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First run

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Instilling our kids with an appreciation for skiing, and winter sports in general, has been important to us. Both Anna and Oliver started ski school at age four-and-a-half. For years, our starter resort-of-choice has been Lipno Marino in the southern Czech Republic. Lipno has a large beginner ski area and short, gentle slopes for later on. Although we’ve seen parents in the Czech mountains with children as young as two-and-a-half, we’ve waited until the children were a little older, as much for their sake as our own. Dealing with a toddler on skis hasn’t been something even my adventurous husband has wanted to tackle.

As we drove the half-hour from Radek’s hometown in the Jizerské Mountains to the ski resort at Harrachov, Radek reminisced about spending his childhood winters on the slopes here. Since Harrachov was one of the closest larger resorts in the area, Radek and his mother came here often, mostly to cross-country ski, although Radek also came for annual ski day trips with classmates. Unlike Czech children from Prague, Radek’s school trips were never overnights, a point he noted for Anna’s benefit. Later, as an adolescent and young adult, Radek regularly hit the slopes with friends after work and on the weekends.

As we wound our way up the narrow mountain roads, Radek and I were getting as excited as the kids. For the past few years, one of us had always alternated pushing a stroller or dragging a sled while our youngest slept and the older ones honed their skiing skills with the remaining parent. I’d lived through many a ski school lesson as a bystander. I had also had had my own moments of embarrassment falling off the moving carpet in the children’s section while trying to help Oliver learn the basics. With Oliver and Anna both boosting a few seasons of ski experience, we were finally ready to hit the “real” slopes together as a family.

Although the temperature dropped to negative 15C as we climbed closer to the resort, the ice-covered trees were a lovely contrast to the weeks of gray we’d experienced post-Christmas in Prague. Apparently, a slew of other people had a similar idea. It was nine-thirty on Sunday morning and we got the last spot in the overflow parking lot. Radek offered to move the car a bit to the right so another car could fit alongside ours, but the skiers in the car beside us were so anxious to get to the slopes, they ignored Radek’s request to adjust their parking so another car could fit, striding off quickly and purposefully, while our kids tumbled out of the car and we began the arduous process of zipping up layers, fastening boots and tucking mittens into coat sleeves.

Many Czechs are mountain enthusiasts, avid cross-country or downhill skiers and snowboarders. Winter-time in the Czech mountains isn’t as much an escape from humanity as it can be a brush with the madness of too many sportsmen crowded into one location. Since the mountains near Radek’s home are bordered by East Germany and Poland, waiting in line I can detect bits of Polish or German. I’m usually listening to languages while other skiers edge their way past me toward the front of the lift line. When we used to ski as a pair, Radek often found himself standing at the front of the line waiting for me to catch up. Instead of trying to squeeze ahead, I spent my energy sending dirty looks to what I perceived as pushy skiers who’d passed me. I soon learned that lift lines in Europe, like parking lots, are just a suggestion of order.

Despite waiting in longish lift lines for often crowded, icy slopes, I still have some of my best memories of wintertime skiing from the Czech Republic. Growing up in the mountains of southwest Virginia I’d prided myself on being a better than average skier. But my perception of “good” quickly changed when I skied down my first Czech slope. Although I’d counted on impressing my husband with my skiing prowess, instead I found myself wondering if all Czechs were born, ski-in-hand. Not only were the skiers on the slopes smoother and more accomplished skiers than I was, they were also far more skilled at getting themselves up the mountain as well. When skiing in America, I’d always taken a chairlift or a gondola up the mountain. I’d never seen a T-bar lift or the Poma (button) lift, which are common on the smaller Czech slopes.

These surface lifts were frightening to me until I realized that if I wanted to get myself back up the hill for another run, I’d have to somehow manage to grab on and ride it up the mountain. There were a few times I managed to miss grabbing the initial T-bar or button, but my most embarrassing mishap occurred when I managed to slip off the T-bar halfway up the mountain. Not only did I fall down, but I knocked Radek off the lift as well. I still remember him looking down at me on the ground with an expression of concern and disbelief. His initial comment, “What’s up?” sounded as if he thought I’d materialized from another world all together, a world where skiing wasn’t second-nature, a skill learned in the early years of grade school and practiced each winter weekend. Once I’d recovered from the mishap, I told him that a better remark would have been, “Are you okay?” or “Can I help you up?” He just laughed.

Radek had converted to snowboarding as a teenager, when he declared that skiing just wasn’t challenging enough for him anymore. But he’d grown up skiing the mountain trails and paths with his family. Radek’s grandfather was quick to point out the benefits of skiing; you didn’t need an official trail as long as you had a pair of skis and a good snow-packed path. Děda had once competed on the Czech national ski-jump team. Although he was quick to tell me that his experience was nothing like the modern ski-jump sport. We skied for fun, he said. Not for money or to be recognized, though his eyes shone with interest whenever we mentioned taking off for a day of skiing.

When we’d told děda that we were taking the two bigger children to Harrachov that Sunday to ski, he’d remarked, “and how do you get up the hills?” implying that we’d didn’t really need to buy a ticket to ride the lift when we could just throw our skis over our shoulders and walk back up the hill to ride it down again. The children were impressed when Radek told them that děda hadn’t used ski lifts in his day. They wanted to try it too, until they walked from the parking lot to the lift line carrying their skis and pronounced themselves too tired to carry skis one step further. They begged to try the T-bar and Puma surface lifts, although I swore anyone skiing with me would have to stick to the chair lift, at least until I got my ski-legs warmed up.

Although skiing with Anna and Oliver wasn’t quite as romantic as my first winters skiing with Radek, it was a lot of fun to be together on the slopes. Anna thoroughly enjoyed her new skis and talked eagerly about her upcoming ski week in the mountains with her school classmates. Oliver survived the day with his longer hand-me-down skis and was rewarded for his bravery down the steeper slopes with a Kinder Egg chocolate at the end of the day. He admitted that skiing wasn’t too bad, but he thought it might be better when we went back to the easier slopes he was used to. Or, he reasoned, we could just teach Samuel to ski and then he’d have someone to be better than.

Samuel and Radek’s mother had both seemed nervous when we’d said our goodbyes that morning, but once we returned babička admitted it hadn’t been difficult to keep Sammy on his own, and she’d gladly do it again. Despite Samuel’s lack of verbal Czech and babička’s limited English, they’d managed to communicate, and she’d even taken him on the sled across town to visit Radek’s grandparents. Samuel had been sorry to miss the skiing, so we promised next time they could come to the mountains with us and sled down the mountain paths. We agreed to convince děda to come too, hoping he might show us a trick or two, off the beaten path.

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