Wien + Zell Am See: Week 14

This weekend, we were all super excited because the day had finally come: Ski Trip with EBN! Back in September, we’d lined up for a considerable amount of time in order to reserve our spots for trips organized by the student organization, and since many of them would fill up quickly, it was a privilege to snag a spot amongst the hundreds of others in line. For Ski Trip, we were promised a crazy and superfun weekend, and it definitely lived up to our expectations!

We started our journey nice and early by meeting at Westbahnhof station at 7:30am. We took a series of trains (total travel time about 5 hours) to arrive at our final destination: Zell Am See.

200 of us waiting to be assigned hotel rooms

200 of us waiting to be assigned hotel rooms

We stayed at the 3* Gasthof Schütthof and had a buffet breakfast and dinner reserved for us each day. We were also welcome to use the hotel’s spa amenities, including several saunas and a steamroom. It was so nice having everything planned for us and not having to think about anything. I bunked with Jason and our Belgian friend Christophe.

Once we checked in, we were given a slip of paper showing the time we could get ski rentals. Since we were all exchange or international students, naturally nobody brought their ski gear (except the handful who actually did bring their proper gear… props to them!) The goal was to keep things organized and orderly by assigning times, but it was an absolute madhouse and of course everything fell wayyy behind schedule.

While standing in line, a group of fellow students came over and told us we should go to the rental shop across the street because there was no line and the stuff was brand new. I felt pretty skeptical, but we’d been waiting in line for a long time, so we went to check it out anyway. At first, the shop seemed completely normal and reliable. But slowly I started to notice some things that made me question the legitimacy of this rental shop. As I was trying on snowboard boots, I noticed the employers were pulling out brand new gear from boxes for us to try. Boots, helmets, skis… a lot of it was brand new. The helmet I rented was straight out of the box. Yes, stores get new inventory all the time, and maybe they just didn’t have enough time to organize everything before opening up shop. But I thought it was weird how all the boxes were just in the middle of the store and not brought to the back. Second red flag: some of the gear, especially the stuff they’d just pulled out of the boxes, didn’t have any stickers or anything to indicate that it was from that store. There was no way of identifying where most of this gear came from. Third and final sketchy point of this whole ordeal: everyone was paying in cash and we weren’t given a receipt stating that we’d rented from them. They didn’t take down credit card numbers as collateral, and they didn’t even take our names or any personal information. Which means, if we wanted to, we could have just walked away with the gear and they would have no way to track us down! Talk about a morally grey situation.

You might be thinking it was some kind of questionable underground setup, and I thought that too, but the store signs and the fact that it was across from a series of nice hotels made me legitimize the operation in my mind. Overall, it was quite the strange experience, and we probably should have just waited for the “legit” rental place, but everything worked out in the end. No, we didn’t steal the gear. 🙂

Each night, there were themed parties at the neighbouring pub. The first night was Oktoberfest-themed, so people whipped out their dirndls and lederhosen from months ago. Unfortunately, I’d given my dirndl to my mom to bring home when she was in Europe, so I had nothing Oktoberfest-y. Since I wasn’t going to buy something new, I went the boring route and just wore a tanktop. The following nights’ themes were “Players and Cheerleaders” and “Flower Power” (hippie-inspired). I absolutely love themed parties and dressing up because of the effort that some people put into their costumes. There’s always some creative improvisation that goes into it.

I’d recently learned from my tandem language buddy (a voluntary program at WU where students are paired together to help each other learn and practice different languages; in my case I improved my conversational German while improving my buddy’s conversational English) that in Austria there exist certain Christmas traditions we don’t have back in North America. One example is the tradition of Krampus and Nikolaus. On December 5, Krampus, the devilish “keep kids in line” aspect of Christmas comes and attempts to scare children. The idea is that if you’re naughty, Krampus will come and punish/kidnap you. If you survive Krampus on Dec 5, then the following day on December 6 Nikolaus (basically Santa) will come reward you and bear gifts. I strongly encourage you to watch this video about Christoph Waltz explaining the significance of Krampus on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. So hilarious. So, since our first day on Ski Trip was December 5, you can bet that Krampus came that night… except it was in the bar during our Oktoberfest themed party. One of the EBN trip organizers had dressed up as Krampus—in a huge carved wooden mask and a cloak of white fur—just as described in the Jimmy Fallon video. I imagine it would be absolutely horrifying as a child.

The Krampus mask

The wood-carved Krampus mask

And now for the best part: hitting the slopes! We were lucky to have three full days available to us for skiing & boarding. Last year, I only snowboarded once, so I was a bit worried I wouldn’t be as “pro” as my roommates. I’ve actually been snowboarding since I was 14, but I’d only gone once or twice each year. Since I went so little, I felt like I was re-learning how to snowboard at the beginning of each season. My learning curve has been quite flat with snowboarding, because after so many years I should be way better than I am. But the somewhat expensive hobby and my lack of commitment stopped me from going more over the years. Despite my initial worries, I surprised myself and I could decently keep up with the rest of the gang!

One of our first chairs up!

One of our first chairs up

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the best snow for our ski trip. It had barely snowed at all, causing only one mountain (of five) to be open. Instead of being able to arrive at the Zell Am See slopes within 3 minutes as originally planned by EBN, we had to take a 30-minute bus with all our ski gear to the open mountain, Kitzsteinhorn. Since we were such a big group and many people wanted to hit the slopes first thing in the morning, it was a struggle getting 30+ people (in a frenzy of skis, snowboards, helmets, goggles, gloves) into the bus at the same time.

Kitzsteinhorn was quite busy

Kitzsteinhorn was quite busy

The first day we had incredibly blue skies in the morning, and it was a beautiful sight as we skiied above the clouds. After a full day of skiing, we made our way down for a satisfying buffet dinner at the hotel.

Beautiful sunny skies

Beautiful sunny skies on our first day (but not too much snow as you can see)

Above the clouds

Above the clouds

One of the coolest experiences for Jason and I was the European concept of Après Ski. What started out as a tradition in the Alps, Après Ski is when you unwind after a day of skiing by spending time in gazebo-shaped huts, drinking lots of alcohol, eating some snacks, and dancing to Après Ski music. While it literally means “After Ski” in French, for some this happens in the middle of the day, with skiing resuming afterwards. Or sometimes people skip skiing altogether and just spend the day drinking at Après Ski.

You see, this was such a phenomenon for us because back in North America, there isn’t ever anything as specific as Après Ski. Sure, we’ll go to a bar or pub with friends to unwind after a hard day of skiing, but we’ve never experienced it as such an organized and “institutional” activity. I describe the Après Ski songs as comparable to “Cancun all-inclusive resort” music: very upbeat and happy, intertwined with early 2000s techno flavours. Most of the songs actually revolve around the theme and activity of skiing, and were also blasted in the middle of the slopes themselves (in addition to during Après Ski). Our favourite Après Ski song was hands-down “Atemlos durch die nacht”: we would belt it out everytime it came on, even though we basically only knew one or two lines of the German song. After experiencing this European tradition, Jason and I wonder why it’s not a thing in North America, because it’s so much fun and a great way to relax with friends.

Après Ski hut on the mountain

Après Ski hut on the mountain

Inside the Après Ski hut

Inside the Après Ski hut

After our second day of skiing, Jason led us (myself, Christophe, Nadia, Melchan, Melissa SR) in a stretching session to loosen up all our extremely tight muscles. Boy, was that goooood. Sadly we were still sore for several days afterwards… at least I was.

The student organization that I’m part of back home, CVC, organizes Western Canada’s largest ski trip every year. So, I’m aware of all the blood, sweat and tears that go into organizing such a large-scale event like a student ski trip: the difficulty of finding accommodation that will take such a large group, the risks involved, administrative nightmares, etc… I really have to applaud the organizing team from EBN for doing a great job!

The pattern for the entire ski trip was: Eat, Sleep (sort of), Ski, Party, Repeat. Overall, the trip was totally worth the money and an awesome experience for us. When can you say you’ve skiied and partied with 200 other exchange students over a weekend in the Austrian Alps? Because of the skiing, and, as usual, because of the awesome people, this was definitely one of the best weekends of my exchange, and I hope to one day return!

Another scenic photo on Kitzsteinhorn

Another scenic photo on Kitzsteinhorn

Next post: Berlin and visiting family in Rostock, Deutschland

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