08 Jul Jezology Podcast – Season 1 | Episode 3
France – 2020
[Please click play to listen to the episode]
“Jezza, it’s a stupid idea. You’re going to freeze…” I’m holding a kind of gormless smile in the direction of my well-meaning friend. I’m imagining I look like someone who was hoping they wouldn’t hear this sort of prediction the first week they arrive in the French Alps, but is also dim enough to choose to reject this sage advice. “Look, there’s a flat down the valley, it’s a good price! Just take it. It’s going to be minus 10 this season and you’ll freeze!”
I’m going to be honest here and say that this is not the first time I’ve done something that has been forewarned by people close to me. But then, this is my fundamental problem, I’ve always managed to scrape through ludicrous plans. I am fully aware however, that one day I may live to prove a friend right in a disastrous manner.
When I arrived in Les Trois Valleys on 16thof December 2019 I had already been living in a van for 18 months. I was comfortable with the idea of spending four months in the Alps living out of my tiny home, but there was one glaring difference that was still very much an unknown… the cold. There is also one glaring solution I hear you cry! A heater…. You are so right, and had I had the time and money to install an offshoot to my cooking gas tank, this story would probably be a lot less interesting. As it happens, I did not, and so I was facing an alpine winter season at the mercy of unpredictable, central European meteorology.
So here I was, day 1 at 1600 metres, ready to tackle a simple list of requirements that seem almost trivial to the home-dweller. It went a little like this:
Parking: Where on earth do I put my van… I had considered this prior to arriving in the Alps and thought I would park in some free parking in a resort further up the valley within walking distance of the local sports centre. That way I could get up every morning and hit the gym, conduct my daily ablutions and take a shower. This would conveniently tick off a number of other important bullet points on my list, where to poo and how to get clean. This felt like such a slick plan I was almost proud of myself, until, on arrival at the sports centre, they flatly refused to let me sign up until I could prove I was working. Given the natural excretive cycle of a mere number of hours, this news was not welcome…
It would seem sensible at this point to mention why on earth I had decided to do this in the first place and conveniently, the rather suspicious and intimidating sports centre receptionist may have peaked your interest. I was in the Alps as a punt. Vanlife had coincided with my attempt at becoming a full time, freelance musician. I was in the Alps to play music. The only slight problem was that I really didn’t have many clients yet and therefore my ability to defecate freely was seemingly now being put under threat.
In the meantime I had stumbled upon a little luck. In a small ski village, lower down the valley was a bubble lift car park. I had planned on frequenting this car park as a means to going skiing and snowboarding when I had time, but low and behold, the local council had placed a temporary toilet block in one of the bays. To my utter disbelief, not only was this block heated, it was also left open 24 hours a day. My dignity had been saved! It did take a week or so to prove my credentials to the sports centre, but eventually I was set. Multiple car parks, showers, gym and toilets. Call me a simple man, but I was in heaven.
I had been in the Alps for a couple of weeks and Christmas was upon us. Up until that point it had been a remarkably warm start to the season, with temperatures hovering nicely above freezing. Old St nick arrived brought some snow to the valley and I had my first taste minus numbers. To my surprise, it was remarkably comfortable. Having experienced Vanlife in cold British weather in the past I knew how difficult it could be on the self-esteem and this had been a concern of mine heading out to the Alps. I hadn’t taken into consideration two critical factors however. High up in the mountains, the air is so dry that the cold doesn’t penetrate you in the same way as a humid cold. The other factor that surprised me was that when it is sunny in the Alps, the sun has power. A lower latitude and being up in the mountains often meant that it simply didn’t feel like the dark, gutless Northern European winters that I was used to. I was finding the cold far less of a problem than I ever expected. I wouldn’t want to speak too soon, but I was growing quietly confident that this ludicrous plan might work out!
Following the holiday period I had started to book more work and had found my rhythm with some consistent pub and bar gigs each week. I had even been approached by a luxury chalet company to play a private gig for their clients. Playing music for pissed up ski bums and tourists had become my comfort zone, but there was something about the concept of a private chalet lounge gig that was both intriguing and terrifying in equal measure. I arrived in the resort in a solid blizzard. My van was on the limit, struggling for traction on the snow covered roads. There is a moment, 2 to 3 hours after snowfall where Alpine roads become hideous. It wasn’t helping my Zen calm I was trying to generate before playing acoustic music to a room full of guests paying 40 thousand pounds for a week’s skiing…
I arrived to a beautiful and exclusive chalet, high up above one of the most popular ski resorts in Europe. I was led into the open plan living/dining room. Fresh cut logs were burning in the stone fireplace, wrapping me in a blanket of home comfort warmth. I had been transported into another world of comfort and luxury and felt like curling up on one of the inviting sofas. I looked across to 3 or 4 well-presented children, eating their early dinner, prepared by their private chef and presented by their attentive host and promptly witnessed a bile infused mash of peas and fish fingers being sprayed across the antique wooden dinner table by one of the 8 year old boys. Ok then, bubble officially burst. There were tears, it was awkward. I felt like it was going to be one of those nights.
‘The mother is off her face…’ The host whispered to me as I was setting up my gear. I had noticed her regular trips to the bedroom since my arrival and her comfortably numb demeanour confirmed her relationship with more than just her husband.
Eventually everyone settled around me on the couches and I began my set. Some covers, some requests. One manically and almost embarrassingly polite mother on one side, another comatosed mother on the other. Two dads who I secretly believed were quite entertained by the whole experience and a gaggle of puke spattered children.
I caught the eye of a 9 year old boy sitting to my right
‘Play Rage Against The Machine’ he barked
‘You know what, I do love that band, but unfortunately it’s not in my repertoire’ I offered gently.
‘Why not?’ He jolted, anger spreading across his forehead
‘Well I’m sorry I’m not a duke box you little shit’… I thought
‘How about Let It Be from Frozen?’
His look of indifference mixed with irritation and just a flash of confused excitement, pretty much summed up the whole evening.
At some point in mid-January, the inevitable happened. It got crazy cold. My soothsayer friend (I’m now convinced he’s a witch) became vindicated as the little thermometer I had hung in my van bottomed out at -10 degrees. I would add here that this had been a progressive thing to a certain degree and it certainly didn’t feel like a sudden shock, but -10 did feel like another level. I was on double hot water bottles by this point and had been plenty warm enough to sleep, other than the fact that my covers were now so numerous that I felt pinned to my bed by the weight of it all. I woke up one day to find that my toothpaste was frozen and had to be warmed up to squeeze any out! I then discovered that a frozen brie sandwich is actually rather edible as breakfasts go, particularly when washed down with hot tea – which had been my unquestionable savour all season long – As if this Brit needed any more reasons to love a cuppa. My van door was frozen shut along with the slide window which was my only emergency exit, both of which had to be ‘encouraged’ for a few minutes before emancipation. Probably most interestingly, the cup of wee that been the product of my reluctance to walk to the toilet block during my midnight comfort break was now holding my attention as a solid, orange ice cube, perched on the side board of my van kitchen. No chance of spilling it at least, I concluded.
Some weeks later I had settled into a comfortable routine. Gigs had become more regular and I was even starting to save some money – the holy grail in freelance music I’ve realised. I was out on the mountain whenever I could be and playing music in the evenings, what a wonderful existence and an enormous privilege. Sure, you have moments of discomfort, but I’ve always thought that in many ways life is most keenly lived when riding up and down the waves. You can try to control the size of the waves, but ultimately there is always a balance. Reminding yourself in every tough moment that beauty and happiness are somewhere a little further down the road, then being present in every moment of beauty and happiness with the understanding that life will inevitably throw you a curve ball.
In early March, a curve ball was thrown and all the ski resorts were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. My work as a musician immediately evaporated and life turned a bizarre corner. Just another wave I thought to myself. Not even my friend ‘The Witch’ saw that one coming.