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Tuesday 20th February
The marvellous invention of skiing gives me renewed faith in humanity. The fact that some of the world's most difficult landscapes can now be enjoyed in a frenzy of snow, speed and ski-lifts is an unsung achievement of the human race. And the Swiss have it down to a fine art. Boasting some of the most challenging slopes and shockingly beautiful scenery (and, of course, infallibly well organised resorts) it is not merely a sport or a holiday or a pass-time anymore: here it is a cultural necessity, and every location has its own cultural identity to prove.
In the area of Vallais you might break the ice with a Cafe-Abricotine - a favoured ritual of the locals involving coffee with 3 sugars and 2 measures of Abricotine which is set alight, allowed to burn for 30 seconds and then swiftly extinguished with the palm of your hand over the cup. (Many an exchange student has been caught out by this last, crucial manoeuvre.) Verbier, however, is host to the winter homes of the rich and famous and this devastatingly stylish resort offers the height of chic on and off the piste. Even if there is always that chance you might run into James Blunt. Les Diablerets, on the other hand, is a far more provincial affair, and where the Universite de Lausanne runs its annual skiing course.
So, off I went for a week of intensive lessons and apres-ski action with the typically Lausannois slightly random bunch of exchange students scattered amongst the native experts. We were keen to make the most of our Swiss experiences and partook gladly in the Raclette and Fondue, Swiss wine and beer and all the nightlife Les Diablerets has to offer. (This was, in fact, one very questionable night club ruled by 6 mafia-esque 20 year olds with a penchant for basketball vests and bad-ass Jay-Z dance moves). However, all our best efforts towards cultural integration were put to the test when it came to Wednesday night.
You can picture the scene. The tension is thick, beers are at the ready and there's a roaring cheer as the television sparks into life with the sound of an excitable francophone commentator. In a chalet full of Swiss people, there I sat round a table slap bang in the middle of the room with five guys from Imperial College London, as the England-Switzerland friendly kicked off. Some of the jokes were predictable. Several people asked me if I was a hooligan and whether my fellow Britons and I were likely to smash up the chalet at the end of the match in stereotypically drunken fashion. I laughed and replied in the negative, though, trivial as these jokes might seem, it is worth noting that there were heartfelt celebrations when England failed to qualify for Euro 2008 - a national sigh of relief that our infamous minority of football thugs would not be blighting this country with their presence.
In the end it was all very amicable. By the time England won everyone was rather too inebriated to feel bitter about it and as ambassadors for international-relations we made a gracious effort to cheer when Switzerland scored their equaliser. Any affronted national pride on the part of the Swiss was put to excellent use on the slopes the next day as the races began. Naturally, the natives came out on top in an impressive display of skill against some proficient Italians from Torino. However, I am anxious to point out here that I beat 2 apprentice Swiss skiers in unprecedented glorious victory when it came to my own race. Granted, I was in the intermediate group and racing on a blue piste for beginners against 6 people who had only skied once before, but I like to think I'm doing my bit for my country.