Schuss ! A culture clash on skis.
Oktoberfest accompanied my Munich arrival. After a Paulaner beer, tablemates suggested I try skiing. I’d taken a two-class course with one on-slope session in Maryland. The second class had been cancelled by rain. We’d herringboned our way up a 5 foot rise, graduating to a rope tow rising 20 vertical feet. I fearfully descended that novice incline several times and uncontrollably slammed into hay bales at the bottom. I could ski ! Now, after another mug of Paulaner, I felt ready for the Alps. Big mistake. In November, I purchased Saturday ski lessons in Munich. My ability was probed. Was I an “Anfänger” (beginner)? No. I wasn’t…..(see above). Bigger mistake. The clerk asked, “Where are you in the levels of A to F?” I thought, “Don’t be foolish. State the lowest grade.” “F”, said I. Biggest mistake.
The Alps beckoned as Saturday came. I arrived pre-dawn at the downtown Marienplatz’s U-Bahn station lugging cumbersome, rented paraphernalia. Fellow course-takers sleepily trundled onto nearby busses. Daybreak heralded our Garmisch/Partenkirchen arrival by illuminating the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest point. The Zugspitze rises to a height of 10,000 feet……straight up. I embarrassingly recalled the “baby” Maryland slope. I gulped, but didn’t yet grasp my folly.
Abilities dictate class level. Appropriate placement follows skill demonstration, but not Class F. Class F skiers possess excellent ability by experience and training. My belief that “F” reflected the lowest ability persisted. I assumed I was with novices, who had nothing to demonstrate. Concern grew as my class assembled at the three-seat lift. Everyone exuded confidence. All mounted the lift, adroitly handling gear. I un-athletically plopped onto the lift, equipment rattling. I sat alone, worried. The lift scaled 60 foot tall trees. I was such a novice that I didn’t realize a pull-down safety bar was within arm’s reach directly above me.
After a white-knuckle ride, the summit was reached. Frantically clasping my skis, I somehow managed to exit the lift. The peak was icily treacherous. It had rained overnight, and thence froze. My class reassembled. The instructor, an Austrian named Franz, announced we’d regroup near a fir tree perhaps 100 yards downhill. I squinted. From my perspective, it appeared 2 inches tall. The class adroitly buckled boots, effortlessly clipped on skis and, one by one, schussed downhill. I struggled clumsily with boots, skis, poles, gloves, and goggles. I needed a graceful exit.
Graceful, my exit wasn’t. My class assembled at trailside near the tree. They peered uphill and impatiently beckoned. My courage was fleeing. I accelerated down the mountain violating all techniques of “snow plow”. Sporadic glimpses of my fir tree goal were necessary, while I focused on remaining uninjured. As I sped closer, panicky glances watched the fir increase from its original 2 inch size…..to 1 foot, then rapidly 5, 10, 15, 30 feet tall. The neatly queued class became a blur. I had a hay bale flashback. I couldn’t stop. Braking had been the intended topic of my second, rain-cancelled lesson. I knocked my entire class asunder. As I slammed into their neatly formed queue, each knocked over the next person, domino fashion.
I ended up on an icy snow bank miraculously uninjured. Luckily, neither was anyone else injured. Classmates were strewn all over. German epithets were hurled at me. Franz skied over and diplomatically admonished me, “You are improperly assigned.” I profusely apologized. He’d assign me to the Beginner’s class at lunchtime. He suggested I ride the lift down. I assured him I’d carefully make my way down. I did. It took the rest of the day ! In spite of my misadventure, I enjoyed myself. Next weekend, I joined the Beginners.
Oddly, the humiliating experience was my first culture shock encounter. America uses a grading system that values “A” higher than “F”. That doesn’t mean all other societies follow suit. Everyone living outside one’s native country must learn to cope with such simple realities. Many such instances would occur in many different forms in the future. I learned a lot. I even learned to ski. However, my first combined encounter with culture and skiing definitely received an “F” grade.
Copyright © 2007 by Frank Koerner