The Saisonniers #2

Why leave everything behind to please tourists for 7 months?

The next day is my first day on the slopes and so I pick up my gear at a snowboard and ski shop Prosneige. Conveniently, they also offer classes to a newbie who is clueless as to what to do with two sticks and a bunch of snow. I get the chance to have a chat with Eric, who is a boot fitter for the shop.  Essentially, he examines and measures people’s feet. Boot fitters match the shape of the foot to a specific boot shell, volume, and flex pattern that will correspond to people’s skiing ability. They’ll then scan your foot to create a custom foot bed that will help align your stance.

Eric, 35, is a boot fitter in Val Thorens. Image by Arno Van den Veyver.

I thought that if you could make it in America, you would have proven yourself.

“Ten years ago was my first time as a saissonier in La Plagne, another ski resort located 50 km from Val Thorens. I had been there a week earlier on vacation with my ex-girlfriend. On impulse, I decided to go back for the season. Life in the Alps appealed to me, and as I was used to living everywhere and nowhere, I thought it would be ideal to come and work here for a few months. I worked in La Plagne for five seasons and then left for America. Following that adventure I returned to Europe and have now  been in Val Thorens for three seasons.

As a child I bored easily. I stopped going to school full-time aged 15 as I wanted to know what work did to someone. I chose to take part-time lessons and work a lot. The first two weeks were spent working in a restaurant, but I quickly discovered it wasn’t for me. I also discovered working with horses does and kept that up for 1,5 years. When I turned 17, I realised that I had to change things if I wanted to make something of myself. And so I went back to school and got my high school diploma in electricity. Because I am technically strong and wanted to nurture my creative spirit, I decided to go for a Bachelor in film, video and television at university.

When we graduated, one of my best friends – now known as one of Belgium’s finest pop artists – asked me if I wanted to join him on a tour of the USA. He needed a second cameraman. After those three months I returned for another season in La Plagne, as previously agreed, but then my friend asked me back for a longer tour. His executive producer had cancelled on him, so it was a huge opportunity for me. That was the start of my career in America, something I always dreamed of. I thought that if you could make it in America you would have really proven yourself. Belgium is such a small country, but if you mean something in America you have succeeded in life.

I was quickly relieved of that particular illusion. I toured around the world with him until the end of 2015, when he decided to take a break from his music. In the meantime, I had fallen in love  and wanted to stay in America, but had to be able to present a valid visa. The easiest way is to go back to study, and so I did. But the hectic life in USA, the high pressure and not being able to trust a lot of people, brought about my first panic attack. Everything in America is about prestige and status. The fear that you could go from somebody to nobody in an hour caught me by the throat. On top of that my girlfriend was raped and I had to watch helplessly how our relationship, despite many sessions of therapy, went under.

I have always seen my parents struggle to make ends meet as self-employed people. They gave my sister and I everything they could afford, as well as the little free time they had. I thank that life for that. Working as a slave to society in order to survive on a tiny pension later on is inhumane. Unfortunately, that’s the system in Belgium. A capitalist state that takes away from its citizens what it can and abandons you if you can’t get it done financially, psychologically or physically.

My mom is currently suffering from cancer. Last summer I returned to Brussels to look after her and the rest of the family. My father no longer drives and my sister doesn’t have a driver’s license so if my mother has to go somewhere while I’m away, they’re dependent on others. Knowing this, leaving for the season is difficult for me. Yet I choose to work in Val Thorens because the urge for that freedom and good energy is too great. When I stay at home I am confronted with a sister who is dependent on her husband and too scared to get her driver’s license. It’s so far removed from my world, which revolves around total independence; it would make me miserable being there all the time.

All these experiences have taught me I don’t want to live that kind of life. It’s true what they say: seasonal work is fleeing from reality but I’m perfectly okay with that. When I think about leading an average life in Belgium, with a house, garden and child, I feel like I’m locked up. A golden cage is still a cage. I know myself through and through and spend a lot of time alone, so I know what I want and especially what I don’t want. I grew up in a family where there was not much talk about deep emotions and I never felt the need to, even though I can talk very openly about what I feel.

When friends of mine in Val Thorens first asked me to come and work here, it was an easy choice. You might not know anyone at the start of your first season but by the end of season two or three you have become a close-knit family. Tourists think that we’re constantly partying here, but if you want to maintain this life for seven months, your body will soon enough tell you  it’s not possible. Of course we have the occasional party, but being a saissonier is mainly about performing many hours and earning little money.

Because you live together, work together and spend free time with your colleagues, you quickly get to know each other. A collegial relationship quickly develops into friendship. It sometimes makes it difficult to find balance. Everyone here brings their own story and when things are tough you have to rely on your colleagues to talk about it. And no, not everyone can be trusted here because ultimately everyone is here for their own reasons. Some colleagues will try to use your confidence to lift themselves up. Seasonal work is wonderful because you share a unique experience with each other and you get opportunities others might not, but there is a downside.”

Read The Saisonniers #3

**COVID-19 UPDATE:

After being forced to leave their house and job within 48 hours I called up some saisonniers to see how they were doing. Most of them fled the village immediately, although a small core decided to sit out a quarantine of at least two weeks. These anciens in particular were not prepared to leave their winter life all of a sudden, with some not even having anywhere to go. These last days have been spent getting groceries from the last open store  and preparing for an eventual outbreak of the virus. Infected people are in a strict quarantine or taken away to a village lower down. However, since the slopes are abandoned and there is barely any police control, some tourists see this as a perfect opportunity to build their own snow jump and freeride those mountains. Even though this is strictly forbidden, the unclear communication of the village itself causes people to ignore the rules and troop together for house parties or outside on the slopes. Today’s Val Thorens looks nothing like it usually would during March, and although saisonniers tend to be flexible when it comes to leaving their jobs and homes: this abruptly ended season of 2020 will never be forgotten.

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