The Language Barrier(S)

I was very fortunate when I was a young boy to be introduced to the sport of skiing at a very young age. I was five or six the first time my dad took me to the local “mountain” in Montreal: Lac Aux Castors (Beaver Lake to us Anglos), a quintessentially Canadian name if there ever was one. Just look on the back of any Canadian nickel and you will see Canada’s favorite rodent! Beaver Lake is part of Mount Royal (the origin of the name said to be linked to the city’s name: Montreal, (in particular the Francophone pronunciation of it). Before you start thinking how cool it must have been having a ski hill located right in the center of town, the elevation of Mount Royal is merely 764 feet! Translation: Any decent skier would only need about ten seconds to go from the top to the bottom! But to a five year old, it might as well have been the Matterhorn. In the winter, it was the place to be. The lake froze over so you could skate, (I learned to skate there as well) and the mountain was covered in snow. When I started skiing at this “hill,” there was a rope tow to whisk you up to the top. Rope tows have all but disappeared by now, and a good thing because for me the hardest part of learning how to ski was mastering that torture device. That, and dodging the many tobogganers plummeting down the hill at full speed and hoping to stop before crashing into everyone skating on the lake. Ah, the good old days!

By the time I was 12, I was a fairly good skier and my dad, my brother, and I would escape to the Laurentian Mountains almost every weekend (having “graduated” from Mount Royal), about an hour drive north of the city. My mother, who had skied when she was a young woman, had given it up by the time my brother and I started, but she got tired of spending her weekends alone, so she took it up again, although I would have to classify her as a “cautious” skier, a word that you could not use for my brother or me! Way back when all this was taking place, a Canadian woman, Nancy Greene, was making a name for herself as an Olympic skier, and when my mom bought this rather loud purple ski outfit, my brother and I couldn’t help ourselves and from then on, she was dubbed Nancy Purple! We also left the rope tow behind and graduated to T-bars and J-bars that propelled you up the mountain, and then chairlifts. I remember quite vividly my first time on a chairlift. The four of us decided to give it a try, with my brother and dad going first and my mother and I on the chair behind them. Getting on was fairly easy, but we had no idea what we were supposed to do when we got to the top. We watched as my brother and father vacated the chair in front of us, rather awkwardly (I am being kind here!), and then it was our turn, as we watched them trying to scramble out of the way because they had both fallen. The look on my mother’s face, translated for “color,” was “Oh shit!” We of course waited too long to exit the chair and it started to rise above the ramp we were supposed to disembark on. I jumped off, but my mother froze, and the chair started to go around the tower and head back down the mountain with my mom still on it. Fortunately, the lift attendant pressed the stop button (often referred to as the “panic” button), and two attendants helped her get off the chair to the roaring cheers and applause from the onlookers. We did eventually laugh about this, but it took a couple of years!

Several years after this “event,” when I was in high school, two of my friends (budding entrepreneurs) started a travelling ski school for young kids (with the help and supervision of one of the gym teachers), and at 15 I became a ski instructor. I did this for several years, mostly teaching the really young ones from about age 5-8! I absolutely loved it. After a few years of this, as well as instructing, I would lead classes at the beginning of the ski year, teaching potential instructors how to properly teach someone to ski. And finally, in my twenties, after giving university a try for two years, I dropped out and moved to the Laurentians to teach skiing full time at one of the local mountains; only now I was teaching adults, which is a whole other ball game. The mountain and ski school I taught at had a Wednesday special exclusively for women, which provided them with their lift ticket, a two hour, group lesson, and lunch. This program ran for eight weeks, meaning you had the same class every Wednesday for two months! The director of the ski school and I had, shall we say, some “philosophical” differences and he was always looking for ways to make my life more difficult. The first year I agreed to take part in the Wednesday special program, my class consisted of eight women, all 65 and over, who had never skied before!  I was 22. Once I got past them continually wanting to fix me up with their granddaughters, we actually had a blast and I am proud to say that at the end of eight weeks, all of them were swooshing down the mountain in pretty good form. To this day, it is one of my most memorable moments as a ski instructor!

If you are wondering, at this point, what any of this has to do with the title of this piece, you’d be right, so here goes. One afternoon at this same mountain, the ski school director asked me if I would be interested in a 3 PM private lesson. Private lessons paid more, and the tips were usually bigger, so I jumped at the opportunity. I fully expected it to be an adult, but it happened to be a ten-year-old boy. I was, at the outset, really happy about this as I began my instructor life teaching kids. That excitement faded somewhat when I found out the kid’s name: Ghiselin, quintessentially French. Now, at this point in my life I could speak a little French, but I was nowhere close to being bilingual, and I knew straight away I had my work cut out for me. My only hope was that the kid was bilingual, but when he was dropped off by his mother, and the two were speaking French at 100-miles-an hour, I sighed. He was a great kid, and a pretty good skier, but lacking in some of the proper technique, which was part of the problem as the technical ski terms in English are difficult enough, but French…Yeah, that’s a whole other level of French that I did not have. I muddled through it, and he somehow understood what I was saying, even though I was mostly using English words, but pronouncing them with a French accent. When the lesson was over, we were waiting for his ride home and I asked him if his mother would be picking him up and he said no, that his father was on-call for the return trip. When he arrived and got out of the car, Ghiselin began talking to his dad 100 miles-an-hour in English! As it turned out, his mother was French, his dad English, and the kid spoke both perfectly. When I asked him why he didn’t inform me that he spoke English when he obviously knew I was struggling with my French, he shrugged his shoulders and gave me a wry smile! The dad cracked up, as did I, and then he gave me a very generous tip! By the way, I’m still skiing.

Sun Valley, Idaho 2021

Los Angeles 2022

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