Travel

Home swap skiing edition, Pt. 1: Bad omens laughing in our faces

In our first home swap story, I wrote this exact paragraph:

Now, you might be sitting there and thinking “Oh my, I could afford that skiing trip to the Alps for just the price of the tickets.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out that way. If you were to look for swaps in the tourist sites, they probably will only be available during the low season or will be quite far from the desired locations (ski lifts, famous sights), or otherwise inconvenient.

Most people know that it’s better to learn from the mistakes of others, but despite that, still prefer to make their own. So when this winter came and I wanted a skiing vacation, I decided that we could try another home exchange.

I haven’t been skiing for four years — pregnancy, the baby and the pandemic took care of that, and then the Russian-Ukrainian war, which put an end to our vacation plans for a long time, and then buying the house, which ultimately left our financial meter dangerously stuck at the “low fuel” mark.

So by this time, I was dreaming of the snow and the glittering slopes.

Complicated

I didn’t even look at any dates around the Christmas week because that would have been hopeless. But I was hoping for a short lull in the season in January when people would be returning to work and the kids to school, and the skiing season wouldn’t yet be in full swing. So I searched for places in the mountains, close to the ski resorts, and close enough for us to make a drive within 6–to–7 hours.

The list of homes that would fit the four of us was quite limited, but still, I wrote to five homeowners — three in Austria, one in Switzerland, and one in the Czech Republic. The first four were all beautiful modern fancy homes in really great locations, so I was disappointed, but not surprised, when they all responded with rejection messages.

The last one was a one-bedroom apartment, a very tight fit for four people, and the location was… complicated. But in the end, it was the only one that said “yes.” And very specifically, a yes to a guest point exchange only, not a reciprocal one, and only for five days, It was because the place was rented out commercially during the weekends, and only put on the HomeExchange website for swaps in between. The point exchange is a kind of exchange when only one party travels to another home. The other family does not, and instead, they receive points they can use to “pay” for another exchange afterward.

I wasn’t at all sure about this exchange. For me, it was too short, the space too tight, and the location was a whole other story. It was situated between two Czech ski areas called Pec pod Sněžkou and Černý Důl.

It wasn’t close to the lifts, and in fact, it wasn’t close to anything at all.

The place was an apartment building, built directly on a mountain, 1000 meters above sea level. In winter, it was only accessible with a snowmobile.

The building contained only holiday apartments belonging to different owners and rented to skiers and snowboarders in winter, and hikers and cyclists in summer. It had a small restaurant, a playroom, a sauna, and a ski storage. The building management also owned two snowmobiles — one bigger one, able to take up to eight people on board, and one smaller, like a snow bike — and was providing the rides from and to the village called Cerny Dul — 3 kilometers below and also, to the lifts — 1 kilometer above.

The snowmobile rides would cost us 10 euros per person, one way, for the village, and 4 euros per person for the lifts. That’s why the landlady also advised that we should only go up from the village once, at the beginning of our stay, and go back down at the end. With four people, daily rides up and down the mountain just wouldn’t be affordable.

That meant that we had to rent the skis and all the gear in the village first, and also get everything that we needed for a whole week — food, clothes, medicine, everything — before we were to ride up. Forgetting something wasn’t an option. There wouldn’t be any stores or pharmacies up the mountain. The ski passes and all the gear were also to be got at the lower stations of the ski lifts only — so also in Cerny Dul.

See what I meant? Complicated.

Not a great start

We thought long and hard about this exchange but in the end, we decided to risk it. And so, on a cold and snowy Sunday in January, we crossed the border into Poland, then into the Czech Republic, and after a very short drive into the country, we were there.

Well, not yet quite there.

We decided to order a first ski lesson for our 4-year-old son in Cerny Dul before we had to get up the mountain (and probably not go down for a week). This way, we could get a feel of whether he liked it and therefore, whether we needed a ski pass and a ski set for him as well. Then we planned to buy the ski passes and rent the gear, and finally call the building management people to send a snowmobile for us and all our junk.

A snowmobile takes us up. © Photo from the author’s archive

The day was overcast and it started to snow when we arrived. The first ski lesson for our son was a disaster, and I had to take him out early, after just one hour, because he was crying hard and unable to stop. Turned out that he got cold very quickly, and of course, everything went to pieces after that. We returned his skis, got him a warm drink and a sweet roll, and sat him down in a rental place to warm up.

Our mood was shot, and we were unsure of this whole vacation plan. In the end, we decided that it was too late to turn back, and got the ski passes and the gear for all of us for a week.

Then we called for the snowmobile and drove to the parking place at the bottom of the mountain, the one where the snowmobile did the pick-up, several kilometers from the lower ski stations.

Our son admiring the car he’s never seen the like of. © Photo from the author’s archive

The vehicle that arrived to pick us up wasn’t like anything I’d seen before. I have seen snowmobiles in Siberia. They’re like snow bikes, similar to water motorcycles set on skis. They don’t have any roof or cover and can carry up to three people. But the thing that came for us was a different kind of animal altogether. It was a totally hardcore truck on tracks — some weird hybrid of an off-road jeep and a military tracked vehicle.

The drive up was beautiful and the food cheered us up a little, but the cheer didn’t last long, because our son’s health was rapidly declining. As often happens with small kids, he’s very quick to catch a cold and was already sniffling and coughing and my husband was starting to panic. What if it would get serious? What would we do with a sick child in a place like that?

Our bedroom. It had a loft — a second level where our younger son slept. That’s where the staircase is going. © Photo from the author’s archive

We slept fitfully because we were listening to his coughs half the night. At last, he went into a deep sleep, and so did we.

Plan B

The next morning, two things became obvious. Our kid didn’t have a fever and the cough was most likely just caused by a runny nose, but he was still not fit to ski, even if he wanted to, which he did not (and in fact, flatly refused to even think of). So we had to ditch any hopes to have a nice time together on the slopes while he’d be learning with the instructor, and switch to Plan B.

Plan B implied that one parent would always be a designated nanny, and the other could go for a ride. The next day, we would switch.

Another widespread kind of snowmobile at the slopes. © Photo from the author’s archive

This effectively halved the skiing opportunities for both of us and also made us think about whether it was a good decision to pay for a week’s ski pass and gear.

But then, what other choice did we have?

The ski resorts nowadays do not allow different people to use the same ski pass — there are photo cameras to detect such cases and confiscate the passes. And of course, we needed different gear. So we put on brave faces and asked for the snowmobile to go up the mountain to the closest lift. I and my husband’s eldest son would ski, and my husband would take the preschooler sledding. Our brave faces lasted for an hour and a half, at which point a buckle of my husband’s eldest son’s snowboard decided to break in half.

A very fitting ad by the ski lift. It’s about insurance. © Photo from the author’s archive

I can safely say that this was the lowest point of our so-called vacation when all the premonitions and bad omens seemed to be laughing in our faces.

__________

See more about skiing here in Dispatches’ archives.

Read more from Maryna here.

Maryna Kryvko
+ posts

Maryna Kryvko is a software developer in Germany. Maryna also writes a programming blog to share her knowledge. She sometimes speaks at conferences, though being an introvert, writing comes more naturally. Maryna says she’s not a professional writer but writing is something she likes, “and I think I can do it pretty well.”

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