Here I am, in the Tyrolean Alps. On a train right now actually, but that’s only because I haven’t had time to write during the last week. Well, that’s false; I had plenty of time. If I could trade an hour of time for an hour’s worth of energy, I may have done it a couple of times. (Not too many though.)
I was skiing in St. Anton am Arlberg. It is something else. I’d say the best place I’ve ever skied, but it wasn’t, entirely; it was better in a lot of ways than my #2 (Vail, I guess) but when you’re comparing your mountain to Vail, it’s understandable if you come up short in some respects. I’ll just say they’re different. This is clearly true, and it doesn’t tell you anything. One of the best pieces of advice I got in the last year (from Ram, I think?) was that two things can be different without one being better than another.
Longwinded introductions aside, here’s a (longwinded) summary of my adventures:
1. The mountain itself must come first. Because, while I am a traveler second, I think I’m still a skier first. (this is subject to change.) Here’s a trail map. That may not tell you anything. I think it’s bigger than anywhere else I’ve ever skied, mainly because St. Anton itself includes the main mountains (Valluga, Galzig, Gampen, and Kapall), another big mountain across the street called the Rendl, and a little area called Stuben. Using the same ticket, you can also ski Lech and Zurs. There’s a place on the map called Sonnenkopf, too, and also a little area in Pettneu. A lot of these are accessible by bus, but if you are awesome and/or you have good snow, you can ski from one to the other. For example, if you’re about 3 badass levels above me (myself being a sort-of-mediocre ass), you can ski off the top of the Valluga (which requires 3 gondolas to get to) down to Zurs, then ski the “white ring” around Zurs and Lech.
See, in the Alps, there aren’t so many trees. It’s all above the treeline, so it’s a lot more open. If you look at a map of a ski area in the states, you see certain trails, which are naturally created by trees. (and/or logging.) In Europe, they don’t have this natural restriction, so they could just let you take a lift up and ski wherever you want. But then a lot of people would fall on rocks (it’s so craggy!) or get avalanched, so they create “pistes” by putting up signposts on both sides of a “trail” where they want you to ski. These are groomed, covered by ski patrol, and protected against avalanches. They also make “ski routes” which have just one line of posts. They say “ski near the posts.” Ski routes are avalanche-protected, but not groomed or patrolled. And then you can go backcountry if you want, like in the US, but you’re on your own, and if you get avalanched, they won’t really help you out. Anyway, this makes for a less interesting skiing experience than the US, because there are fewer ski routes, and fewer still good ski routes. Maybe this was because of:
2. The weather. You know, worst in 50 years, etc. That’s life! There hasn’t been any snow here since early January, so Wednesday was pretty okay. Nicely groomed, kinda thin and icy in some spots. Thursday was okay too. It started raining in the afternoon. On Friday the newspapers read “ORKAN UBER OSTERREICH” (“Hurricane over Austria”). 90kph winds closed almost the entire mountain. I didn’t even ski!
Let me tell you something about rain. You’d think rain would help snow. You know, they’re on the same team! Come on guys, work together! But it turns out, rain melts snow. Sneaky backstabber. So a driving rain is actually terrible. Plus, all your ski gear is just “water resistant” (“waterproof” stuff doesn’t breathe well enough for skiers) so you get soaked. Skiing in the rain is like golf in a desert. It’s like poker where the only cards are deuces, fours, and jacks. It’s like Trivial Pursuit with some jackass who memorizes all the cards.
On Saturday, however, I found that rain at lower altitudes can make snow at higher altitudes, so there was some fresh stuff. Nice day. “Schindler Kar” on Valluga and “Riffel” at the Rendl were gorgeous.
(and that’s another thing: I realized I can’t explain to non-skiers why it’s so fun to ski on powder, or on bumps, or anything else. I could say skiing powder is like floating, but so is sleeping on a waterbed, and that just sucks and gives you back problems. And skiing bumps is pretty much all about looking good, which sounds so superficial, but it really is, and that doesn’t make any goddamn sense until you’ve done it.)
Okay, so my experience at St. Anton was a little below Vail and probably on par with Copper or Loveland in terms of actual skiing. Given good snow, St. Anton would probably win hands down. But here’s why I liked it otherwise:
3. Austrian skiing culture. It is different! The guidebooks will tell you this too. I’ll split it up by resort, because it’s not fair to say “American skiing is like this or Austrian skiing is like that” because of course it all varies. Skiing is about:
Arapahoe Basin/Vail (back bowls)/Breckenridge (top of mountain)- skiing well on awesome terrain
Loveland/Zurs- being a local and finding the new snow while everyone else goes to the big resorts
Breckenridge/Keystone/Killington- taking the family, standing in line a lot, wondering why the snow isn’t better
Vail (front side)/Aspen/Lech- looking good in your fur coat and/or Dior ski suit.
St. Anton- great skiing and having a good time. It’s a little different than anything I’ve skied in the US. There’s a lot of emphasis on apres-ski, the lunches are better, and the nightlife is more active. Oh yeah, and I can go to the bars, because they have reasonable drinking ages.
Apres ski was a pretty new concept to me. The lifts close at 4 or so (while the sun’s going down anyway) and you’re there, so why not hang out and drink? It’s a little crazy; I apres-skied at Mooserwirt (a big and popular bar) a couple of days, and it’s a big party! Around 3:30, they dim the lights inside, pump up the volume inside and out, start serving a whole lot of beers, and play this shitty, shitty Eurotrash music. (i.e. AC/DC, Bon Jovi, remixes of stuff like “Everybody Dance Now”, German and Austrian carnival songs, and some German song that sounded like “Hey! Beware the ice-bear, say! Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh!” over and over again) And everyone drinks a few of these beers, sings along, dances in their ski boots, and semi-drunkenly revels until they get tired or until the bar closes at 9. Then they ski down a couple hundred feet, maybe take a shower or get changed, and keep going in the bars until late! I don’t get it! How do they do this? I couldn’t stay up past 11. Of course, I’m kinda in the A.Basin/Vail back bowls crowd above: for me, skiing is all about the skiing. This was fun, though, and it’d be more fun to come back with some friends.
Speaking of which, 4. The people you meet. I was a little nervous about traveling alone. What do you do, if you have no friends to hang out with? The answer was provided for me by Drew, a guy I met on Wednesday: Just get used to traveling alone. If you travel with friends, they are your friends; if you travel alone, everyone’s your friend.
This guy was like one possible version of me in a few years. Mid-20’s, mechanical engineer at Dell in Austin. Making a bunch of money, so he’s traveling all over to snowboard. A couple weeks after this trip, he was going to Jackson Hole. Living the dream (or at least my dream). But still free-spirited to realize that he could drop it all if he wanted. He said he loves his job, and if he didn’t, he’d quit; sell his Corvette and big-screen TV. Move in with a friend, if need be. He was very friendly and outgoing, something I have to work on, but his existence kinda gives me hope: I can have great friends and a fulfilling job and still ski, travel, and eat nice food. Maybe he’s less picky about his food, and that’s why he bought an expensive car. Whatever. We skied together at St. Anton and Zurs on Thursday, until it got rainy and I lost him somewhere. Never saw him again. Hope he’s all right. That’s the life of a “single-serving friend” (to use an overly negative phrase from the disgruntled narrator in Fight Club).
Friday I hung out at Mooserwirt with a few Berliners (people, not donuts). Good-spirited bunch. They introduced me to the difference between asking for a “bier” (for which you get a pilsener) and “weissbier” (for which you get a wheat beer). Also told me that Maastricht is where the Germans go to buy drugs, so “don’t do too much drugs. Do some, but not too much.” Meant to meet them at Mooserwirt again on Saturday, but instead, I ended up meeting a couple of Danes from the place I was staying. They were very nice too. We discussed football (go Copenhagen!) and Formula One racing, and why the Japanese can’t build a good racecar: they have no creativity. If you tell them “this is what we want” they will build it, but if you say “what can you do?” they can’t decide. Also why the Microsoft-owned but Toshiba-made Zune is such a flop.
And then there are all the other people I sat next to in a bar or cafe, like Simon, the Israeli from Haifa who claims it’s less dangerous than NYC. Or Josef, the guy who owns a snack stand; I bought a Currywurst from him the first day, then ran into him at a bar, and he convinced me to go back and buy one the next day too. A funny guy; doesn’t speak English or German very well, but he’s friendly. He says “currywurst” with a fantastic accent. It’s up there with Viktor Adamchik saying “greedy algorithm.” Then there’s Teja Thakur, the Indian from near the Himalayas (damn, I forget his village’s name). He’s in St. Anton for 3 months, training to snowboard in the 2010 Olympics- watch for him! (or he could have been putting me on. if so, I sure got served.)
It’s kinda amazing, and also what makes a trip like this (or any trip) so great: the people. When you go on a trip like this, you resign yourself to a lot of really awkward times, when you’re the only guy sitting at the bar, quietly sipping your beer, or when the only guy sitting next to you is a strange old guy who’s offering you a shot of something that he can’t name, from a bottle with a skull and crossbones hand-drawn on it. (Jesus H.M.S. Christ, I drank some! After he did, of course. But still- what the shit?! It’s a wonder I’m still alive!)
5. The Food. Always important for a food enthusiast like myself. Really, I didn’t have a lot of it, because I was focusing on meeting people, not on the food. But you run into new treats, like it or not. Like the aforementioned Currywurst. This is just a sausage, covered in curry powder and drenched in ketchup. And it’s really good! I’m a fan. Breakfasts were tasty (and included in the room price): bread, an assortment of meats and cheese slices, some muesli cereal, and strange things to spread on bread: jams of course, but also cheeses and pates. Like kalbsleber (calf’s liver, right?), which was tasty. And once a long time ago, I entered all the things that I usually eat into some website, and it analyzed my eating habits and told me that I was missing only a few key nutrients, and that my diet is sorely lacking in calf’s liver. Ta da, solution!
Speaking of calf’s liver, I almost met my food-adventurousness match with a Bauernteller (“worker’s platter”) at a local stube. (not sure how “stube” translates, but a lot of restaurants were “stube"s.) It included leberwurst and blutwurst, both of which were sort of soft sausages. As in, when you cut it, the sausage gooshes out a little bit. I was not ready for that. Also, blutwurst is “blood sausage,” and the name alone weirds me out. But hey, mind over matter, charge on with furious gusto, and I’ll be eating a lot weirder stuff than that! They were both really not bad, although I’d have to have them a couple more times before I’d call them favorites.
A discussion of food would be incomplete without a discussion of:
6. Drinks! Again, it’s a different world. In America, if you drank with lunch and dinner, people would think you’re unusual. Here, it’s perfectly natural to have a beer with your meal. (and also apres ski!) It makes sense. You can drink beer at age 16. You grow up with it; it’s not this wild “forbidden fruit”. There’s no binge drinking; people know their limits. And the beer is much better! I am not so good at telling the difference between them yet, but I know that I like pilseners, and more than one weissbier fills me up and makes me feel not so good afterwards. I’ve had Kaiser (slogan: hast ein Kaiser, bist ein Kaiser- have a Kaiser, be a Kaiser!), Fohrenburger, Beck’s (from the bottle; apparently it’s Germany’s best-selling beer), Dinkel Acker, and something like Ergender. And I had a shot called a Flugel- it’s red vodka (sweeter; they add sloe berries or something? the brand was Eristoff and apparently it’s Dutch) and Red Bull, and it’s tasty.
7. Money and Housing are somewhat important. First, housing: I stayed at a place called the Pension Adlerhorst- a little bed-and-breakfast that I found online. It was about 4km from the city center, but there was a bus during the day, and at night it made for a nice walk. And it was deluxe! Nice room, nice breakfast (as I said before), friendly owners, and how much would you pay for all this? 36 Euro/night. You can’t get anything in the states for $36 (or even $45-50, or whatever EU$36 is) This place is hardly unique; the village is filled with them! And no chain hotels in sight. (well, one Best Western.) I love it. So that was cheap, lift tickets were cheap (EU$132 for 4 days!) but rentals were expensive (EU$37/day for skis and boots). Seriously, if you find a cheap flight and bring your skis, skiing in Europe can be cheaper than skiing in the Rockies.
The money, though, is tricky to get used to. Like the coins. EU$1 and EU$2 coins are bad for me. They feel like change, you know, so you don’t notice them. Until you realize you have $10 in change in your pocket. And the bills feel like funny money, which means I don’t feel bad about tossing them at everything. EU$4.40 for a beer? No problem, here’s a worthless-looking fiver, and keep the change!
8. Language issues could use another post. This is long enough as it is.
Keep posting lots! I’m thinking about going to Europe by myself this summer, so keep talking about it! :O)
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