It was a perfect winter in Sölln, Tirol. It had been snowing for weeks and now frost glazed
the soft ground and sunrays bounced off the slick surface in a myriad of golden ringlets. Two dozen of us had traveled here in a minibus from the small town of Kirchheim in Southern Swabia. Although we were all members of a track team, only Angela and I were new to skiing. Our chaperon Ms. Schuster avoided the sport herself, but she had brought along her fancy new camera with extra lenses and attachments to photograph the week’s events. We stood in front of a refurbished barn where cots lined the rooms under old rough-hewn rafters. Because it was pleasantly warm that morning I had wrapped my jacket around my waist and tied the sleeves. I smoothed my new sky-blue sweater down my 15 year-old flat chest. My mother had knitted the sweater and matching hat and gloves especially for this occasion. Angela and I waited to be taken to the nearby chairlift up to a hill for beginners. The more advanced skiers had left at sunrise to explore more challenging slopes.
At our departure from Kirchheim I had paid no attention to the skis which a kind old lady had lent me. They now seemed so heavy that I had to move them from shoulder to shoulder. My companions had picked up their skis with ease and were marching briskly ahead. Although I was in good physical condition, I soon lagged behind. An attendant gave me a funny look when I struggled to heave my skis onto the lift and said with a smirk, “Big boards, young lady.” By the time we reached the meeting point at the first drop-off I was soaked in sweat. I inhaled the biting air deeply and soon the cold breeze began to dry my temples.
Our instructor looked Italian with his wild shock of dark hair and nut-brown eyes. His hands buried in his jacket pockets, he stood wide-legged before us. Latching on my skis was the first task and again I finished last. Our assignment was to turn around on the path heading in the opposite direction. Snowdrifts were piled high above our waists on both sides of the icy patch and as I tried to swing my right ski around I lost my balance and fell, landing on my back and making an involuntary snow angel with both arms and legs. I couldn’t move. Nobody reacted until a roar echoed from our barrel-chested instructor. “Oh look,” he bellowed, nearly choking on his guttural Tirolian brogue, “Dem Herrgott sei Schifahrer.”
Now the rest of the group turned to me in disbelief and started to giggle, “Get up,” Angela hissed. I couldn’t. After several failed attempts I managed to sit halfway up and flip the latch on my right ski so that my boot slipped out. While everyone stared at me I got my other boot untied, grabbed it by the laces, maneuvered my torso around and managed to get to my knees. Steadying myself on a pole, I got to my feet, picked up the skis and hobbled in the direction of the lift. Louder, unrestrained laughter trailed me as I left the group.
We were poor. My mother had just gone through a lengthy, painful divorce; and as refugees from East Germany, we were penniless. After World War II we had found shelter with relatives. I was a good student in high school and a valuable sprinter on the track team. I was quick out of the blocks and also a good finisher in relay races. When the plan for the ski trip was announced my mother searched for someone who might lend me a pair of skis. At first she came up empty-handed. Then an old lady who lived next door to us announced that she had a pair in her shed from the old days. I was welcome to them. The skis were extra-long, made of oak with front tips curved upwards like sleigh-runners. They had probably been used for cross-country excursions. My mother and I knew nothing about skis, and we gratefully accepted the offer.
I can’t remember how I got back down the mountain, only that I had to keep trying to swallow the knot in my throat. I spent the next few days wandering through fairyland Sölln with its gingerbread houses and quaint shops. One day I spotted Ms. Schuster leaning against a lamppost under an imitation antique lantern, her camera focused on the spectacular snowcapped mountain peaks above the town. I ducked into a side street. On another outing I stopped in front of a ski rental store but quickly hurried on after seeing the light modern skis on display. I often returned to my cot after the cleaning crew had departed. I always carried a book with me.
My 17 year-old boyfriend Franz, a sensitive and caring person, met me each late afternoon at an après ski juice bar. He never asked about my day. His mood was as fiery red as his wind-burnt cheeks. He probably could not imagine anyone having anything but a marvelous day. He talked nonstop about the gorgeous vistas he had seen from the top and breathlessly recalled the exuberance he felt while dashing down one black piste after another. Curiously, no one asked about my situation. Maybe they didn’t realize that I had abandoned my group or, if they did, didn’t know what to do about it. Angela questioned me as we lay in bed the night after the embarrassing incident, “Are you going to quit?”
I spontaneously replied. “You bet, I’ll quit.”
We arrived back in Kirchheim in the late evening. Everyone wanted to get home and we hurriedly embraced as we said our goodbyes. I dragged my skis behind me and as it began to snow I felt a calm descending on my rage and hurt. I stacked the skis at the old lady’s back door, attached a thank-you note in a plastic bag and ambled around the corner to my home. My mother waited with open arms, leftover Christmas cookies and hot chocolate. I hugged her with great intensity and went straight to bed. She probably attributed my tongue-tiedness to my tiredness from the long bus ride.
When our daughters were old enough, my husband and I took them on winter vacations to New Mexico and Colorado. We all enrolled in ski lessons. I became quite an accomplished skier and proudly regarded myself as, “God’s Own Skier” as I glided through dense forests where branches laden with snow thudded handfuls of white powder on my head. As I gazed around I felt such wonder at the beauty of nature and vicariously recalled Franz’s exuberance those years ago as the wind now reddened my cheeks.