Friday, 7 December 2012

Days like these

This time of year always makes me think of snow, and as the first flakes fall a feeling of incomparable levity and possibility comes with them. Seven years ago I quit my London job and headed off to the French Alps with my boyfriend and our snowboards. We ended up staying for two winters. I worked as a chalet chef and a shopgirl, he as a cleaner and snowboard guide. And I began writing. I've written about this transformative time before, last year in ELLE magazine, and on my blog, but I don't think I ever told you this... it started with poetry. 

No child is self-conscious about their scribbled verse and out in the French Alps I was playing, working too, but mostly playing. My days, as soon as I was free of the chalet kitchen or the shop, were spent sliding down slippery stuff, and, as my mum used to say when I was small, 'running around with my mouth open'. Out there I was trying to go fast, really fast, even faster. Jumping. Gathering snow to make bigger things to jump. For two winters I was all wet mittens and red cheeks, and this return to childish pleasures, this abandonment, sparked the kind of creative courage that children think nothing of. So I began with poetry, not caring if it was any good (it wasn't), just relishing the feeling of creation. I found a couple of these old scribbles the other day and I remember well the moments that led to them. The poems themselves are grim little things so fear not, I won't reproduce them here, but I'll tell you their essence because there's still something in them that I like. And the very fact that they exist, I like even more.

My favourite job as a chalet chef was taking out the rubbish after the night's service had ended. At around 10 o'clock I'd heft the bin bag down the stairs and out of the back door. The freezing night air would never fail to startle, like a clean, hard smack to both cheeks. The sound of the river that ran just beyond the chalet would be so much louder in the still night, a wild roar, too fast-running to ever freeze. The enormous cliffs that surrounded us glowered, and somewhere even further on there was the misty neon twinkle of nearby Avoriaz. The giant bins were at the very top of the driveway, so I'd walk up past the chalet carrying the rubbish. That first winter, 05-06, was a doozy, fresh snow nearly every day or so it seemed, and I always took pleasure in the trail of footprints I left behind me. As I dumped the rubbish in the bin I'd turn and look back at the chalet and its lights, see the shapes of guests moving inside, sometimes hear a snatch of music, and feel a wonderful separation from the peopled world. Just like the American naturalist John Muir said, 'going out, I found, was really going in'.  I did this every night for five months and somewhere in the middle I wrote a poem about it. I hadn't written a poem for ten years or more.

Another moment. On changeover day it was all hands on deck, with one batch of guests leaving and another arriving, all in all there were twenty-eight people switching places; rooms to be readied, meals to be made. Tasks were always accomplished with a sort of panic, one ear perpetually cocked for the sound of a transfer bus arriving in the driveway. I remember frantically vacuuming a bedroom once, and the hoover started stuttering and choking. I picked up a random ball of cotton (stray threads?) and some unrecognisable but quite substantial lint that the sucker couldn't manage. In haste, I shoved them in the pocket of my jeans, and carried on vacuuming. Later, as guests left and pressed a tip into my hand I smiled and pocketed this too. Much later, after I'd taken out the bins (& thought it'd make a nice, or bad, poem), and rolled into to a bar to wash the work away, I reached into that same pocket and drew out the note. It was stuck over with all of the bits the hoover couldn't manage. I brushed it off and swapped it for a beer. There was simplicity in the exchange and something else too (unidentified hairs?). However misguidedly, I thought this would also make a nice poem. It didn't, of course, but I still like the fact that something in me, the new me, the changing me, thought that it would. That the world wasn't rushing on so fast, and I with it, that I didn't notice these things.

What am I trying to say? That slowing down some things and speeding up others, being in a different place, doing things I never normally did, stirred me up and made me think differently. As social as those winters were, and as an intense an experience as it was working with my boyfriend (now husband), I spent a lot of time inside my own head, and it was less cluttered than it'd been in a long time. Something was freed up. Ordinary things felt poetic. Everywhere I looked I saw possibility. When we talked about returning to the UK I knew I'd be doing so with a whole new plan - to write a novel and try and get it published. And then write another. And another. And make this the thing that I cared about above, almost, all else. Truth, imagination, and always trying to be a better writer. Two winters of incubation to reach that conclusion may seem excessive, someone else might experience the same enlightenment in a fraction of the time and closer to home, but that was just the way it was with me. So days like these, when winter's here and in the Alps it's snowing hard, I think of bin bags and lint and a crumpled ten Euro note. And you know what? It feels like flying.