As years go, 2015 had not been the best. Amongst other disasters, all the people I usually spend Christmas with had died over the course of the year, so I decided to spend the festive period by myself in the French Alps. As a teacher, I am bound to the school holidays, and usually take to the slopes at Easter, but this year I had decided that my first Christmas without significant loved ones needed to be a white one.
It was going so well. I had booked a single room at Chalet Monet in Les Gets with Ski Total back in September, however a lack of snow in the Portes du Soleil area meant I had the option of having my holiday transferred to a chalet hotel in Courchevel at the last minute. Having always wanted to ski the Three Valleys, I jumped at the chance. As a single traveller, I have found myself in rather dubious accommodation over the years – the dark claustrophobic room downstairs next to the boot room which has no windows and had probably existed as a store cupboard in the not too distant past, the room at the top of the chalet with a sloping roof and a skylight above the bed which upon first impressions you think is quite charming until you are woken in the night by the condensation dripping off of the skylight and onto your face. But this time my luck was in. Due to a last minute cancellation, the best room in Chalet Hotel Coq de Bruyere was available. I had a double bed, I had windows, I even had a bath much to the chagrin of some of the other guests who only had a shower. They suggested I rent the bath out for ten euros an hour, instead I let my new found friends use it for free.
When not complaining about the late-comer getting the best room, my fellow chalet guests complained that the Three Valleys did not have enough snow. Whilst it was true we could do with a big dump of the white stuff, we certainly had a lot more snow than I would have had in Les Gets, so I for one was grateful. Until the second day of my holiday when the tips of my skis crossed during a turn and I took a tumble down a slope that on this day had more resemblance to a vertical sheet of ice than the red run it was supposed to be. Once I’d hit the ground I then tumbled for 248 metres until I finally arrived at the bottom of the slope, both skis still attached and one ski pole lost halfway up the mountain. All the other skiers stopped skiing as they watched my spectacular tumble, helped me to my feet, watched as I tearfully performed three agonising parallel turns and then ordered me to sit down whilst they called for the piste rescue. Whilst most skiers were kind and concerned, one angry instructor did demand that I move because I was in a dangerous place, prompting me to bite my tongue to avoid spitting out Penelope Wilton’s famous line from The Exotic Marigold Hotel about trying to plan my fall in a more convenient location next time.
Being tucked into a stretcher and taken headfirst down the mountain by an experienced and competent piste rescuer called François was far more comfortable than I expected, however my treatment at the local medical centre left a lot to be desired.
For those who don’t know – and I most certainly didn’t – a lot of the medical centre in French ski resorts are private. British skiers are taken to these medical centres by the piste rescue team after an accident on the slopes where they discover too late that their insurance policy won’t cover the bill. I had used a comparison website to choose my travel insurance prior to the holiday and upon seeing that many companies stated “no excess with EHIC” I plumped for the cheapest option. It wasn’t until I was lying on a medical couch in agony with my trousers down waiting for an X ray, that I was informed by the receptionist that my EHIC counted for nothing and I would not be allowed to leave the medical centre until I had footed the bill of €180.
Possibly the biggest question emerging from that last sentence should be why was the receptionist talking to me when I was in a state of undress, however this was just the start of the many undignified things that I was going to encounter as an injured skier abroad. Once the receptionist was satisfied that I had the means to pay for my consultation, I was X-rayed, handed a pair of crutches and sent to the waiting room by a lady who managed to perform all of these actions without ever speaking to me. Three minutes later she came back and threw my glove at me.
After a lengthy wait, it was time to see the doctor. The door remained open whilst I was undressing and for the whole of the consultation. This was convenient for the person who came in and chatted to the doctor for several minutes, but less convenient for me as I lay trouserless and forgotten on the couch throughout their conversation.
I was on holiday by myself and this proved immensely irritating for the doctor. He told me I needed to go to the pharmacy at the other end of town to buy a €130 knee brace, a pair of crutches and a prescription. I pointed out that I would need a pair of crutches in order to get myself to the other end of town to buy the pair of crutches. He told me to send someone else to get them for me. I had to tell him three times that I was on holiday by myself before he finally believed me and then he shook his head as though I was deliberately trying to annoy him. Consequently I found myself limping back to my hotel without crutches and without any footwear either – I couldn’t bend my knee to squeeze my feet back into ski boots after the accident, so was sent away in my socks.
However before my painful shoeless limp back to the hotel there was one more battle to have with the doctor. Clearly deciding our consultation was over, he gestured for me to leave and when I remained seated, he stood up and left the room. When I didn’t follow, he came back and ordered me to go, at which point I told him that he had given me a prescription without asking me if I was on any medication. The doctor was quite flippant about this until I started writing down the names of the medication I take. As he registered that I was on some rather hefty drugs including steroids for Ulcerative Colitis, I could almost see the alarm bells circling his head as he immediately sat back down, scribbled out the original prescription and rewrote a new one, this time for some drugs that weren’t going to create merry hell when combined with the medication I was already on.
I managed the next four days without the crutches, painkillers or knee brace because I couldn’t physically take myself to the pharmacy to get them, but then came the next drama – getting back to England. I had flown into Geneva with Monarch airlines, but now that I was injured, the airline had to review my case to decide whether I was fit to fly. The people who make those decisions don’t work at the weekend which seems perverse when so many people begin and end their holidays with a weekend flight. With nobody at Monarch available to make the decision, I wasn’t allowed to catch my original flight, but my insurance company sorted out an alternative flight with easyJet, as well as a private taxi to take me from Courchevel to Geneva airport where I had strict instructions to present myself to easyJet’s Special Assistance desk who would look after me from thereon.
This was easier said than done. When I arrived at Geneva airport, I was required to limp the entire length of the airport, trailing my suitcase behind me, before I found the easyJet section. I stood in front of the person manning the Special Assistance desk for a good few minutes before he eventually looked up and simply said “closed”. I asked him several times where I was supposed to go, but it was clear from the way he stared at his computer screen, studiously avoiding me, that he wasn’t going to reply.
I presented myself at a different desk, this lady was friendly, but could not help me, she directed me back to the snarly man at special assistance and when I explained to her that he wouldn’t talk to me, she went to speak to him on my behalf, and received the same short-shrift that I had.
And then the farce really began. Due to my injury I had three boarding passes because I needed three seats to elevate my leg. But nobody at easyJet knew how to process someone with three boarding passes. Considering I was at an airport frequently utilised by skiers, I would have thought that passengers requiring multiple seats for leg elevation would be a daily occurrence. Instead my suitcase and I were marched up and down the airport as staff scratched their heads and worked out what to do with me. When they asked me why I was crying, I replied “because my leg hurts and I can’t walk this far” which left them seemingly baffled.
Once finally checked in, I was told to present myself at the special assistance room in an hour’s time. I explained that I wanted to go through customs now as I wished to buy some perfume at Duty Free and a bottle of water to drink on the plane as I knew I would have to discard my original bottle of water before I went through customs. I was told quite firmly that I would not be allowed to buy water or perfume because I was going to be going through a different type of customs in a wheelchair and I wasn’t allowed to visit any shops. This seemed like discrimination to me – surely anyone should be entitled to purchase a bottle of water, whether in a wheelchair or not.
At this point I should perhaps explain that I am a special needs teacher and that I have been working with children with limited communication skills since 2002, working hard to be their advocate, to communicate their choices and to help meet their needs. And here I was at Geneva airport finding myself temporarily disabled, experiencing what it was like to not have my choices listened to or my basic needs met. I had specifically waited until this holiday to buy my next bottle of perfume because I wanted to take advantage of the Duty Free prices. So that was annoying. But being denied the chance to buy a bottle of water seemed like a breach of my human rights.
I had an hour to kill. Special assistance made no provisions for me during this time. Seating was limited at Geneva airport so I limped about for ages before I found somewhere to sit. I spent the time marvelling at the screwed up logic of an airport who thought it was fine for me to limp back and forth from desk to desk with my suitcase and to fend for myself for an hour in an area with limited seating, but refused to let me walk through to the customs area to buy perfume. Special assistance should not come as “one size fits all”. I didn’t need a wheelchair to get me onto the plane – as long as people were patient I could get up the stairs to the plane by myself. The things I needed help with were walking long distances and carrying my suitcase, so how ironic it was that due to my special needs status I had ended up walking a lot further during the check-in process than I would have done as a normal passenger.
I toyed with the idea of disguising myself as a normal passenger, hiding the other two boarding passes, going through normal customs, buying my perfume and getting on the plane by taking the stairs very slowly. However in my normal life I usually follow the rules and an airport full of scary security people, possibly with guns didn’t seem like the best place to start being rebellious, so I dutifully presented myself at Special Assistance at the allotted time, naively expecting a well-oiled system whereby I would be treated kindly by competent people who transported passengers onto planes swiftly and courteously on a daily basis. This was not the case. After giving my name and flight details to a very flustered receptionist, I was told to “stand there and wait” which rather seemed to go against the whole concept of special assistance, surely anyone capable of standing there and waiting wasn’t going to be a candidate for needing special assistance. There were no further instructions, so eventually I slunk into the nearest seat and watched my departure time growing ever closer, panicking that because I had sat down instead of “standing there and waiting” as instructed, these disorganised people might forget about me and the plane would take off without me.
Eventually a man who smiled a lot but spoke very little presented me with a wheelchair which I climbed into. We then went backstage – as I like to call it – into parts of the airport that normal passengers never get to see. He wheeled me silently down corridors and through rooms where staff members were chatting, texting and drinking coffee. Then he parked me in a corridor, told me he’d be back in ten minutes, smiled and walked off, leaving me alone and worried in a random part of the airport. Then he returned, smiled again, and off we went – in silence – to what I assumed was staff customs. “I need to throw my drink away,” I said to the man, who smiled at me reassuringly. “It’s at the top of my bag. Can you throw it away please?” The man gave another reassuring smile, but made no attempt to follow my instructions. I swivelled around on the chair, reached into my bag, took out the bottle of water and asked the man to throw it away. He gave another beaming smile and put the bottle of water into the tray to go through the scanner along with all my other items. Whilst the bottle of water was setting off the bag scanner, the metal qualities of my wheelchair set off the body scanner. As I was being frisked, there was an angry shout of “Madam, is this yours?” and I looked up to see an airport official brandishing my bottle of water at me. “Yes, but I told him to throw it away,” I replied. The airport official came up to me waggling her finger and performed an angry spiel about taking liquids onto planes. “I know,” I said and tried to explain what had really happened, but she walked off, and being in a wheelchair I couldn’t go after her to set the story straight.
Next, and without any explanation, I was wheeled into what seemed to be a small freezing cold portacabin where the smiley, non-communicative man strapped my wheelchair to the wall, smiled, gave a little bow and then left me on my own again. Moments later an engine started and the portacabin was moving as I was driven around the runway for several minutes, feeling cold and slightly sick from the loud vibrations of the wheelchair juddering up and down as we moved across the runway. The portacabin stopped, the smiley man appeared, smiled and performed an operation that sent the portacabin rising into the air until it met the plane that I was going to be boarding. The smiley man gave me one last smile as I made my way onto the plane to find my three seats. The plane was delayed by over an hour and I spent it feeling thirsty and wishing I had been allowed to buy myself a drink once we had gone through customs.
Having three seats to myself was a novel experience and I purchased a range of beverages to quench my thirst as soon as the cabin crew passed through the aircraft with their trolley. After my special assistance experiences at Geneva, I had intended to slink off the plane at Gatwick and pretend I was a normal passenger, but a lovely man called Paul from Gatwick Special Assistance met me off the plane with a wheelchair. He was efficient, personable and an absolute star as he chatted to me about my injury, drove me around on an airport buggy and we had an excellent game as he tried to collect the correct suitcase from the baggage carousel. After the trauma of Geneva airport, I was pleased that there were people in the world like Paul who understood the needs of injured skiers and made us feel comfortable.
Back in England I went to hospital, where they gave me the crutches and the knee brace that I should have had a week earlier. I was given swift appointments to see a consultant and a physiotherapist. I thought it was a particularly nice touch that the A&E doctor I saw was called Rudolph, so close to Christmas.
In hindsight, 2015 was such a tough year, that what other way could it have ended than with a 248 metre tumble down a sheer sheet of ice? So for me Courchevel turned into Courche-hell, but my love for skiing has not wavered, as soon as my knee is mended I’ll be back on the slopes but next time I will read the small print much more carefully and not assume my EHIC to be the magical entity I always thought it to be, nor will I expect competence or compassion for anyone who works in a medical centre or in the special needs section of an airport. I’ll also make sure I buy my Duty Free perfume on the outward journey next time, just in case!