Everything You Need to Know About Doing a Season on the French Alps

Whether you’re already working on a ski hill, looking for a last minute job, or dreaming of the future, the Alps are one of the most spectacular places on earth to settle down for a season.  Here’s my quick ‘how-to guide’, gained from my experience working at Alps d’Huez, France:

1.  Get yourself a work visa.

Unless you’re an EU citizen (or risking under-the-table pay), you’ll need a work visa to get hired on a resort.  1 year France working holiday visas are free for Canadian citizens between the ages of 18 and 36 and easy to obtain through the French Embassy while still in Canada (click here for more info).

I did things a bit differently.  When I started travelling, I wasn’t planning on doing a season – but backpacking is spontaneous; plans rarely unfold the way you want or expect them to.  Before I left Canada, I spent $350, countless hours filling out forms, a trip to the provincial capital to give my fingerprints, and waited 6 weeks to receive my 2 year Tier 5 UK work visa through the British Embassy (click here).
You can only get this visa once in  your life and you must be under 30 years of age.  I decided to get the UK visa because I speak English fluently and it would allow me to travel and work through Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England for two years.  There are plenty of companies that will try to squeeze money out of you by doing the paperwork for you, booking your first hostel in London, and promising to help you find work.  Personally, I don’t think they’re worth it.  Doing things yourself may take a bit more discipline, but you’ll save some money for travelling and have more freedom.  Hostels are easy to find online (click here for everything you need to know about booking a hostel).  Work was easy enough to find anyways (check gumtree.co.uk or jobsontap.co.uk).  Within two days of moving to Edinburgh, my new friends at the hostel found me a job with a recruitment agency.  When the cold weather of December rolled around, I got an inkling to leave the UK and snowboard the Alps.

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Lucky for me, my minimal experience speaking French got me a job with a UK-based company.  In order to legally work for the restaurant that employed me, I simply had to fill out a few forms informing the border agents that in order to do my job, I needed to work abroad.  Easy peasy, though the border agent still could have deported me for overstaying my limit in the Schengen Zone (click here for important info on the Schengen Zone).

2.  Find yourself a job!

Start googling ‘ski jobs France’ to see what’s available.  Don’t fret because it’s already December—employees will get hurt and need replacing throughout the season (trust me, I experienced this first hand).  I was recruited through ski-jobs.co.uk.  A few emails and one Skype interview later, my flights to France were booked (and paid for by the company).
Hotels and resorts in the French Alps will hire just about anyone—and you don’t have to speak French.  The work is hard, the hours are shitty, and the pay is horrible—but come on, you’re living on the French Alps.

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I chose Alps d’Huez because my bosses allowed me to come after Christmas.   I spent Christmas Day with my family in Copenhagen and started work December 26th.  Alps d’Huez is famous for being the uphill climb of Tour du France and housing the longest black diamond run in the world at 18km (and yes, I boarded it).  Huez is nicknamed l’ile du soleil (the island of sun) because it receives 300 days of sunshine a year.  However, when the sun’s out, it’s not snowing – causing the conditions to be icy and dangerous.  Coming from North America to ski in Europe, it’s important to remember that nothing can compare to the Rockies.
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I lived in the basement of the restaurant I served at, Rendez-Vous.  My restaurant served authentic French food inside an adorable wooden cabin complete with a log-burning fire.  We opened at 4pm for dinner and closed around midnight.  If I had lasted the entire season, my employers would have reimbursed me half the price of my season pass.  I had free accommodation and free dinner every night.  In my opinion, I had the best job on the hill with the most free-time to board.  I had four co-workers: two other servers and two cooks that were also the owners.  I loved my job.
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3.  Pack Lightly

If you can bring your board, boots, and bindings, GREAT!  Or, if you ski, bring your skis, boots, and poles.  The majority of hill bunnies are skiers in Europe – I was the odd one out, being a female snowboarder (unheard of!).  Pack up your equipment and bring it with you—the price to fly it over will be cheaper than buying new ones.  If you’re unable to bring your things (like I was), don’t worry; there will be second-hand equipment kicking around to use. I found a board and bindings in the basement left behind by last year’s workers, and I purchased a second-hand helmet for 10 euros and a pair of lightly-used boots for 30 euros.  Seasonaires bond as a family on the Alps—there will always be someone willing to help you find what you need.

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Usually, when backpacking, less is more.  In this case, it’s better to bring more than less.  Everything is expensive on the Alps.  Before you hike on up to the village bubble, buy mass products in the main city.  Ski gloves, toques, and warm sweaters are inexpensive in the UK and extremely unaffordable on the hill.  Be smart and save your money for the drinking nights.  (Which is every night.)
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Alps d’Huez was so warm and sunny; I was snowboarding in a t-shirt and trousers.  However, at the top of the mountain, the wind howled and chilled me to the bone.  Dress in layers and bring a backpack to store clothes, food, and a phone.  Don’t go out on the hill alone.
Ski resorts intertwine on the Alps. One afternoon, I got lost and decided to explore from the top of the mountain down.  I ended up in a different ski resort.  It took me hours to find my way back. Before you venture on your holiday, check you have the appropriate coverage. My parents’ insurance covered me until I was 21. I was 20 at the time of my snowboard accident, saving my family thousands of dollars.  Do this before you leave – you can’t purchase insurance once you’re travelling.

4.  Embrace the Bubble.

Ski resorts are sort of like a giant snow globe. Seasonaires live in a bubble, separated from the city and crowds of people.  Relationships are formed, drama spikes, and people get hurt.  My friends who lived and worked at the Beau Soleil lived beneath the hotel in close-knit dorms.  It was common practise to switch beds every night.  In such a tight environment, emotions rise and everything seems more intense.  Remind yourself that it’s only a few months.  Enjoy it, live it up, but don’t forget that the ‘real world’ with your friends, family, and hometown is still out there.

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One of the best parts of ski hills in France is the après-ski, or after skiing drinks.  I was usually released from work into the nightlife around midnight.  I would go with my Beau friends (who were already slightly tipsy off the staff-discounted Tsingtao at Rendez-Vous) to one of the various night clubs on the hill.  Clubs stay open until about 6am in Europe, making for a wild all-night party.  Throughout the week, uni groups from England came over and infected the hill, packing the clubs and making for an awesome party.  Weekends were quieter, with French families coming up to ski on their days off.
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Make the most of your season, push yourself, try something new, and—most importantly—don’t get hurt.  In my experience (two weeks at Grenoble hospital), the French nurses are not overly pleased with the English vacationers that are taking over their ski resorts and speaking English in their own country.  Though my surgery was flawless (luckily; there was a large risk of being paralyzed) I was treated like an animal in the weeks of recovery that followed (read my story here).

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I don’t mean to scare you off—despite the atrocities that occurred to me, I look back on my time at Alps d’Huez with fondness and longing.  I encourage anyone with the ability and passion to do a season on the Alps.  You never know where it might lead you!

Happy Travels!

5 Simple Steps to Surviving Big White, BC

I love mountain life.  Seasonaires live in a bubble – more like a snow globe – sheltered from the world outside the resort.  Friendships, relationships, and families grow beneath the glass, bonding mountaineers together and separating them from the outside world.  I speak from my own experience working on a ski resort in France (though that didn’t last long – see my story here).

At Big White, however, I am an outsider.  This past weekend I managed to wriggle my way past the glass into BC’s alpine atmosphere.  I stayed with a friend who lives on the hill and, despite all odds, felt perfectly at home.
My footprints are still fresh in the snow: follow these five steps to flourish at Biggie.

#1.  Soak up the Sights

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After living in Kelowna for 4 months, you would think I would be used to such views – but the fresh mountain air, cascading clouds, and swooping skiers amazed me.  I was removed from the busy sights, smells, and sounds of the city.  I slept on a couch next to a wide window that offered panoramic alpine views.  When the sun came out and the clouds dispersed, the sky peeled back to reveal the striking mountain range.  No matter where I was on the resort, I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

#2.  Hit the Slopes!

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While this is the most obvious point, it is also the one I wasn’t able to partake in, due to a horrific spinal injury I procured last January snowboarding in Alps d’Huez (read my story here).  Skiers and boarders weaved around me, ranging in age from 5 to 50.  Big White claims to be ‘Canada’s Favourite Family Resort’.  With 118 runs spread over 2,765 acres of skiable terrain accessed by 16 lifts, Big White is Canada’s largest ski-in-ski-out resort village.

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If (like me) you can’t ski or snowboard, there are plenty of other activities at Biggie: from ice skating to dog sledding to horse-drawn carriages to sliding down jumps on your butt – in this much powder, you’re never too old for some childish fun.

#3.  Kick Back at Sam’s

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When the sun goes down—or anytime, really—seasonaires and skiers migrate to Snowshoe Sam’s.  My friends and I got competitive over pool and life-size Jenga, listened to live music, and watched my favourite hockey team get murdered by the Canucks.  Sam’s is Big White’s hangout spot, but with Richelle’s opening up, there may be some competition on the mountain.  I find it strange that there isn’t a nightclub or two on the hill, but it gives my new friends an excuse to visit me in Kelowna.  They also drive down for groceries, because food is ridiculously expensive on the hill – though the 25-70% staff discount helps a lot.

#4.   Learn to Speak Aussie

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In my three days at Big White, I met heaps of Aussies, Kiwis, Germans, and Canadians—the four nationalities that are most notorious for travelling everywhere.  I don’t mean this negatively – I was estatic to be surrounded by travellers and accents again.  After all, as you can read in my travel article published by World Nomads (click here), I believe Australia is exactly the same as Canada–only hot.  (Aussies come here for the snow; we go there for the sun!)  Being a part of a make-shift foreign family only made me more nostalgic to travel – and more reluctant to come home.

#5.   Take a Dip

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My nostalgia was hitting hard – I never finished my season in France, and although it was wonderful to get a taste of Biggie’s lifestyle, I knew I’d have to leave soon.  I trekked off with a couple of the girls to relax in one of their co-worker’s balcony hot tub.  The three of us talked, laughed, and gazed out at the black sky that cloaked the snow-covered pine trees in dusk.
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I’m not lucky enough to live and work at Big White, but I am blessed to have friends on the mountain.  For now, I am completely content to call Kelowna home.  I know I’ll be back to Biggie to experience more of the mountain life, make new foreign friends, and leave a few footprints.

The Signs of a Seasoned Traveller

There are certain signs (and smells) that pertain to travellers universally.  While some groups and individuals choose to stay in high rise hotels and luxurious resorts, backpackers choose a vacation without frills in order to connect with local culture and other travellers from all corners of the globe.  If you nod, laugh, or blush while reading any of the following points, you might be a backpacker.

YOU KNOW YOU’RE A BACKPACKER WHEN…

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You rate airports based on availability of comfortable sleeping spots
When you see McDonalds, your first thought is “free wifi”
Beer pong is replaced by goon pong
Ice cubes are a delicacy
The hemp bracelets on your wrists are starting to smell
Tan lines become tattoos
You never eat out anywhere that doesn’t offer free wifi
Laundry detergent becomes a luxury
Bus trips over $10 are way too expensive
Sleeper trains double as hostels
You say “budget” more often than “paycheck”
You feel naked without your backpack

You know you’re a backpacker when you start to call the hostel “home”

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You know you’re a backpacker when…

Your ringtone is the Skype tone
Your Facebook wall is covered with foreign languages
A $10 meal is a splurge
On official forms, your permanent address and occupation is N/A
 Perfume, make-up, and clean clothes are a luxury
A ‘gourmet meal’ is anything that’s cooked and still hot
Your quick-dry towel is small, smelly, and sandy
EarthPorn and TravelPorn override your social media
Sinks double as washing machienes
You’re not entirely sure which country you were in last week
You start to distinguish accents by town or region
Kiwis are not Aussies, Canadians are not American, and Scots are never British
A loaf of white bread is acceptable for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

You know you’re a backpacker when your nationality becomes your name.

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You know you’re a backpacker when…

You greet people with “Where are you from?” rather than “What is your name?”
A twelve-hour travel day is worth the $ saved
Australia is no longer far away
There’s always a spork, flask, and camera in your bag
You strip unashamed in front of strangers in your dorm room
You know toilet paper makes adequate shower-shoes
Couchsurfing becomes a common word in your vocab
Hitchhiking goes from being “dangerous” to “convenient”
You can say “hello,” “how are you,” and “cheers” in over 10 different languages
A hostel without free breakfast, included linens, and a full kitchen is not a real hostel
If you have to convert the currency, you can’t afford it
You know your flight with EasyJet, RyanAir and Tiger will always be delayed or canceled
Anything with the word “free” or “win” in it: you’re there

You know you’re a backpacker when you start dreaming of your next trip while you’re still on the road…

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There’s Something About Airports

Nothing compares to that initial rush—walking through the departure doors as you begin your journey.

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Knees shaking, hands raking through your bag to collect your passport and boarding pass and dump out your water before security and did you forget your wallet again?

Four flights and three countries later, you hate the giant white-washed building that was once a construction of ambition, hope, and revival.  You want to be outside, in the fresh air—you want to be anywhere but this stale, suffocating prison.

I can relate to feelings of distain towards airports.  I used to compare the large, aesthetically unappealing environment to hospitals—no one is there because they want to be.  We’re all just waiting to get somewhere better.

While this remains true, airports have transformed before my eyes.  I bask in the initial excitement of arriving in a new place and departing an old.  Nothing compares to the small moments that transpire inside those walls: holding a familiar body for a final farewell, sacrificing your possessions to a rotating belt, the tingling sensation of foreign features, memories lapping up as families rush past, numbers and names floating over you in intercom waves, watching the name of your hometown flash upon a computer screen.  Such feelings are flawlessly—and only—sparked by airports.

People travel for various reasons that are shuffled into two finite categories: business or pleasure.  Whatever your in-depth, multidimensional reason, airports are a gateway to get where you need to go.

People travel to conferences and meetings, to weddings and funerals, for holidays and getaways.  Missionaries pack supplies for impoverished nations.  City dwellers burst out of confines, running away to relax.  University students plan a gap year that turns into three.  High-rise hotels, volunteer quarters, backpacker hostels, all-inclusive resorts.  Travel offers everyone what they need to escape.  So, maybe in another, more optimistic sense, airports do resemble hospitals: by offering the potential to heal.

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To travel is to wait.  Travel teaches patience, the enjoyment of the journey, the ability to stop and breathe in those moments when you’re fatigued and your flight is delayed and your backpack does not make a very good pillow.  Travel forces you into undesirable situations where you get stuck in the middle seat between two obese men who take up the entire row and smell like a dead cat that’s been cooking in the Texas sun for three days.

The initial step of every new journey is exhilarating.  Being unsure when to board, how to act, where to look.  Refusing to leave your bags for a second, even though you really have to pee and can’t fit it all into your stall.  Travel forces you out of your comfort zone.  You learn to trust strangers.  Airplanes create a bizarre environment where you never see the people (pilots) you place your life in the palms of.

That’s faith.

All of the pain, troubles, turmoil, and waiting fades into the sky as the wheels tuck away and the aircraft rises.  My nose presses against the oval glass; eyes track the rivers that run like snakes.  Yellow patchwork quilts comprise the prairies below, mountains fade into molehills along with all the problems and stress I carried on board.  Even though my baggage still weights the same, I feel lighter, lifting into the clouds with a new adventure awaiting on touchdown, and the never-ending question whispering in my ear: Where to from here?

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