“Sascha wants to spend more time with you,” my wife, Lori, had said to me late one night that fall. “He and I were talking on the way home, and he said, ‘I really want to do something with Daddy.’”
Ouch. Since we’d moved to Paris from New York three years earlier, I had been working Sundays and evenings. I knew abstractly that Sascha and his younger sister were feeling my absence. We had dropped them into the neighborhood school, and within months they were fluent in French and had made new friends. Everything was fine, or so I thought.
Our interactions were limited to frantic mornings hustling them off to school and fleeting good-night kisses when I returned from work. Before I knew it, three years had passed — and how well, really, did I know them?
Something told me that an afternoon at the playground wasn’t going to cut it. Sascha was old enough to travel with me by himself, I decided. I had a few days of vacation, and winter was coming up: ski trip. But the thought of driving seven hours to the Alps, skiing for two days, then driving back seemed grim and expensive.
I wondered: Could we go by train? It would add an element of adventure — and be considerably cheaper. A little research revealed that one of the few remaining night-train routes would take us from Paris to the Southern Alps town of Briançon, the gateway to the sprawling ski station of Serre Chevalier, which bills itself as the largest resort in the southern French Alps.
Rolling the dice, I booked tickets on the train, found a promising family-style pension, the Hotel de l’Europe, in the nearby town of Le Monêtier-les-Bains — and immediately started worrying about the lack of snow, anxiously watching as webcams revealed a brownish, parched landscape.
The week before we were due to leave, it started to snow, dumping a glorious 20 inches in a few days. We packed carefully, one duffel for me and a small wheelie for Sascha. I noticed, happily, that along with comic books and adventure stories he had packed Joe, the love-worn bear he has kept close since he was a baby.
Our train clattered into the Gare d’Austerlitz, looking dowdy compared with the sleek high-speed trains that are replacing the night routes across Europe.
We wedged ourselves into our compartment, in the lowest of the three bunks on either side. Sascha was happy in his nest with a reading light, a thin sleeping sack and a water bottle, and plunked himself on his stomach so he could look out the window.
Slowly, our train chugged out of the station, swaying as the lights of Paris gave way to the suburbs and finally the darkened fields and woods.
“Tuck me in, Daddy,” he asked after a while, gripping Joe tightly.
Awaking at the station in Briançon, we hopped on a shuttle bus that would take us to Le Monêtier-les-Bains. Just past the first signs for Le Monêtier we got our first glimpse of the high mountains.
We clambered off at the edge of town and walked a few hundred meters up the rustic Rue St.-Eldrade. At the Hotel de L’Europe, a cheerful woman with a British accent took one look at our bedraggled state and asked, “You’ll be wanting breakfast, then?”
After a restorative meal of yogurt, granola, still-warm pastries and coffee (for me) and a hot cocoa (for Sascha), we checked out our room, which turned out to be a bright, newly renovated suite with one bedroom for each of us and two bathrooms. Before fatigue took hold we changed into our gear and walked to a nearby ski shop to get some intelligence about Serre Chevalier.
“Keep to the middle of the mountain,” we were told — up high it would be windy and foggy later in the day, possibly stormy, and down below the snow cover was a little thin.
Booted and suited, we caught a free shuttle bus to the new base lodge a few minutes away.
It was surreal to be riding a chairlift in the bracing air a little more than 12 hours after leaving Paris. On the advice of the ski shop, we started with an intermediate run, Rochamout, where Sascha fell. By the bottom, helped by creamy, forgiving snow, we had our ski legs again.
After lunch in the base lodge we headed back up as flurries began. Around 2 p.m. we decided to take the long chairlift from the middle of the mountain to a natural, treeless pass with the jolly name of Cucumelle.
A few minutes after boarding, we were in a full-fledged blizzard, pelted with stinging hail and buffeted by 60-mile-an-hour wind.
I tucked Sascha’s neck warmer into the base of his goggles, took his poles and told him to keep his head in his lap. “We won’t be able to get down,” he said in a panicky voice.
Clearly, this was test No. 2. I pushed him off the lift, pointed him downhill and told him to grab one of my poles. We inched into the teeth of this unexpected storm and after a few agonizing minutes, found ourselves back among the calm of the trees.
Feeling that was enough adventure for one day, we went back to the hotel, and to a dinner of pasta carbonara speckled with rich lardons, prepared by the hotel’s proprietor and chef, Pascal Finat. (Sarah Finat, his wife, had greeted us in the morning.)
Eleven hours of sleep later, we awoke to a blindingly sunny, crisp day, and cut first tracks on freshly groomed cruising runs through the larches and a few fir stands.
Traditional chairlifts predominate in Serre Chevalier, so we had plenty of time to talk on the way up. I started out with softball questions: school (he didn’t much like math); friends (all boys, he said, but with a little prodding admitted to liking two girls); favorite sports (soccer, of course). He was 9, after all; introspection could wait.
I focused on observing his actions and moods, how school and sports like skiing came easily to him, how he stubbornly refused to ask for help until it was the only course of action left, how he was extremely sensitive to physical pain and discomfort.
One of the joys of skiing in Europe is lunch, and I’d been told that the elusive restaurant L’Echaillon was the place to go. After a bit of up and down, we found a side trail that seemed to lead only to the restaurant.
There, I washed down an escalope de veau milanaise with fresh tagliatelle with a hearty Savoyard red. Sascha went with a burger and a forbidden-at-home Coke, noting mischievously that he was eating the mother and I was eating the baby.
Suffused with well being, we skied as the French do after lunch, sticking to the sunniest runs and heading down early. Our destination was Le Monêtier’s other attraction: mineral baths dating to Roman times.
The modern bath complex includes indoor and outdoor pools, as well as three plunge rooms — cold, tepid and scalding. By 5 p.m., we were soaking in a warm, bubbly pool, gazing up at the gathering dusk on the slopes.
We treated ourselves to fondue at dinner, and fell into conversation about inventions throughout history. Sascha argued for the computer; I explained the story of the printing press, and how innovation had accelerated in the past 100 years. I took the opening to segue into a quick primer on early American history, since Sascha had been learning only French history.
Our luck held the next morning, another bluebird day. We headed straight up to explore more of Serre Chevalier, which has 102 marked trails, 61 lifts and nearly 10,000 acres within its boundaries.
I let Sascha take the lead. His call was to ski the terrain park, eliciting a silent groan from my arthritic left hip. I watched as he flew whooping over the jumps and grind rails, heedless of the aches, pains and worries of adulthood.
On Saturday, our last day, we felt confident enough to take on some of the nearly empty expert slopes, which overnight had been draped in fresh powder.
After another decadent soak in the thermal baths, we grabbed dinner at the excellent Pizza Nono, then took the shuttle back to the Briançon train station. There were no complaints from Sascha, no dawdling. He was becoming a travel partner, and I was already looking forward to our next trip.
As we left the Paris station the next morning, our trip already seemed like a memory, a flash of sun and snow in a gray and drizzly Parisian winter. I sensed that Sascha was feeling some of the same melancholy.
I stopped in the middle of the street and said “hug” — our code for comforting him when he was younger. He squeezed me with strength that felt more like an adult’s than a boy’s.