Alpbach, 14th January
There is no-one in the world less co-ordinated than I am. If there were a prize for most inelegant person in a resort, I would win by a canter.
Complete lack of co-ordination and an undeveloped sense of balance do not lend themselves to winter sports, which was why three years ago lying on the floor on a Monday morning, I took off my skis, picked up the poles that were in the ground at acute angles, gathered the lot under one arm and began to trudge towards the lift station.
It would go down on my (long) list of failures.
“Where are you going?” called Marianne, the instructor.
“Back down the mountain, I’m not really cut out for this and I hurt from falling so many times”.
“Nein, nein, nein. You will come with me!”
Confused, I followed her to where a small cluster of people stood propping each other up.
“You will be with Erich”, she said.
Erich did not look like an instructor. They wore smart red suits and were young and athletic with sparkling sets of white teeth. Erich wore the red trousers of the ski school, but on top he wore a baggy old brown sweater and a very worn brown woollen bobble hat.
Erich became a good friend, insofar as that was possible with my complete lack of German and his functional English. He shouted at us, made fun of us, ridiculed us, picked us out of the snow constantly; held his head in his hands, winced, laughed, grimaced, smiled. He told us that he had never, ever met people who were so useless. Erich was the best teacher I have met.
Erich was 70, he had learned to ski when he was 15 – very late for an Alpine born Austrian – and had spent his working life as a mechanic and as a truck driver. He had begun teaching skiing when he retired. He was called in to help out when the school was busy and worked with the no-hopers. He still did mechanic work and kept a few cattle.
Eating one lunch one day, I asked Erich what he did to keep so fit. (The instructors were all expected to be at very high levels of physical fitness).
“I play music”.
Left slightly confused by this answer, feeling he perhaps had not understood my question, I said, “What sort of music do you play?”
“I play in the town band. I play the tuba. Every week I go for a lesson and my teacher does this”.
He took his knife and tapped it on the table at a speed which was maybe 120 beats per minute.
“If I have not done my exercises, if I have not practiced. My teacher knows. I cannot keep up”.
A good day in the mountains always ends with thoughts of Erich, if it had not been for his tuba-playing I would never have learned to ski.