It’s that time of year again when one glance at your Facebook newsfeed means an avalanche of photos of sugar-topped mountains and ski-lift selfies. Interesting bobble hat choices, fluorescent goggles and even more fluorescent shots at après-ski, winter sport holidays are fast-paced and colourful in more ways than one. We ski and snowboard all over the world, with most of us choosing our European neighbours – France, Austria, Switzerland – to get our annual kick of snow. The ski resorts themselves are perched in the clouds like little pinnacles of human civilisation in an otherwise hostile landscape. Yet are these pinnacles of culture? Does skiing in Alpe d’Huez expose you to French culture, or just the culture of any other ski resort? If someone blindfolded you and dropped you in a ski resort in Europe, (language aside) could you actually tell you were in France, Austria or Italy?
Even if you could, you have to admit it would take a while. Whilst other towns in France are typically French, with their shuttered apartments and boulangeries on every corner, ski resort towns are very similar in appearances. They are all the same high-altitude hybrid of gingerbread log cabins and concrete bunkers, with snow-packed streets lined with ski hires, cafés selling hot chocolate and postcards, and the seemingly ubiquitous pizza place. Except at the high-end ski resorts, you probably won’t find a wonderful example of French cuisine. Everything that makes a town French is gone, as remote in culture to the rest of France as they are on a map.
This sense of being in Any Ski Resort, Any Country, is heightened with the use of language, or rather, the lack of it. The expectation of being able to use and practice your language skills quickly dissipates when you realise that the only language you’ll speak the entire time is excusez-moi on the ski lift and ordering drinks in the bar (and even then, the bar staff are all on gap years so speak English anyway). You cannot escape from the fact that the predominate language seems to be English, due to it being the common language of the influx of winter sports enthusiasts from all over Europe and the world. By the end of the week you’re asking for directions in English with only a slight blush of guilt, as ideas of tricking yourself that skiing in Italy counts as revision for that Italian exam melt away as quickly as the snow in Easter.
In defence of the anonymity of ski resorts, they aren’t meant to be cultural capitals but basecamps, somewhere to go after a long day on the slopes. In their own way they have their own charm, as small havens nestled in the mountains, lit up like eternal Christmas markets. Seen like this, they do not fail at being French or Italian or even American, but rather succeed at being what they are; they have their own culture. A ski holiday is, in its own way, a cultural holiday, simply of a different kind.