Sunday, May 20, 2001

Ski Stubai

When my alarm went off at 7 AM, I was wide awake. This was a nice change from previous days when I had lingered in bed unable to shake the fog of sleep. Of course, I wasn't going to make the 7:20 bus to Stubai Glacier, but I had a good shot at the 8:30 one. After a shower, a nice breakfast at my hotel, and the purchase of a Coke from the usual bakery, I walked to the bus station. And walked. And walked. After extensive consultation with the map, I discovered that I had taken a wrong turn back in Albuquerque. So it was back to correct my course. I arrived at the bus station right by the Hauptbahnhof -- just like the tourist information center woman said -- at 8:40. Blech.

The bus stop listed the upcoming buses, and my bus wasn't one of them. If this were [insert your own culture about which the stereotype of lateness fits], no problem. But I was condemned to wait another 65 minutes for the next bus.

I decided to take a stroll around, since -- well, since there really wasn't anything else to do. Walking another block south, I found -- another, bigger bus stop! You weren't expecting that, were you?

So now I was in the throes, as they say, of a dilemma. Which bus stop was the correct one? Or did the bus stop at both? Or -- shudder -- at neither? I looked at the schedules posted at the big bus stop. One of them was labeled "Stubaital" and seemed to be waht I was looking for, but it did not have the telltale "Stubai Gletscher." So I went back tot he train station bus stop and waited. AS the buses came and went, evenutally a bus due to leave after 9:45 showed up on the electronic sign without the Stubaital making an appearance. Now the big bus stop seemed the better bet, so I wandered back. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw other people with Stubai Glacier brochures wandering around, and then when I was people loading snowboards on the bus.

Traveling public transportation is always a much more broadening experience than ending up on some sort of tour bus. As I got on the bus, so did two pair of Spaniards, and as they discovered each other, I was reminded that my Spanish is not so much better off than my German. Then again, Spanish accents can be tricky (especially Castillan ones). I also got to see Tyrolean schoolchildren got on and off the bus as it would through the rural valley. The Alps were, of course, beautiful, and I was particularly awed by the waterfulls tumbling down sheer cliffs as the snow melted with the coming of Spring.

As we were riding along, I was excited -- here I am, skiing in the Alps -- but I expereienced a certain amount of anxiety. Would I find a place to change? (Not a good one -- new rule, change first when skiing unless I know the place ahead of time.) Was I dressed warmly enough? Was I dressed too warmly? Was I out of my depth? Would I be able to figure out the lifts?

As usual, I was over-concerned. I got to the ski area, went to the ticket counter and used my new favorite phrase, got my lift ticket and headed towards the gondola.

The gondola was cool. I had never been on one before. You put your skis in a holder on the outside (if you had them -- which I didn't yet) and hop in for the ride. Once again, you're treated to spectacular view of the Alps. It was almost worth it to come this far just for the gondola ride. But I had come for more.

At midstation, it wasn't quite clear if I needed to get off the gondola. So I did, only to be waved back on -- I managed to move ahead several gondola cars in the process. Finally, I was at the top, and I needed to find some place to change. (I hate changing in WCs.) Then I rented my ski gear -- I had looked up my European shoe size (45) in advance -- and put my bag in a locker. (Another anxiety -- but the system wasn't bad. For AS 20 (~$1.25) you could rent a locker key (with an AS 200 deposit) for the day -- it's the best way I've seen so far.)

I then trudged up to the skischule to see if they offered English lessons. Ski lessons in English, that is. My English's fine, thank you. As was theirs, in fact. I took an hour long lesson with Erin. First we headed off to the kiddie area. [Why do I take a lesson? Well, it is always a decent way to get someone to show you the ropes of a particular ski area, and frankly, I know my skills need a lot of improvement in order to properly appreciate places like this.] This area introduced me to a new typle of lift -- the conveyer belt. Pretty cool, and pretty simple, as befits the kids' area. The slope itself wasn't much to speak of, and apparently after a couple of runs I had convinced Erin I wasn't going to fall down willy-nilly. So it was off to try another type of lift -- the T-bar. Here you rest your "bum" on a metal bar while haning onto the metal part, which is connected to a retractible cord that the lift pulls up the slope. No falls, so I guess I did OK.

For ther est of the hour, I practiced my turns on this short slope. It was OK, but not really any different than anything I'd seen at any of the American slopes (except for the spectacular backdrop, of course). I asked Erin if we could try something more challenging, but she said we didn't have time. (Should I have sprung for the 2-hour lesson? Hard to say.) She pointed out to me Trail 1, which ran parallel to the track of the chair lift. So then I did a run on my own -- where I realized that htis slope was in fact fairly steep, and only by turning perpendicular to the fall line was I able to keep from being too disturbed by this.

After fueling myself with some bratwurst, I was off to tackle Trail 1. The lift was very modern. It was a 6-seater chair lift. Apparently it's quite a feat of engineering to get a chair lift on a glacier, since the glacier moves a couple of inches a day. The chair also had a protective bubble that I could pull down, protecting myself from the sun and the wind. The lift ascended into the clouds and put me down there, where I realized that Trail 1 was pretty darn steep. I mean, a lot steeper than anything I had skied comfortably back home.

But there was nothing to do but ski down. So I did. There was a lot of falling involved, especially as my skis caught one of the piles of slush created by the melting snow. I did a lot of stopping, especially as the two-mile-high altitude began to take its toll on my lungs. Erin had estimated I'd take half an hour to ski down; it took me closer to an hour. By the time I made it to the bottom, the ski area was an hour or so from closing for the day, and I knew I didn't have the energy to make another run before the day was over.

So I went back, returned the skis, and picked up some souvenirs. I then took another spectacular gondola ride on the way back down and changed my shirt. I mean, I don't think anyone noticed, and who would care, but it was a lot nicer place to change than the WC. Once I got to the bottom, I had about 45 minutes to wait until the bus came. As I was waiting outside the little cafe/tavern at the bottom, their speakers started playing a Bloodhound Gang song. As the song started up, I realized that it was a particularly raunchy paen to a porn star called "Ballad Of Chasey Lain". I mean, I ordinarily don't have problems with raunchy lyrics, and I'd give you euphemisms of what was in the song, but this is really nasty. I wondered how many of the Austrians knew what it was about.

After the pleasant bus ride back, I stopped off to send e-mail to let people know I hadn't broken my neck on the slopes and went back to my hotel to take a nice long bath. Suitably rested and cleaned, I headed out for my last Austrian dinner. I went to the Fischerhausel, which was another restaurant that was supposed to be known for its Tyrolean cuisine. I was dining at appropriate European dinner hour (late), so the restaurant itself was full, and I ended up seated at the bar. That was cool, although the service was indifferent, as I got to watch drinks and dishes go back and forth with the upstairs restaurant via the dumb waiter. And I got to hear "The Ballad of Chasey Lain" on the stereo. You know, I don't think there's a radio station in America that would play that uncut. I enjoyed a nice lamb dinner. The proprietor asked if I wanted anything else, and I asked for a recommendation of some schnapps, which I knew was a Tyrolean specialty. His face brightened; "Good choice." He served me a very nice apple schnapps; my previous schnapps experience had been with peppermint, which tased more like medicine. I liked it so much that on my way to my room, I stopped at the hotel bar and had some pear schnapps. Good, but I like apples better.

The next day, and the trip home, was more or less uneventful. Despite the airline computers in Innsbruck and Frankfurt being down, I ended up with extra legroom in Economy Plus on the way home. Perhaps because of the computer problems, some of my luggage took an extra two days to get to me. But all in all, it was a great experience, and I can't wait to get back to Europe.

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