Pandemic winter is both harder, because there is no place to go, and easier, because there is no compulsion to go places. I briefly interrupted my hibernation on a Saturday afternoon to engage in some cross-country skiing. It was more like “cross-yard”—in fact, it was exactly that, because I literally skied out of my backyard and around the subdivision where I live. Very Old Country. Driving to a specified and possibly paid location just to ski around seems entirely too bourgeois, unless one is on a holiday.
I would not say I was skiing before I was walking, but I certainly do not remember learning to ski. It was just something children did all winter long, along with sliding down every snow drift and every patch of ice in our path. All my skis in childhood were the kind that did not require special boots, but the type where you just slide your foot into a rubber band, and another rubber band goes around the heel (and sometimes not even that). You put your “valenki” onto the rubber piece, because “valenki”, being just felted wool, are very slippery (Although I was always made to wear galoshes over mine. I come by my indifference to fashionable footwear honestly). In Russia, I never graduated to the adult skis which came with special boots that attached to the skis with the metal cage-like fastenings that looked complicated and somehow final, leaving no possibility of escape.
In my childhood, my main ski route was in the front yard of our house (so that my grandmother could watch me out of our kitchen window). It was an easy and pleasant morning before going to school during the second shift, until it became less attractive when big garbage bins were installed in my direct path. Occasionally, I was allowed to ski in the big field behind our house, a site of soccer matches in the summer. Both of these have since been sacrificed to progress: the field is now home to an auto dealership, and an extremely shocking high rise is getting built right across from the old two- and three-story apartment buildings. At least the trash bins have disappeared.
Skiing was the gym activity during the 2nd and 3rd quarters of the school year. As a gym activity, it was terrible for many reasons. First, the school-provided skis were awful and literally went nowhere, because they were never properly waxed and got stuck in the snow. Choosing skis in the gym was a predictable pandemonium. If you were not appropriately aggressive, you could end up with two left skis. I usually brought my own skis, like some of the children of Soviet privilege, and because my grandmother was convinced that the school skis were unsanitary disease-bearers. This involved hauling a pair of skis on the crowded trolley #4, an experience similar to riding the NYC subway during rush hour, but with worse smell (some of which was contributed by me, because at one point I had a winter coat with goat fur collar. Let me tell you, nothing, nothing at all smells worse than goat fur, even after it was aired out AND sprayed with Red Moscow perfume. This might explain why I have never found goats even remotely adorable). Guarding my skis against breakage was a nerve-wracking experience for several winters.
When I was very young, we were not allowed to use poles in school—the temptations of wielding them as swords or trying to poke someone in the eye was too great. I am ashamed to confess I was not always able to resist either once the pole ban was lifted.
Second, although gym during the ski season was a double lesson to allow us time to change, returning to regular classroom after being outside for an hour and a half, sweaty and soaked, covered in snow, was entirely uninspiring. In my later school years, I have taken to not returning. Along with a few pals, we would ski away from the pack on the field where we raced in a long loop, right across the roundabout at October Square (luckily, there were not that many cars in my hometown in those days), grab our backpacks from the school vestibule, and keep going. Who knows what kind of a delinquent I might have become had we stayed in Russia? American schools sure scared me straight…
Third, we had to learn downhill skiing. Now, there are no mountains where I come from. In my entire life, I have never lived anywhere near a mountain range of any kind. To me, anything taller than me is a mountain. If I see an incline, it’s a mountain. There was not so much as a hill in either our front yard or our back yard. However, my hometown, like any medieval fortress, is built along a river. The dramatic and terrifying hill, “Friday Descent” (probably referring to Good Friday, otherwise it is a pretty random name) was the location of our Alpine exercises.
Although I am not particularly afraid of heights, I am strangely afraid of speed—or, more precisely, of my inability to control myself on runaways skis. Thus, most my training on Friday Descent ended with practicing safe falling, which is the skill that serves me well to this day whenever I am confronted by any elevation while skiing. I either fall immediately, or sit on my skis like they are a sled. Occasionally, tired of rolling over into a snow bank, I would just find an opportune moment while the gym teacher was focused on observing students at the bottom of the hill and ski away on the hilltop, across the roundabout, and you know the rest.
Since I have not attended a gym class since I managed to get an exemption from my last one in the mid-80s, skiing, strictly of the Nordic kind, has been a pleasurable activity. And so, if you see a middle-aged woman gliding across your front yard—or your back yard—one sunny winter afternoon, it just might be #oldladyskiing.
2 thoughts on “Always Nordic, Never Alpine”
You’re such a good writer! Love this story.
Thank you! Every word is true.
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