We all have an image of Paris; long, leafy boulevards lined with expensive stores and restaurants and haughty, impossibly chic women walking designer dogs while chain smoking thin cigarettes as the Eiffel tower twinkles in the distance. And that’s exactly what you see wandering down the Champs-Elysées or around picture-perfect neighbourhoods like Montmartre and Saint Germain des Pres.
But, as locals will tell you, this is not the real Paris. Many Parisians live outside of the centre, in the eastern suburbs. Belleville is an arty, multicultural neighbourhood in the 19th arrondissement, which sounds horribly far away but is actually only a 10 minute metro ride from the Arc de Triomphe. Few tourists wander out this way so there are limited hotel options, but as always, Air B&B is your friend. We found an entire apartment for around 120 euros a night, which was slightly on the pricey side but was perfectly located and absolutely gorgeous, with it’s airy, loft-like feel and cosy mezzanine bedroom. Mathieu’s place is in the heart of bustling Belleville, next to the Metro station and located conveniently next door to a shiny Sephora. (Au revoir hard-earned euros…)
Belleville is a hub of activity on Friday afternoon with the market in full swing and bars are already full of people fuelling themselves for the day with an espresso or two. There is a thriving Asian community here and we pause to grab a traditional Vietnamese sandwich, or banh mi; a baguette filled with pork, salad, coriander and fresh chilli. Delicious, filling and less than 3 euros!
Belleville is arguably most famous for being the birth place of Édith Piaf; the tragic, yet iconic ‘little sparrow.’ On the main street, at 72 Rue de Belleville, a simple gold plaque sits above a nondescript doorway which reads; ‘On the steps of this house in December 1915, was born into poverty Edith Piaf, whose voice would later move the world.’ Well, that’s my rough translation anyway! She was buried in Belleville in the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery along with many other iconic figures, including greats such as Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, whose grave is covered in lipstick kisses, not to mention French literary giants Moliere and Marcel Proust. You can take a guided tour of the cemetery, which is an interesting, if slightly morbid, way to spend an afternoon.
Homages to Piaf can be found dotted around the neighbourhood, a large, melancholy mural of her is painted on the wall of ‘Aux Folies’ where she used to sing in the 1920s, This infamous bar is always busy, crammed with coffee drinkers in the morning and, in the evening, the terrace is packed full of people chatting, smoking and enjoying a 4 euro beer or a couple of 6 euro cocktails. No outrageous Champs-Élysées prices here and the punters are mainly locals.
Immediately next to Aux Folies is Rue Denoyez, better known as Graffiti Alley, where the walls, street lamps, even the litter bins are entirely covered in bright street art. Tucked away down this colourful side street is Barbouquin, a little cafe filled with a jumble of books which you can leaf through as you while away an hour so with a coffee or a glass of wine.
We can’t leave Belleville without trying what is tipped as the trendiest new patisserie in Paris. Yann Couvreur is a celebrated pastry chef, and at his bright new bakery you can enjoy a 9 euro breakfast of coffee, fruit juice and something delicious like a Breton Kouign Amann or a Pistachio Chocolat Roule. This patisserie is famous for its classic ‘millefeuille’ which is whipped up fresh in front of you. Only 50 of these delicious French clsssics are made daily between 12 and 6, and its first come first served. At 10 euros its an expensive treat but one worth splashing out for, and this place gets top marks for decor and pretty packaging.
So if you’ve already seen the picture-perfect side to Paris and are looking for a new neighbourhood to explore, follow in Piaf’s footsteps and head to Belleville to spend a day like a true Parisian.
Ski seasons are for 19 year old stoners, or rich, bored daddy’s girls. Ski seasons are for young, stupid people who don’t mind working ridiculously long hours doing such exciting things as scrubbing toilets and baking bland sponge cakes, or ferrying whiny families to and from Geneva airport, or serving endless shots of Jäger every night till 4am and never getting a night off to actually have a drink yourself, let alone a day off to actually ski. Ski seasons are not for 26 year olds who should be, in my mother’s words, ‘at least thinking about actually settling down and staying in one place for more than a month’.
I’ve asked myself what I’m doing here again (after a 3 year ski season hiatus) a few times. Such as when Bring your Sisters are playing yet another rendition of Sit Down and I’m being forced onto the floor, sitting in a nice pool of jäger and beer and god knows what else, worrying about my bright, new salopettes getting stained. Or when a flatmate mistakes a bedroom for the toilet and decides, in his inebrious state, to whip down his trousers and piss all over the bed. While someone is asleep in it. Or when I’m having to touch a whiny customers fat, sweaty feet when they’ve come to change their ski boots for the fifth time. It’s not my fault ski boots are not designed for cankles you bloody buffalo.
But still, I have come back to La Tania, a little known gem of a ski resort wedged conveniently between Courchevel (playground for uber-rich, fur adorned Russians) and Meribel (a slightly less snooty seasonnaire favourite.) And why not? I reason with myself. I may have reached the wrong side of 25 but I can still launch my creaky bones down a mountain, feet strapped to a plank of wood, and live to tell the tale. And even the scummiest of seasonnaire jobs beats a 9-5 in dreary old England. Who else can say they get to go snowboarding on their lunch break? That they get to spend 5 months living and working in the French Alps, surely one of the most picturesque places on earth?
I decide I am still just about young enough to attempt pulling off the signature seasonnaire style, i.e. dressing like a twat. This season I’ve finally ditched my faded old ski jacket and gone full steeze. Oversized DC hoody, neon saloppettes, enormous, frameless goggles and a helmet covered in stickers for brands I’ve never heard of. I look like a scruffy park rat. Success. (Truthfully the only time I’ve ever ventured into the park my pathetic attempt to slide over a box almost resulted in a cracked rib. Thankfully it doesn’t matter if your park skills are non existent, as long as you look the part. Keep things baggy and don’t wash your hoody all season to get that authentic stained look. Leave the skin tight, black onesies and fluffy hoods to the Russians and the jeans and sunglasses to the Parisians. And whatever you do, DO NOT purchase a pair of moon boots. (I don’t care how nice and shiny they look in the shop window. Moon boots are seasonnaire suicide.)
Of course ski seasons aren’t all about skiing, drinking and dressing like a tit. The worst part of working a ski season is just that: the work. Most seasonnaire jobs are designed to suck the life out of you and you will most likely have an evil boss who forces you to work hellishly long hours for a crappy wage and live in expensive but shit staff accommodation and still expect you to be as cheery as a cherry. After all you get to snowboard every day! What are you complaining about?
Work options in ski resorts are pretty limited and terribly paid, unless you speak parfait French or Daddy owns a 5*hotel. The old seasonnaire favourite is chalet hosting, a fancy way of saying general dogsbody. You need to possess enough kitchen skills to churn out a repetitive breakfast and dinner menu 6 days a week (mainly dry chicken and inedible lemon drizzle) and have mastered the art of using a toilet brush. There are other work options if hosting doesn’t appeal. With consuming copious amounts of alcohol being the seasonnaire’s second favourite sport after skiing, bar work is plentiful. But be aware that while all your mates are downing pints of mutzig in quick succession, you will be stuck behind the bar watching everyone else have fun. By the time you’re finished and ready to party, it’s 4am and your housemates are already snoring into a puddle of vomit on the carpet. Or of course, you can be a transfer driver and spend your days ferrying punters to and from various airports while all your mates are out skiing. (It is a known fact that transfer drivers are the most boring people in resort.)
All things considered, I felt pretty smug with my job as a ski tech in a rental shop . ‘You must be a ski expert!’ seasonnaires declare, wonderingly, when I tell them about the cushty job I have landed. ‘You must get to try out all the latest skis and play with shiny new gear all day.’ The downtrodden chalet hosts slink in to the shop with offerings of burnt brownie in the hopes of getting a decent pair of staff skis for the season. The reality is I can still barely tell a race ski from a twin tip and so am usually stuck behind the till dealing with all the whiny assholes who wanted blue skis instead of green, or worse, stuck in the boot section fondling all kinds of stinky feet.
Honestly though, the job isn’t so bad, considering the other undesirable options around. And apart from the holiday weekends when the whole world and his dog descend upon the ski resort, it’s pretty easygoing. The main problem is the punters. Why are people who go on ski holidays such assholes? I never went on ski holidays as a kid, a) because we couldn’t afford it and b) because my Mum is both terrified of skiing and uninterested in any holiday that involves any sport other than sunbathing. We are just not the ‘ski holiday’ type. There are several types of people who go on ski holidays, and at one point or another each type has come into the shop:
Type 1: ‘Rich but tight’ families with little darlings (aka snotty brats) who expect top of the range, brand new gear while refusing to fork out for anything above the cheapest, crappiest range of skis.
Type 2: The ‘expert’ skiers ‘Ive mastered a green, now set my dins to 12 ski slave’. Cue broken leg.
Type 3: Annoying snowboarders, ‘is this board good for jibbing?’ ‘I want a reverse camber, rocker, banana…’ ‘I like my bindings set this way, not a centimetre out.’ Just take the shitty board we give you and go leaf down the mountain you asshole.
Type 4. The misogynists, ‘is there anyone here who could take a look at my skis?’ ‘Yep, right here’ Cue arched brows and you can hear them thinking, ‘sorry, what I meant to say was is there a MAN here’ Grit teeth and smile.
5. The brats. ‘My boots are too smaaaall.’ ‘The lady is hurting meeee’. Mummyyyyy.’ End up in boots 6 sizes too big and will have painful blisters for rest of holiday. Good.
6. The clueless know it alls: I want an all mountain race ski that’s great on powder and in the park. Rocker nose, cambered tip, radius of 20. Well sir, I want unicorns to exist but sadly they just don’t. Stop talking shit and take the BBRs.
But having to deal with all the above is a necessary evil that comes with living in a ski resort and being able to snowboard every day, something that I have to frequently remind myself so I don’t go crazy. And it is worth it. Because there is nothing better than waking up early to catch the first lift on a sunny Saturday morning and carving lines of fresh, untouched powder while everyone else is lugging their suitcases off to the airport. (At least that’s what I’m told, too many jäger shots usually meant I couldn’t drag my ass out of bed until at least 10 am most days.)
When you have so much time to ski you become spoilt, if the sky isn’t a perfect blue you can wait til tomorrow. Why not? You think, you’ve got all season. Unlike the sorry souls who spend an arm and a leg only to be met with a miserable week of thick fog and drizzle but force themselves and their army of brats up the mountain nevertheless. Halfway through the week they’re usually so fed up they spend the rest of the time drinking the chalet dry and complaining about everything. Hard to enjoy a days skiing with the sprogs when you’re absolutely soaked and can’t see your own hand in front of you, never mind the side of the piste and possible sheer 50ft drop on the other side. And of course, working in resort means you get to know the mountain better than any punter. You scoff at the clusters of people zig-zagging their way down the piste, oblivious to the shortcuts and sneaky passages through the trees where the snow is waist high and fluffy and trees and boulders serve as obstacles. A veritable skier’s Narnia.
It’s all too easy to get sucked into the seasonnaire lifestyle, breezing through the summer months working in dodgy bars or restaurants on the beach and topping up your tan on your days off, counting down the days til winter and the lifts opening again. It’s the first question you’ll be asked when you touch down in your ski resort. ‘How many seasons have you done?’ Just watch the glint in their eyes when you tell them, wide eyed and innocent,that this is in fact your first season. ‘You’re going to love it’ they tell you, ‘once you start doing seasons you never want to stop. It’s addictive.’ You can hear them bragging in the bars, ‘this is my 4th season, I’m chalet manager now’, ‘I’ve done 7 seasons and I’m not stopping til I’ve done 10.’ There is a point though, where it is time to stop. Don’t be the old guy that’s still doing seasons at 60, the guy who’s still getting way too drunk at apres and constantly telling anyone who’ll listen that he’s living the dream, more than a hint of desperation in his eyes. No, if you’re going to be a perpetual seasonnaire you have to do it the right way and that means becoming a rich chalet wanker. Task 1: Get rich. Task 2: Purchase your very own chalet in the alps and summer home in Nice. Task 3: Spend time flitting between your luxury villa and your disgustingly enormous chalet. Hire a chalet slave to scrub your toilets for you and cook your own meals. You can still get horrendously drunk at apres because you don’t have to stagger home to a dingy, crusty hovel of an apartment that you share with 6 other people. Instead, you can finish off the night in your hot tub, or pass out on the bear rug in front of your own fireplace.
With the possible exception of an imminent lottery win in the works, doing a season the hard way will have to do for now. But of course, I’m not coming back next year. As I said, this was the last one. Most definitely. Almost certainly. Possibly. Well, we’ll see…
After 5 months in New Zealand and 3 weeks in Australia I was back at home, and after a week the depression kicked in. A lot of things became clear to me. Travel does that to you, changes you without you realising, so that when you come home you feel unsettled and unsatisfied and you dont Continue reading “The Longest Summer”→