We were gathered around a small table with 30 or so of our closest friends and coworkers at the Telluride Ski Patrol’s annual Draw Party last January. The eight my husband Craig pulled from the deck wasn’t as formidable a number as you would hope for in this situation, where a single card would determine the path our lives would take for the next year-and-a-half.
We were drawing cards for the French Trade: A winter-long work exchange program with the ski patrol in Tignes, France. More appropriately, Craig was drawing for the French Trade. I was digging my fingernails into the palms of my clenched fists, hoping his card would win the draw and we’d be headed to France for the 2007-08 winter (where Craig would work, and I would ski powder, drink wine and eat cheese at will, blissfully unemployed for the first time since college.)
Drawing cards may seem like a haphazard method of determining who, among the ski patrollers eligible to go, would be awarded the chance. However, amid the many strange-seeming rules and rituals that the Telluride Ski Patrol abides by, drawing cards – for nearly any purpose – is the most revered.
The card draw was originally crafted as a means by which patrollers would be impartially assigned to do the organization’s most undesirable tasks. During the early days of the ski resort, the restroom facilities on top of the mountain consisted of two “groovers” – essentially, old metal Army ammunition boxes lined with plastic garbage bags. It was the Ski Patrol’s responsibility to empty the groovers daily, tying off the bags andthen hurling them outside the Patrol shack and into the snow. There, the bags would (hopefully) freeze overnight, then be sent down the chairlift in the morning.
Drawing cards to determine who would have “Groover Duty” soon evolved into drawing cards to see who got their first choice on sweep; and eventually, a deck of cards became the almighty maker of decisions within the Patrol, the only incontrovertible means by which to assign a task or award a coveted opportunity within the organization.
So, with our destiny balanced delicately on a mediocre card, Craig and I waited for the great Card Deck Judge to decide our fate. Our competition, another Telluride Ski Patroller weighing the possibility of spending six months in the Alps, flipped over his card. I joined the mass of bodies craning towards the round, beer-sticky table fumbling for a view.
It was a five. My forearms relaxed slightly; just one more card to contend with.
The next patroller to draw quickly plucked a card out of the mass and slammed it on the tabletop. This time, I nudged my neighbors out of the way to make sure the number printed on the corners of this card was what I thought it was – a measly three.
Indeed, we had won the French Trade with an eight. We were going to France!
The French Exchange Program is a Telluride Ski Patrol institution with a quarter of a century history. The Trade started in 1982 when Telluride Patroller Gerry Wilcox and his wife Mona (both still valued patrollers at TSP) traveled to the Serre Chevalier ski resort in France, where Gerry worked for the season, and Claude Gibello (of Gold Hill’s “Claude’s Couloir”) came to Telluride. Since then, the French Trade has become deeply ingrained into the multihued fabric that is the more than 30-year-old Telluride Ski Patrol.
Many of the organization’s most veteran workers have taken their turn at spending a winter learning, among other things, to speak French and patrol like a French “pisteur” (patroller.) Longtime and locally legendary patrollers, like Byron Curfman, Nick Kyle, David Mallette, Norm Gray, Heidi Attenberger and Peter Inglis, among many others, have uprooted their American lives for the chance to explore a different culture’s take on the job of ski patrolling.
The French patrollers who have come to Telluride over the last two-and-a-half decades have also left an indelible mark on the organization as a whole. Individually, such “Frogs” (Frenchmen and women) as Boliere, Dominique Juin, Helene Boyer (who met her now-husband Drake Taylor while on exchange) and, more recently, Bruno Faugere and Samuel Sarbach, each hold high status within the Telluride Ski Patrol’s massive treasure trove of historic narratives.
With such a rich background of French-American comradeship behind us, Craig and I prepared for our winter in France with an air of serene excitement (well, mostly serene.) We armed ourselves with French language DVDs and stacks of reading material with titles like France for Dummies and Val D’Isere-Tignes: Off-Piste Guide. We imagined what skiing in the Alps would be like (neither of us had ever been to Europe before) and dreamed of the trips we would take from our base camp in Tignes. We would be married just over a year by the time we arrived in France, and envisioned the winter as a honeymoon of sorts, complete with long ski tours together and many shared bottles of French wine.
Little did we know that the Great Hand of Fate had yet another, this time unplanned, gift for us.
This time, our destiny rested on the number two: as in two pink lines on the at-home pregnancy test I took in June. In the time it took for me to pee onto the absorbent tip and wait for the two lines (meaning you’re pregnant) to magically appear in the box on the little white stick, the French Trade took a dramatic twist. Although we did wrangle with the idea of calling off the trip altogether, we reasoned that “women have babies in France, too,” and that this little hitchhiker had been so judicious in his (or her) timing to join us on the adventure that we couldn’t very well say no now.
We were going to France – and we were having a baby!
In the 25-year history of Telluride’s patrol exchange program with France, no-one had ever gone on trade and given birth to a child. We were embarking upon uncharted waters, we knew. Now, five weeks into the trip, we still have moments when we feel like our little, two-and-a-half person boat is floating off-course: We’re yelping for help in bad French as all the French-flag-flying yachts cruise by, looking in our direction occasionally and wondering what we mean by “Ecks-cuse–e–mwa? Puvay-voo noose aide-ay?” (Which, in our fractured French translates to “Excuse me, can you help us?”)
While moving to another country, learning a new language, starting a new job and making new friends – all while preparing for the birth of a first child – has proven daunting, our goal continues to be to maintain a sense of humor through it all, and appreciate and learn from our daily adventures and foibles of being Americans here in France. We’ll keep you posted.