came back to break it up, and he talked terribly to his father. He said, “Keep your dirty hands off me! Get away from me! I’ll punch you. If she comes back here again, I’ll punch her!” The father was calm with him, but took him up to the front of the bus to sit with him.

In the bus, my son had his Gameboy to keep him occupied. My daughter had that as well as a friend, Anna, sitting by her. My wife and I had books. I was reading “Green Mars”, which is a technically detailed depiction of the future colonization of Mars. My wife was reading some historical fiction centered around event’s in Düsseldorf during World War II.

During the trip down, almost all of Germany was covered in snow. My son probably asked me “Are we there yet?”, 30 times during the drive. The Autobahn was extremely packed, and we did not make good time. I also could not remember loading one of our suitcases on board. It had all of our passports, as well as all of my clothes. I was really getting worried about this, but finally we stopped at a rest stop and I checked. It was there.

There was a VCR on board. I picked out the first movie, “Flight of the Navigator”. I heard some of the teenagers whine, but I knew it would keep my son’s attention. I looked during the movie and saw that all of the teenagers were also watching it. Once when I looked back, I saw one of the teenage boys mooning the cars behind us. One of the adults up front saw this and yelled at him to cut it out.

Thirteen hours later, we arrived in Bad Gastein, Austria. It is located in the central Alps. It was dark when we arrived, so I couldn’t tell what the surroundings looked like. We barely had time to get into the restaurant and eat before they closed. We waited a long time to be served, and the waiter was rude to us.

We got into our room at about 10 p.m. and got the kids settled in. Our room was really nice. It was a suite on the 5th floor, and had 4 beds.

Day 2, Sunday, February 25, 2001 – Today was one of the most stressful days of my life. My wife coughed all night long, so none of us got really good sleep. I was afraid she was coming down with bronchitis or pneumonia. She had been coughing for several days, and it didn’t seem to be getting any better. So, we decided that it would probably be best if she rested while the kids and I took ski lessons.

The kids and I went down and had a quick breakfast before we were off to the ski slopes. The first item on the agenda was to rent equipment. Our classes started at 10 a.m., and we were at the ski rental place at 8:30. I assumed we had plenty of time. But, the place was packed with people. It was like being in a standing room only concert. The kids were fighting and crying, and I was trying to keep them calm while we waited. But my stomach was churning.

We finally reached the area for ski boots. The kids tried on different boots until we found some that fit. They were not very comfortable, and were almost impossible to walk in. Ski boots are made of a solid piece of hard plastic with no flexibility. They are designed to prevent you from breaking an ankle if you fall, but the disadvantage is that they are very uncomfortable for normal walking.

After that ordeal, we still had to get our skis. My son and my daughter were just about at the limit of their patience. Fortunately, there was another American in line who offered to help. He offered to take my son outside until we were finished. I took him up on the offer, but as soon as they left I realized that my son didn’t have one of his shoes on. They came back inside about 10 minutes later and got his shoe. Having him deal with my son was a lifesaver.

We finally got our skis and checked out. I wasn’t sure how many days to rent for, so I went ahead and took the skis for the week (6 days). They told me that I could turn them in for a refund if we decided not to ski for the week. We had been in packed, cramped, hot quarters for an hour and a half. My stress level had been very high in the ski shop, but it was about to get a lot worse.

Ski school started at 10, and it was 10 when we got out of the ski shop. The plan for my son was that he would be in a ski kindergarten with 3 and 4 year olds. They would take frequent breaks and would mostly just play. There were to be at least 2 little girls in the class that he knew from his school in Germany. My daughter and I would be in the regular ski school. But, I didn’t have time to drop him off at the kindergarten. We all went to the regular ski school. I told them that he needed to be in the kindergarten, but that I didn’t have time to drop him off. They told me “No Problem”, and said they would take care of it. So, I had to give both kids money for lunch, and then I had to leave them with their ski instructors.

My group was meeting about 30 feet away, and I walked over and joined them. Other than me, my group was 100% British, with slightly more women than men. My ski instructor’s name was Miro, and he was from Croatia. I kept watching my son and my daughter, and I noticed that nobody was taking my son over to the kindergarten. It finally occurred to me that when they said they would take care of it, they meant that they would put him with the other kids in the regular ski school. I did not like the idea of that. So, I left my group and went and talked to my daughter. I told her that it looked like she and my son would be in class together, so I asked her to please watch out for him. The problem that I could see was that he looked to be the youngest in the class, and my daughter had several friends in her class. I was worried about my son being alone all day.

I went back to my group, and we were getting ready to move out. I had a very sick feeling over leaving the kids. I had basically left them with complete strangers. I was just about ready to give up the ski lessons and take them back to the hotel with me. I wasn’t so worried about my daughter, but I really felt like my son was not old enough to be in the class. As I left them behind, I turned and looked at my son. He had a really scared look on his face, like he thought I was abandoning him. That really made me sick in the pit of stomach. Walking away from them like that was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

Despite my distractions, ski school went on. We first learned to put on our skis and take them off. Then, we learned to walk a little bit and turn around. Walking around on skis is similar to walking on roller skates on an incline. It is very easy to start sliding. As we practiced walking in circles, I noticed a little girl, about 3 years old, crying. She was sitting in the snow all alone. I kept my eye on her, and after about 15 minutes I started to get worried. There did not seem to be an adult with her. She seemed to be completely alone, and I worried that she might be freezing. I flashed to my son and imagined him in that situation.

Some of the women in my group noticed me looking at the little girl, and asked me what was wrong. I told them that nobody seemed to be looking after her, and she had been crying for at least 15 minutes. This concerned the women, and some of them tried to talk to her. This made her cry even more. This went on for about 10 more minutes, and that was about all I could stand. I told my ski instructor, Miro, that this little girl needed help. It was freezing, and she was now lying down in the snow crying. At first, he said, “Oh, she is probably with this group over here.” I told him that I didn’t care who she was with, I wanted someone to take care of her. What made it worse for me was imagining that it could have been my son or my daughter crying and nobody was paying attention to them. I was insistent that he do something about it, so he brought the little girl to the attention of several ski instructors. It was finally discovered that she was with a ski school, and they had basically just abandoned her. This made me worry more than ever about my daughter and my son.

After the little girl had rejoined her group, we practiced skiing downhill. We were doing a maneuver called the snow plow (my daughter learned it as the “pizza”), where the front of the skis are close together and the back of the skis are far apart. This configuration helps to control the speed.

About 11 a.m. I finally spotted my son through a crowd of people. He was about 50-60 yards away, and he was standing with a group of children, none of whom I recognized. My son looked lost and scared, and he was crying. I immediately took off my skis, left my group, and went to him. He hugged me and said that he didn’t want to be in ski school. He had gotten split up from my daughter, and was in a group comprised mostly of Germans. His ski instructor was also German. She told me that my son wasn’t paying attention, and that he had walked away from the group several times. This really made me sick because there were several hundred people on the slope. I told my son that I wasn’t very far away, and I was watching him. But, since the slope was packed with people he never was able to see me. I finally told him that he wouldn’t have to do this after today, but that I really needed him to finish the day.

I rejoined my group, but kept an eye on my son. I really wasn’t paying attention to my instructor. I saw my son fall in the snow several times, and his instructor would just leave him lying there. Once, after he had been sitting in the snow for over 5 minutes, I went back over and helped him up. I did that again a couple more times, and each time he begged me not to leave him. It was really hard for me to walk away from him.

When we broke for lunch, I rushed over to my son and asked his instructor if I could take him to lunch instead of having him go with the group. So, we found a nice restaurant and had lunch together. When we sat down, my daughter and her group were sitting at the next table. My daughter’s ski instructor was from New Zealand. She told me that my daughter was doing really well, but that she always tried to ski too fast. My daughter was sitting between two boys (Isaac and Zachary) and she was flirting quite a bit. I tried to ignore them and focus on my son. It made me sick to my stomach to think about sending him back to school in the afternoon.

After lunch, I had to bribe him with cookies to get him to rejoin his group. I assured him that I would be close by, and I would be watching him. I rejoined my group, and we worked on speed control (using the “plow”) and turning. I didn’t fall very much, but sometimes I had a hard time stopping. Once I ran into someone else pretty hard.

I watched my son all afternoon, and went to help him several times after his instructor left him lying in the snow. She said she wanted him to learn to get up on his own, but that was very difficult. She again complained that he was not paying attention. I really wished he had gotten into my daughter’s group, because her instructor seemed to be a lot better with kids. I watched my son closely the rest of the afternoon, and he spent most of his time just playing. He was eating a lot of snow and throwing snowballs at the other kids in his class.

When I saw his class break for the day, I told my instructor that I needed to leave. He said “OK”, and told me we were to meet at 10 a.m. the next morning. I went and got my son, and he gave me a big hug. He told me he never wanted to go to ski school again. We went and picked my daughter up and then got a refund for the remaining 2 days of my son’s class. While we were there, they gave him a “medal” for completing one day of class. We then went and turned in his skis and boots and got a refund for the remaining 5 days.

Back at the hotel, my wife was still sick. We took off our ski gear, and changed into more comfortable clothes. For the first time, I opened up the shades and really looked at the view out our window. Stunning is probably an understatement. We had huge glass windows in our room, and they looked out onto a magnificent, snow-covered mountain range. It was really beautiful, and it was so close it felt like it was right in our faces. My wife went out with us for a short walk before dinner, but she was really coughing a lot. We had a dinner buffet, and then got the kids into bed by 8:30. Before bed, my daughter told me that she had a secret. I asked her if she could tell me, and she said “Isaac loves me, and I love Isaac.” I told her that I wouldn’t tell anyone. My muscles were very sore, so I soaked in a hot bath for about 30 minutes. I got into bed about 10 p.m., exhausted from the events of the day.

Day 3, Monday, February 26, 2001 – Once again, my wife coughed throughout the night. I woke up about 7 and went down to eat while my daughter was getting dressed. While we were waiting on the bus, an elderly Austrian man came up and started talking to me. Austrians speak German, but in a very different dialect. I found it very difficult to understand, but I understood the gist of what he was saying. There were men up on top of the hotels cleaning ice and snow from the rain gutters. They had no fall protection at all, and were walking (on ice!) along the edge of these tall buildings. The man was basically saying that they must be crazy to do such a dangerous job.

My daughter and I went and picked up our skis from a storage locker and bought a lift ticket that would allow us to ride all the ski lifts. We got on the slope at about 8:30, and we were the first ones out there. So, we practiced all of the things we had learned the day before. Once a kid walked right out in front of me while I was skiing down the hill. I swerved around him and then his mother, and I heard him say, “Wow Mom, did you see that!”

At 10, I dropped my daughter off and joined my group. I learned that we were going to combine some of the classes from the previous day. Those who hadn’t quite mastered the lessons of the previous day would go with one group, and the people who seemed to be getting the hang of it would go with Miro for more advanced lessons. We were supposed to ski down the hill, demonstrate a turn, and then stop. I executed my move without a problem and went into the advanced group. We lost several members from the previous day, and gained two members who had not been with us. There was another British woman, and then a really friendly guy from Denmark.

We practiced for a while, and then near lunchtime we rode the gondola lift up to the middle station, which was located at an elevation of about 6000 ft. On the way up, I asked Miro about avalanches. He said three days earlier, an entire German family – husband, wife, son, and daughter – had been killed by an avalanche near Innsbruck. They had been driving through a mountain pass, and the snow had crushed their car. This incident happened exactly two years to the day that 38 people were killed during two separate avalanches in Austria. Miro went on to say that every morning the authorities use loud noises to try to force any imminent avalanches to occur before there were people on the slopes. I still had a very uneasy feeling, though.

We got off at the middle station, and walked up a hill about 200 yards to a restaurant. I walked with Miro, and I was really out of breath trying to carry my skis up the hill. I wondered how everyone else was managing, and I turned to look. They were lagging far behind and yelling for Miro to stop for a rest. So, I wasn’t the only one having trouble in the thin air. In fact, other than Miro, I was actually having the least amount of trouble.

Miro and I talked a little about Croatia. He said that he has Croatian friends in the U.S. that play in the NBA. He also told me that he was in college, and taught ski lessons to put himself through school. He said in the summer, he usually taught tennis lessons.

We ate outside of the restaurant. It was extremely cold and snowing, but the inside was packed. That is definitely the coldest I have ever been while eating a meal. I had a bratwurst and fries, but everything was ice cold before I was half finished with the meal.

After lunch, we practiced on a much longer and steeper slope. Each time we skied down, we rode a lift back up. I say “rode”, but the lift was actually a series of handles attached to a moving cable. You grabbed onto the handle and were dragged uphill (literally skiing uphill). The lift lines were long, and there were a lot of snowboarders on the slope. They were terrible about cutting in line. What was even worse is that most of them were Americans, and I hate to see Americans acting like that whenever I am traveling. The Danish guy and I got pretty good at blocking them out, but they still got around us. Once, one of the high school students from my daughter’s school cut in front of about 20 people. Then she had the nerve to get mad at another high school student, also from my daughter’s school, who cut in front of her. She started yelling at him and telling him she would get him back. I thought she sure had a lot of nerve to get onto him for cutting in line. Another time a German boy, about 4 years old, walked past everyone and went to the front of the line. But, he kept having trouble catching the handle and was holding everyone up. So, not only did he cut in line, he caused everyone else to have to wait because he didn’t know how to use the lift. I wondered where his parents were.

We continued to practice making turns and stopping. I skied very well in the afternoon. At the end of the day, we skied down to the gondola station, which was several hundred yards down a much steeper slope than we had been skiing on. Miro started out and told us to follow. I was initially the fourth person behind Miro, but skied past the other two on the way down. I was really flying, and had to slow down to keep from passing Miro. When we got to the bottom, we turned and there was nobody else behind us. After a few seconds, a couple of the others came around a curve. They said that several others had fallen, and that there was a big pileup behind us. One of the woman laughed and said that I really flew by her. She said she could hear someone coming, and knew that it must have been me.

We rode the gondola down, and I picked my daughter up. She was very upset, and told me that someone in her class had been mean to her. I saw her instructor speaking to another woman, and she was telling her that her son had misbehaved and caused my daughter to cry. I spoke briefly to my daughter’s instructor, and asked if she would need a ski pass the next day. She said yes, but told me that they were not going up on the mountain. “Believe me”, she said, “you don’t want to take little kids up on that mountain.” I wondered about that, because I had heard other people say that the kids usually went up the mountain before the adults did.

We dropped off our skis at the locker and headed toward the bus stop. My daughter was really tired, and her feet hurt in her ski boots. I let her ride on my back on the way to the bus stop. We had to walk up and then down a flight of stairs, and then go another couple hundred yards. I was so tired and sore that I didn’t think I would make it. But, we got to the bus stop, got on the packed bus, and rode back to the hotel.

At the hotel, my son was really glad to see us. After getting out of my ski gear, I “fought” with him for about an hour. There was a children’s disco downstairs, so after my son and I were finished playing, I took them downstairs. My daughter wanted to stay, but my son didn’t. So, my son and I went out in the snow behind the hotel. There was a big park there, with large hills and trees. There were also icicles hanging everywhere. We took the sled out and had a lot of fun playing. We had snowball fights, we sledded down the hills, and we broke off giant icicles. Once, I stopped and just looked at the surrounding mountains. I thought about how incredibly lucky we were to be playing in the heart of the Austrian Alps.

Dinner that night was very slow. The kids were really restless as we waited on our food. Isaac’s family sat near us, and my wife and I watched with amusement as my daughter and Isaac made eyes at each other. This was to become a routine every evening. They smiled, cut their eyes, and raised their eyebrows up and down as they watched each other. It was quite a comedy.

For some reason, my daughter and my son were served an adult dessert. It wasn’t very sweet, and they didn’t like it much. All the other kids got ice cream. While we were eating dessert, there was an announcement that someone had bought a ski pass from the hotel front desk for about $250. They said they would be right back with the money, but never came back. We were told that if we didn’t all want a surcharge on our hotel bill, that somebody had better come forward and pay their bill. I was just incensed at that notion. The hotel had made a mistake, and they wanted us to pay for it. If it came down to that, I was absolutely not going to stand for it. Their mistake was not my problem. For all I knew someone had walked in off the street and ripped them off. There was no assurance that it was even someone staying at the hotel.

Back in our hotel room, I realized that I hadn’t been taking trip notes, so I started writing them down. I took another long, hot bath for my aching muscles, but we all got in bed relatively early.

Day 4, Tuesday, February 27, 2001 – The kids were both up before 7. I had really slept poorly, and I woke up stiff, sore, and tired. I wanted to go back to sleep. My daughter and I got ready and went back to the slope early so we could practice a little more. When I dropped her off, she didn’t want me to leave her, because she was afraid that someone would be mean to her again. But, I finally talked her into it, and then joined my group.

When I walked up, everyone greeted me by name. I felt bad, because other than the ski instructor, I didn’t know anyone’s name. Even if I did, I am always hesitant to call someone that I don’t know very well by name, because I am worried that I will call them by the wrong name. I heard one of the women say that she knew my name because Miro had spent most of the day yesterday saying, “Robert, slow down.” I laughed when I heard this, but decided to make a serious effort to learn everyone’s name.

We were going back to the middle station. On the way there, I saw the ski kindergarten that we had wanted to put my son into. Two of the kids were lying down sleeping in the snow, and the rest of them didn’t look like they were having too much fun. I was glad that we hadn’t put him in.

The crowd waiting for the lift was incredible. One of the British women (Janine) was a little claustrophobic and decided to come up later. While waiting in line, I talked for a while with Thomas, the Danish fellow. He was a typical Scandinavian - super friendly, perfectly fluent in English, and very talkative. After about 45 minutes we made our way onto the lift and up to the middle station.

Miro set up an obstacle course for us to run through. We had to practice our turns. I had been thinking about how Miro had told us to turn, and I noticed that every time I turned, my shoulders were turned a certain way. So, I decided that instead of remembering which way to bend my knees, I would just twist my shoulders and the knees should follow. I told my group that I had a new theory for turning, and I was going to try it out. So, I started down, gained a little speed, and turned my shoulders. I was immediately out of control, and went off the path and into very deep snow. I had a hard time extracting myself from the snow, and when I finally got up, my group was laughing hard. They wanted me to try my theory out again.

As we practiced, I struggled more than I had the day before. I had fallen only once the previous day, but I fell about half a dozen times before lunch. Once when I was going down the slope, I saw a snowboarder fall. Miro ran over to her, and soon she was surrounded by people. She was right at the end of my run, so I skied over and asked Miro what was wrong. She had injured her knee, and he thought it was serious. They had called the stretcher. I looked down at the girl, and it was the girl from my daughter’s school who had been cutting in line the previous day.

Near lunchtime, we rode the gondola up to the top of the mountain. The restaurant inside was packed, so once again we ate outside. The view was clear, and the sun reflecting off the snow was very bright. But it was really cold. There were a lot of ravens outside the restaurant, and they were floating on updrafts traveling up the mountain. It was funny to see them suspended in the air without flapping their wings. They were just playing. But, the view was the best part about it. We were high up in the Alps, and we were surrounded by snow covered peaks. We could see a couple of villages way down at the bottom of the mountains. The view was just stunning, and belonged on a post card.

After lunch, we started down from the top of the mountain. Thomas was terrified. He told me that he had sky dived before, but he had not been this scared. He was afraid he was going to plunge off the mountain. We skied down a narrow trail. Thomas was in front of me, and he fell. I ran into him, but didn’t fall. Then, a woman behind me ran into me and she fell. But, I still stayed up. We got untangled and continued down the mountain. But the time we had descended about 100 yards, everyone had fallen except me (and of course Miro). I was really getting the hang of it, and I was keeping up with Miro. Finally, someone from another group fell right in front of me and I fell when I tried to avoid him.

After I got up, my son’s ski instructor skied past me, with a group of 4-6 year olds behind her. Janine saw them, and told me that 2 of her kids were in that group. She said, “She is not very maternal, is she?” I laughed and told her that is why my son was no longer in her class. I couldn’t believe that they were up on the mountain. I was really glad that my son wasn’t there with them. I remembered what my daughter’s ski instructor had said, and decided that the Germans and New Zealanders had a definite difference of opinion when it came to children skiing down the mountain.

Slowly but surely we made our way down. Once, we had to cross a black trail. Black is designated as difficult, and it was very steep. We had to slowly zigzag diagonally across the trail. At times, skiers would come flying down the mountain. Some of them looked they were moving at close to 100 miles an hour. If they had collided with someone, it would have probably meant broken bones at the least.

When we got to the middle station, Miro congratulated us and said we would practice here the rest of the afternoon. I asked him about skiing on down the mountain. He said that he had never taken a group down after only 3 days of lessons, because the rest of the descent was more difficult. I persisted, and a couple of the women chimed in, and he agreed. It looked to be just me and three other women, until one of them talked her husband (Andy) into coming. Thomas announced that he had had enough for the day, and wasn’t coming.

This portion of the trail was difficult. It was steeper than what we had been on before, and there were lots of patches of ice. I had only fallen once up to now, but we all started falling immediately on this 2nd descent. The women were giving me a hard time, saying “Robert, what have you gotten us into!” Once Andy lost control and shot off the trail into the trees. The snow was really deep there, and it took almost 15 minutes to get him back on the trail. Another time his wife fell and he ran into her, pushing her over 100 yards down the mountain. They finally stopped just a few feet from a short drop off at the edge of the trail. Due to all the falls, we were not making very good time.

I had some spectacular falls as well. Once, I turned too sharp and was pointed back up the mountain. I fell on my back with my skis in the air. I slid backwards down the slope for a long distance. I kept trying to dig my skis into the snow to slow myself down, but it was no use. Finally, the slope flattened a little and I stopped. Another time I hit a patch of ice and my skis went far apart. I basically did a split as my skis went out from under me and I fell.

Miro finally told me that my knees were out of position, and had me correct them. After that, I never fell again. One portion of the descent was a long, straight slope, and we skied straight down it. This was exhilarating. We really picked up some speed on this run.

I started to get worried about the time. I was supposed to pick up my daughter at 3:00, so Miro called down on his cell phone and told them that we would be late. We finally got to the bottom at 3:30. We all thanked Miro for taking us down from the middle station. We all agreed that we felt like we were missing something until we had done it. After that, everything clicked. We felt like we knew how to ski. Two of the women thanked me for asking Miro to take us on down. It had taken us almost 3 hours to ski all the way from the top. I asked Miro how long it usually took him, and he smiled and said, “About 5 minutes”. He also said, “By the way, you skied perfect at the end."

My daughter was waiting for me inside the tiny ski school building. All of her friends were already gone, and she looked sad because I was late. I told her that we had been up on the mountain, and that we called to tell her that I would be late. She said that nobody told her that, and she thought I forgot about her. She also told me that she didn’t get a medal, so I asked Miro (who had come into the building) if he could get one for her. He did, and I thanked him for everything and told him goodbye.

My daughter was again exhausted, so I let her ride on my back to the bus stop. My wife was feeling better, and she had had a good day with my son. Later that evening, I decided to play a little joke on my wife. I went into the bathroom and tied a hangman’s noose over the shower curtain rod. She came in when I was brushing my teeth, I acted like I just noticed it in the mirror. When she focused on what I was staring at, she looked like she had been shot. The color drained from her before I started to laugh. She laughed too, but told me that every horror movie she had ever seen had just flashed before her eyes. The setting had reminded me of “The Shining”, and that is what made me think of the prank.

Day 5, Wednesday, February 28, 2001 – Today was a really good day. It didn’t start out too promising, because I woke up extremely stiff and sore from all the hard falls I took the day before. My wife and my daughter had also coughed a lot during the night, so I woke up feeling like I hadn’t slept enough. My general plan for the day was to take my wife and the kids up to the top of the mountain and let them see the scenery.

Down at breakfast, I ran into Janine. She thanked me again for talking Miro into taking us down, because she said she felt like that had taught her a tremendous amount and had given her a lot of confidence. She told me that the lifts were closed for the day, due to high winds. I had noticed that there was a lot of blowing snow outside. So, I had to change plans.

I took the kids back up to the room, where my wife was still coughing a lot. She had run out of cough medicine, so I went to get her some more. I asked at the front desk where there was a pharmacy, and the guy said he thought there was one down the road. So, I set off in that direction. It was really cold and windy, but I enjoyed the walk. However, I walked and walked and never found a pharmacy. I did enjoy lots of great scenery. Once I stopped and watched a black squirrel playing in the snow. Another time, I ducked into a church to have a look at the architecture. Finally I asked a young woman out pushing a baby carriage if she knew where there was a pharmacy. She said that she was a tourist too, and didn’t know. At that point I was about a mile from the hotel, so I turned back.

When I got back to the hotel, I went into the grocery store across the street from the hotel. I asked them if they had medicine for a cough. They said no, but the pharmacy ACROSS THE STREET would. I couldn’t believe it. The pharmacy had been directly outside the hotel, less than 50 feet from the front door. But, when the guy pointed me down the street, I had overlooked it and walked past it. I wasn't upset though, because I had enjoyed a really spectacular walk.

I talked to the pharmacist briefly about my wife’s symptoms. I spoke German to them, but I had a really tough time understanding the responses. Every time I spoke German to an Austrian, I struggled to understand their replies. Miro had told me that he had the same troubles, because he said they are prone to cutting off their words. But, I made myself understood, and picked up some Vick’s cough syrup and some tablets that dissolved in water.

My wife took some medicine, and we all walked across the street to a little cafe for lunch. I ordered prosciutto funghi, which is a ham and mushroom pizza. When I ordered it, the waiter started laughing. He immediately apologized, and said “I am not laughing at you. You wouldn’t believe how people butcher the pronunciation of that. You actually pronounced it perfectly, which surprised me.” I wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not, because he really thought it was pretty humorous.

After lunch, my wife was sleepy from the medicine, so she took a nap. I took the kids over to the ski area. It was really snowing hard over there. I took the camera out to take some pictures but the battery was dead. That was too bad, because there was really a nice atmosphere that day. We took the sled with us, and we just sledded down the slope for about an hour. My daughter saw some friends riding on the “baby” lift, and went to ski with them. For the next hour, she skied and my son and I sledded. We would haul the sled up the hill, and then I would give him a push.

Once, I saw my son sledding toward a little boy about 10 years old who was lying down on the slope. I don’t know why he was lying there, but my son was headed straight for him. I got up and started down after my son, and saw his sled thud into the other boy’s face. My son turned and looked at me with a panicked look. I got to him and started asking the boy if he was OK. He didn’t speak English or German, and he was really crying hard. My son was really embarrassed, and he took it out by yelling at me. “It’s all your fault! You don’t love me anymore! You wish you didn’t have me!” The little boy, who I think was Dutch or Danish, kept crying until his mother came up. She spoke English, and I explained to her what had happened. She said it was OK, and he would be fine. I patted the boy on the shoulder and told him we were sorry.

My son didn’t recover from that quickly, but I finally got him distracted by digging holes in the snow. There was a huge bank of snow at the bottom of the run, and we dug a tunnel through there. While we were digging, one of the women from my group (whose name I never learned) came up and talked to me. She said she was so pleased that we had skied down from the middle station yesterday. She told me that she had just been kidding when she was giving me a hard time the day before. I told her that I knew that, and that most Americans have a good sense of humor. While I was talking to her, I realized from her accent that she was actually Scottish. I hadn’t picked up on that the day before.

A little while later another British woman from my group came up with her kids in tow. Janine offered to stay and watch her kids play with my son while I rode the lift up and skied down. She told me that it only took 15 minutes, so I decided to take her up on it. I showed her where my daughter was, and went up.

These slopes were steeper than the ones I had skied down the day before. I fell twice on my way down before I started to get the hang of it again. At the bottom she told me I could go back up, so I decided to do it once more. On the way down this time, I had a spectacular fall. I got too much speed going across the slope, and couldn’t turn. I hit the snow at the edge of the slope, and my skis stuck in the deep snow. I was probably traveling 20-30 miles an hour when my skis stuck, and they just ejected me. I went flying through the air, and landed on my head in deep snow. My head and shoulders were completely submerged in the snow. When I got my head out of the snow, I had snow packed behind my sunglasses, my ears were full of snow, and my hair was covered with snow. Somebody skiing down saw me and got tickled. I must have been quite a sight. I had left a head-sized hole in the snow. But, I picked myself up, dusted off, and continued down the slope. After that incident, I realized that my knees had not been in the proper position. Once I corrected that, I skied down the rest of the way without falling.

When I got to the bottom, my son was having a lot of fun playing with the kids. My daughter wanted to stop skiing and sled for a while. We stayed there until just about everyone was gone from the slopes. After we finished playing, we decided to go ahead and turn in our skis. We were not planning on going to the ski area the next day, and I did not plan to ski on Friday. So, we turned them in. We should have gotten a full refund for the unused days, but the guy said, “Well, I have to take a commission for the unused days." He said he was taking off 10%, but as far as I could tell he kept 30%. We had a hard time communicating, and my daughter and my son were running around the store. I finally decided to let it go, but I felt like we had been ripped off. We walked over to the bus stop to find that the regular bus had stopped running. We rode a different bus down, and stopped in a different location. We had to walk a pretty long way to get back to the hotel, where we found that my wife was still sick. She was wheezing a lot, and I was worried that she probably had bronchitis.

That evening at dinner, fish was the specialty. There were all kinds of cold fish appetizers, including smoked salmon. I just about filled up on that. I saw one of my daughter’s friends who told me that he really liked the “onion rings” he was eating. He told me that they tasted a little funny, though. I looked at them and told him they were actually calamari. I love calamari, so I went to the children’s buffet and loaded up. For my main course, I had lamb chops. That is only the second time I have ever had lamb, and I don’t guess I really like it that much. I like beef and chicken much more. But, I was so full of calamari and smoked salmon that the lamb didn’t really bother me that much. I went out to get the kids some ice cream from the children’s dessert bar, and saw a kid with dirty hands put his hand directly into the ice cream bowl. I watched another cough directly into the bowl, and I decided that the kids really didn’t need ice cream.

After dinner, I relaxed with the kids on their beds. I talked to my son about his birthday the next day. They always like to talk about science before bed, so I asked my son how many planets he could name. He named eight (he forgot Neptune). He also told me what a marsupial was, and told me that a platypus lives in Australia. My daughter took her turn and told me that Ben Franklin discovered electricity and Isaac Newton discovered gravity. I put them to bed very satisfied with the day we had spent together.

Day 6, Thursday, March 1, 2001 – My son turned five in the Austrian Alps today. He woke up before we did, and my wife said he was mumbling, “It’s my birthday, and they don’t even care. They are just going to sleep all day!” It was 7:10 at the time.

We didn’t have anything planned for the day. I told my son this was his day, and we would do whatever he wanted. My wife was still sick and coughing, so I took my son to a toy store across the street. He had seen a toy police kit the day before, and told me that he wanted it “more than anything else in the world.” So, I let him have it, since we had forgotten to bring his birthday gift on the trip with us. In the store, I found a really cool map of the Alps. It showed the locations of all the major cities, as well as the general topography of the Alps. I decided to buy it if I still had cash left over tomorrow.

We went back to the room, and he played police with my daughter. After a little while, we went out back and played police in the snow. The kids had a blast climbing and then sliding down the hill behind the hotel. Eventually, though, they both got snow into their boots and had to go back inside. I got their clothes off and warmed them up, and then they spent the rest of the afternoon watching German cartoons (Digimon, Catdog, etc.) and playing police. I read my book for a while. I opened up the windows in our room, and once again looked at our spectacular view.

We had an early dinner, and we got the kids settled down earlier than usual. My daughter had a very loose tooth that she couldn’t seem to get out, so she wanted me to tie a string on it. Ever since my daughter’s first loose tooth, we discovered that if she will tie a string onto the tooth before bed, it will fall out during the night. Of the previous 4 teeth, I had pulled 3 of them like this while she was asleep. The only one that I didn’t pull was because the string slipped off when I was trying to pull it. It fell out at school the next day and my daughter lost it. She thinks that they just magically fall out while she is asleep, but of course I just wait until she is in the deep first hour of sleep, and then just pop them out. I had a little more trouble with this one, and it bled some. I had to get a tissue to keep blood from getting on her pillow. But, my daughter lost her 5th tooth on my son’s 5th birthday.

Day 7, Friday, March 2, 2001 – My wife was coughing and wheezing all night. I wondered if she had pneumonia. We spent a very lazy morning, and then decided we would all go up to the ski area after lunch. My wife didn’t really feel up to it, but she didn’t want to miss out. I took the video camera, and took some video of the kids sledding. I didn’t get any video of my daughter skiing, because we had already turned in our skis.

After sledding for a while, we rode the gondola up to the top. There was an indoor play area at the top for kids, so we let them play for a while. There was also free Internet access, but the wait was really long. I decided I could do without. My wife was having a lot of trouble breathing in the thin, dry air. My daughter was also having trouble with one of her ears, so we didn’t stay at the top for very long. It was very cold and windy, anyway. So, after just an hour, we headed back down. On the way out, I ran into Thomas (the Danish guy). He said that they were getting ready to fly out, and he told me that he had really enjoyed our ski class together. We said our goodbyes, and then we rode the lift back down.

At the bottom, the kids sledded for a while before we went back to the hotel. At the hotel, I took the kids back up on the hill behind the hotel and we played for another hour. While we were doing this, my wife went and spent the last of our money on souvenirs. She also bought the map of the Alps for me.

At dinner that night, a box was passed to our table. It was for tips for the wait staff for the week. We didn’t have any money to put in the box since my wife had spent all of our money on souvenirs. I didn’t feel like it was necessary to tip anyway, because that is not the norm in Europe. Americans have imported that custom here, and do it when traveling, but the Europeans don’t. That is because wait staff in Europe are not underpaid like they are in the U.S. They make a normal wage, and it is not expected that it will be supplemented by tips. Rick Steves, the author of Europe Through the Back Door, has said that the only people who tip in Europe are Americans that don’t know any better.

After the box came around, there were more announcements on tipping. People wanted to know how they could tip the people that cleaned the room, how they could tip the chef, and how they could tip the people at the front desk. They wanted to know how they could show their appreciation for the ski instructors. It all sounded so sappy that it made me sick. Had these people never traveled in Europe before? The customs in the U.S. are not the same as the customs in Europe. I could see that some of the British people in our group were amused by all of this. Frankly I was a little embarrassed, because some of the things I heard from the Americans bordered on condescending. Some of them seemed to have the attitude that these poor peasants are barely scraping by while we are earning $250,000 a year. Let’s throw them some change so we can feel good about ourselves and help them better enjoy their meager existence. In my opinion, we had shown appreciation to our ski instructors by sincerely offering our thanks to them. I don’t feel like (and it is not the European way) to tip everyone who does a good job. That is an American invention, and in fact is the norm in America. But we were not in America.

There was an announcement made that it would be possible to check out after dinner. This would avoid a big crowd at the front desk the next morning. So, after dinner I went to check out. I got quite a shock. I had thought that I knew approximately what the exchange rate was for Austrian shillings to dollars. I had calculated that our hotel room was about $150 a night, which included breakfast and dinner every day. I thought this was pretty steep, but it was a very nice hotel. When I got the bill, they had printed the bill in shillings and in Euros. The value of a Euro is approximately $1, so I now knew exactly how much our room had cost. $225 a night, for 7 nights! Ouch! When we had gone to Austria with my mom and sister, 2 nights had cost about that much for 6 people. If we had booked this trip ourselves, I imagine we would have spent less than $100 a night, and still had a pretty decent place to stay.

When I got back to the room, my wife and I talked about the trip. She had not wanted to travel with a large group of Americans in the first place. Being around so many Americans meant that it was harder to interact with the locals. I like to talk to the people who live and work in an area, but there were Americans or Brits everywhere I went. Plus, there are some stereotypes associated with being American, so the local people were more reserved.

Another problem, according to my wife, was that many of these Americans were really wealthy. They didn’t think twice about throwing money around. Many of them were also very “snooty”, and obviously thought they were quite important. We noticed a lot of that all week long. One example was a woman berating a waiter because she didn’t get a table next to her friends. The snooty ones also usually had snooty, rude children that were no fun to be around. I don’t like my daughter and my son being exposed to kids like that. While most of the people (including children) on the trip were really nice, there were plenty who weren’t. This diminished the fun that we had on the trip. It certainly wasn’t worth $225 a night, and I was left wishing that I had just booked everything myself, and we had struck out on our own (like we normally do). I had done the trip the way I had because of simplicity, but that simplicity was very expensive. My wife said, “I told you so.” We had had better vacations where we spent less than half that amount. To date, one of the best places that we have ever stayed was a little cabin in Norway that cost $30 a night. There was also a beautiful farmhouse in southern France where we had spent $40 a night. I had learned a valuable lesson on this trip: Don’t assume that someone else’s idea of an ideal vacation is the same as my idea of an ideal vacation.

But, at least the kids had a really good time. They enjoyed the snow a lot, and my daughter had a lot of fun with her friends. She told me that it was her best ever vacation, and that was worth a lot to me. I enjoyed myself a lot too, it is just that I have had better vacations for much less money. My wife, on the other hand, was miserable for the entire week.

Day 8, Saturday, March 3, 2001 – I woke up to find that my wife was not in her bed. (We had a twin bed, and had separated them because she was coughing so badly). I had noticed about 4 a.m. that she wasn’t in bed, but I assumed she was in the bathroom. The kids woke me up at 7 and asked where she was. I told them I didn’t know, but to go check the bathroom. They came back in and told me that she was asleep in the tub. I jumped up to go look, and she was indeed asleep in the tub. But, the sight of her sleeping in the tub was more than I could take, so I got out the video camera and taped her for a couple of minutes. I then went and played with the kids for a while until she woke up. When she woke up, she said that sitting upright in the tub was the only way she could get relief from the coughing.

We were not scheduled to leave until 11, so we ate a late breakfast. Since I didn’t know when we would eat again, we stuffed ourselves at breakfast. We were in the bus at 11, but everyone was not accounted for until about 11:20. We left Bad Gastein, and headed home. During the drive, I continued on my book, and we watched a couple of movies that held my son’s attention. One was "Mission Impossible", and the other was "Mighty Joe Young." During one of the movies, my son saw a cow on screen. He asked in a loud voice, “Is this about mad cow disease?” But, once again, it was the Gameboys that really saved the day. My son probably spent 5-6 hours during the day playing games. Anyway, we made better time than on our return trip. We were getting pretty close to home by about 10 p.m., when my son started complaining of a stomach ache. He had eaten too many sweets during the day. I got him settled down and he fell asleep, but even in his sleep his stomach was twitching.

We finally got home about 11:30, to a freezing cold house. I was a little disappointed as I reflected on our trip, but we all had a pretty good time together.

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