A ski adventure in the Tyrol - part I

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February 19th 2011
Published: March 7th 2011
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“Бесплатный сыр бывает только в мышеловке.” - “Cheese is only free in a mouse trap”.
- Old Russian saying

Keeping this saying in mind I read and re-read the rep's manual for my coming trip to Austria, my bible for the next nine days which will hopefully have the answers to all questions beginning with “what”, “how”, “where”, “who”, “when” and many others which I am expecting to have. No matter how many times I read these notes however, I don't seem to acquire much more of an idea regarding what my job will actually entail – it's as if the words that I see on paper, together with everything I heard at the training course a few months ago, were turning into mush in my brain. Not particularly encouraging is also the fact that I keep finding new sheets of paper in the manual, which seems to be endless! True, it does seem to have an answer for any eventuality, but to commit it all to memory is a different matter, and simply finding the relevant information is not the smallest of challenges. As I get ready for the big day I wonder what my employers were thinking trusting me with a responsibility of such proportions.

Day 1

The big day itself doesn't fail to arrive before I'm ready for it and as I get on a train from Oxford to London I can't help thinking that staying in London overnight would have made a lot more sense. So much for checking in advance where Folkestone, my pick up point, is actually situated! As I embark on the first leg of my many-legged octopus of a journey though, I get a very encouraging and amusing message from Pete, a rep as new to this as I am: “Do you feel as unprepared as me?” - Yes! I'm taking the challenge one step at a time though, and the first step is actually making it onto the coach. Sandling, the station closest to the pick up stop, is only an hour away from London, but with the train from Oxford and the journey from Paddington to St. Pancras International it will take me all of 3 hours to get there. Having left Oxford at 13.30, I have high hopes that I will make it there on time – as late as 17.50.

I make it safely to London, and from London to Ashford International, which is a mere two five-minute stops away from Sandling - almost the end of my train journey. At the station, I meet another rep and relax completely – he is a weathered veteran, this trip being far from his first season with the company, and we are going to the same pick up station, so we agree to share a taxi there, saving us both a grand total of 4 pounds – bargain! The train makes its first stop and the second one is announced...and at this point we start to realise that something is not quite right – the second stop, despite our expectations, doesn't seem to be the one we are aiming for. It dawns on us pretty quickly, and a hurried check of the rail map confirms it – we are in fact not on the correct train line at all. Ashford International is a danger zone for those who have not travelled by train in this area before – a single train splits here, part of it going to Folkestone, the other part however travelling in a rather different direction to Canterbury. Having missed the signs for this we simply got into the wrong carriage of the right train, a mistake which, as we soon find out, is not quite as easy to rectify as one might think. As the line splits into two there are no possible connections between the different branches, so to get over to the Folkestone line leading to Sandling we would have to go back to Ashford and take the right train this time. But of course all services back to Ashford run at hourly intervals, the next one being in about 50 minutes time. From then on the frequency of services to Folkestone is indeterminable, what is clear however is that we will be late. It is five o'clock, and my pick up time is in 50 minutes. Sam, the other rep, is due to meet his group in 20 minutes time, having travelled out on a rather tight schedule. He quickly realises the only way he will be able to make it is by taxi, but the efficiency of this solution is just as questionable – on top of costing £29 for the pleasure it will take a minimum of half an hour to arrive to the middle-of-nowhere station where we have found ourselves, and just as long to actually take us to our pick up point. With a bit of luck I will still make it with no major delays, but for Sam the situation is looking a little more grim as he reports to the Operations Office and to his party leader – an unnecessary issue at the very start of the journey, but a trap that we didn't fall into alone – two other gentlemen are stuck with us in exactly the same situation. Finally, after much pleading with the taxi company and nervous jumping about in the cold, our saviour finally arrives and the slightly amused driver reassures us that he knows exactly where he is going and will get us there in just a tick, and we are finally on our way. It even looks like Sam will be able to get onto his coach with no harm done, whereas I arrive at the pick up point at 17.50 on the dot, which elevates my spirits, convincing me that with a little bit of luck I will be able to emerge unscathed from the tricky situations that this week may have in store for me. I do however make a mental note on the importance of forward planning and leaving oneself plenty of time with any travel arrangement as I board the coach, ready to meet my group and embark on the last, but also longest leg of my octopus-journey.

It's always strange to be the only newcomer in an established group of people who all know each other really well, not least a group as tightly knit as that from Christ the King's College, a total of 33 young men and women from Year 10 and four accompanying adults, one of whom I quickly learn is the mother of the party leader, whose other daughter has also come on the trip. But it's not just their family connection that makes the group feel more like a large family than a school group – I get that impression of closeness and familiarity from everyone, and this feeling stays with me throughout the week, a sense of mutual support, understanding, patience and an unexpected level of discipline amongst the students, which only occurs when parents or guardians manage to strike that very important and difficult balance between friendship and strict control, establishing clear behavioural boundaries without affecting the enjoyment of the overall experience. Seeing such professionalism in the pastoral duties of the teachers instantly puts me at easy, if making me slightly apprehensive that I will experience some difficulties building rapport and earning their trust. But this only fuels my desire to prove my competence in ensuring the smooth running of the week. Yet on the first trip with the company for both me and my group, a small degree of apprehension on both parts is unavoidable.

Day 2

Apart from being my first experience as a ski rep, this is also the first time I'm spending quite so many hours in one vehicle – 18 and half hours according to plan and, as it turned out, a rather longer time than that in the end, for apart from being delayed at the Eurotunnel and getting stuck in a number of traffic jams full of impatient half-term holiday-makers, we also discovered rather later than would have been ideal that our drivers have, through no direct fault of theirs, received rather misleading and incomplete directions to resort and have subsequently planned their route in a less than efficient way, taking us all the way around the West side of Innsbruck instead of a direct route on the city's East side. The issue is resolved when I provide them with the notes from my information pack with clear and detailed directions to resort – essential information which is present in both my pack and the pack received by Louise, the party leader, and is missing only from the paperwork received by the drivers, the only members of the trip for whom this information was in fact essential. The combined effect of these delays on the road shift our arrival time to half past four in the afternoon instead of the expected 12.30, leaving me with the tricky organisation of a ski fit for a party of 38 people before the long awaited evening meal and shower. Thankfully, the party leader is in agreement with me about the importance of getting the ski fit out of the way as soon as possible and, surprisingly, none of the children make a fuss about this despite my expectations. I recognise this as a great sign – if they are this well-behaved and obedient after nearly 30 hours on a coach then behaviour should be one less issue to worry about.

But not only the group are most understanding and supportive – as we arrive in resort I am surrounded with obliging and helpful service providers. The hotelier is happy to prepare the evening meal for whenever we want it and quickly explains to me the simple rules of the hotel, where we are to be the only guests – a great advantage with a group of noisy 15 year olds! The ski hire shop are happy to wait for us until almost 6 pm to do the ski fit, which is arranged in an extremely organised and orderly fashion (good old German speaking world!), and by 7 o'clock we are all sitting at the tables in the dining hall ready for our first meal in resort. And, unbelievably, the arrival day has gone much more smoothly than was reasonable to expect given the circumstances. What's more, there is absolutely no need for me to organise any entertainment for the evening – after the welcome talk, which is carried out more by the party leader than by me despite my duties, everyone is ready to depart to their rooms, unpack and chill before the big week ahead. All that remains for me to do is to sit down with the team of teachers and drivers and discuss the week ahead, but even this conversation is kept short and simple – everyone is simply too tired to deal with any important organisational matters and by 10 o'clock we are all in our rooms ready to pass out from the exhaustion.


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