Alcohol, Altitude And The Middle Class: I’m out of my depth.

by Martin Nolan

Growing up on a council estate in England, there wasn’t much opportunity to strap two pieces of wood to my feet and slide down a hill. There were plenty of hills but not too many skis. In fact, there was only one person on the estate who had gone skiing. He was the guy who had fancy tea bags and premium range biscuits. In England council estates are areas where low income families reside (like trailer parks but with bricks, mortar and no tornados). They are for working class families, who work all year to save enough money to go on a package Holiday to Spain. We didn’t indulge in expensive tea and we certainly didn’t indulge in skiing. If it was Victorian times, we would have been the good natured chimney sweeps and everyone knows chimney sweeps don’t ski. 

Council Estate, England. Photo file via Wikipedia Commons.

In the intermitting years, I had become wealthier and skiing had become more affordable. Although only ever so slightly. So it wasn’t until my early twenties that I was able to go skiing. It was an attempt to expand my horizons beyond my football loving, gambling, sun seeking past that lead me to book a trip to St Anton with Crystal Ski. I pretty much chose the resort because the people there seemed to like a drink. So in hindsight, it may not have been that big a departure from my usual ways.  A leopard can’t change his spots and all that.  So I packed my bag and went to the capital of Après Ski.

Travelling by myself did not come naturally. I’m basically a socially inept, mumbling wreck of a human being. Mumbling became a way to avoid my ill timed comments from being heard. My jaw was starting to ache from constantly having to dislodge my foot from it. Since my filter wasn’t capable of stopping the words passing through my teeth, I could at least say it in a way that they wouldn’t properly hear it. People being offended were replaced by nods of politeness. No one ever wants to admit they weren’t listening properly.

So booking a shared chalet may not have been the greatest of ideas. Strangers, small talk, me. A potential melting pot of problems. “Have a few drinks... you’re really charming when you loosen up”. That was my well thought through plan. Use social lubricant to slide your way into the group.

So I arrive in this large sprawling town-like resort. I had dressed for winter but it was surprisingly sunny. Not warm, just sunny. I had read some interesting facts about the resort. It has a nickname of St Manton. Apparently men outnumber women by 8 to 1. That was fine by me because the worst thing that could happen if I insulted a man was to get punched. Women slap you, then cry and then their boyfriend punches you. That is known as the triple whammy.  

St. Anton Ski Resort. Photo by Finnur Malmquist via Flickr common license.

I arrived at the chalet and met two of the other guests. A Lance and an Orlando. Where I grew up Orlando was where Mickey Mouse lived, not a name. I knew I would have to struggle to find common ground with these people. I tentatively tested the waters with what I thought was a suitably manly sentence. “Some of the totty out there” ( Totty is generally a middle class word for women. One I’ve never used before or since).  Although people were confused about whether it was a question or a statement, I could also see that they were intrigued by my voice, which had somehow wandered into a parody of Downton Abbey. They must have thought I was mocking them. The only way to avoid embarrassment was to keep the accent up for the whole week. They politely answered that they didn’t think the standard of women was too great. They looked fine from what I had seen. Tall, leggy and wrapped in Gucci. I mean girls were wrapped in Gucci on the estate but I’m not sure it was real. Unless Gucci had decided to target local markets as a channel of distribution.  

They were polite enough to invite me out for the night. These boys were raised well. They did warn me, though, that drinking on a mountain is a bit different. Silly boys. The one thing working class people know how to do is drink. I would impress them with the number of jars I could throw back and still maintain my silly accent.

Bravado is man’s biggest downfall. Altitude thins your blood. Thin blood means that alcohol hits you quicker. I had kicked back three beers before they had finished theirs. In fact, before any of the other returnees had even started to drink.  The accent started to slip. No matter, because in my head I was in that charming drunk zone. The reality was I’d entered the slurring drunk zone half a beer ago. Some choice anecdotes emerged. Suddenly these people were enlightened by a recital of every socially inept encounter I’d ever had in my life. So much so that they could probably have written a deprecating biography about me. The girls had to deal with questions like “Is that what you are wearing out?” A genuine question but in the state I was in it sounded like an insult. Alcohol is mumbling’s kryptonite. If only I had mumbled it.

The night went from bad to worse. I was in bed before nine trying to combat a spinning room. The next morning I awoke to a frosty reception. No, not from the snow outside but from the other inhabitants of the chalet. I apologized. They were polite enough but I got the sense that they saw me as an outsider. They were right. I was. There was no hiding it.

We were obviously from different worlds. Skiing is great but at that stage in my life there was very little chance of me being able to socially navigate the little differences between classes. I hoped that being in a lively young crowd might mask some of them. In fact, it highlighted them and many more.

Ah well, I may just have to find another destination to be shunned from. I hear Canada is nice. Pretty friendly bunch, aren’t they?


Growing up on a council estate in England, Martin Nolan always been fascinated by all things travel and travel related. He writes a blog called The Travel Ramble and has visited a wide variety of destinations from India to France. You can follow Martin on Twitter @martinnolan7 

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