Working Your First Winter Season at 40 – Covid 19

It’s hard to know precisely how to begin this story.

A good place to start is to just reemphasise that Dan and I are safe and well.

Frankly, it’s taken a couple of weeks to digest what actually happened and even now it feels a little dreamlike.

Its mid-March and we are minding our own business in the mountains, in a literal bubble. With no cases of Covid 19 locally we watched on as the pandemic swept across the world with little more than morbid curiosity and fascination as it became the only kind of news on all media outlets.

Aside from washing our hands more thoroughly (because my mate in the NHS said so…) and speculating with friends as to why this flu-like illness is such a big deal, there was plenty of talk about the virus but nothing really changed for us.

Then everything changed. All at once, it seemed. In a very short space of time, our little bubble caught up with everyone else in the Western Hemisphere and popped.

Typically, the media made a meal out of it “40,000-holiday makers stranded in the Alps”… criticising peoples choice to go on holiday when the world is fighting a ‘health war’. Little thought was given to the workers who rely on that industry to make a living or the companies that have to try and deal with the fall out of ski resorts closing less than 24 hours after a new guest influx.

Perhaps at some point in the future, I will share with you all some of the stories of the lengths that my fellow workers went to to help out these guests (and each other) at a time of extreme uncertainty.

As much for my own sanity and future self. Here is how it all went down for us. Blink and you will miss it or at least that’s how it felt at the time.

March 12th (Thursday)

The first visual reference to Covid 19 arrives in the resort in the form of a single poster on each of the Meribel Free busses. The resort provides free inter-town buses to move all the tourists and workers around. One poster, in French, A4 and nothing fancy.

I saw the poster and took a photo.

I actually spent the entire journey home trying to get the photo to send to Dan (the twists and turns of mountain roads are not conducive to good photos!)….Look, Dan…IT’S ARRIVED!

I don’t mind admitting it now that my response to the situation was a mixture of apprehension and excitement. Seeing a government poster made it all quite real and yet non-threatening really as how bad could it actually be if all it warrants is one small poster?!?

Today turned out to be my last day snowboarding of the 19-20 season – if only I had known at the time! I think about this often now.

March 13th (Friday)

France bans all gatherings of 100 people or more but Meribel Tourist information Centre issue an announcement that the season will continue and that they have no plans to close early.

The two positions are a little at odds!

It’s not entirely obvious at this stage how some of the larger establishments are going to impose the 100 person rule as they can in some cases easily house 1,000. We trust they will come up with a solution and continue our normal lives.

Some of the planned events locally start to postpone…it’s all done in such a way that seems so temporary. There is nothing final about the approach. We are left thinking it will just happen later in the season.

The reality of the situation does not really dawn on us … it’s business as usual and as it’s Friday we all head off down the mountain to do the weekly food shop and buy enough supplies for our next guest’s arrival.

March 14th (Saturday)

The shiny new guests start to arrive from 7 am all excited and full of energy for a week of snow fun.

Our week 14 arrivals seem all very aware of Covid 19.

There were lots of questions for us about the resort and the virus but we had precious little news to share with them other than there are no cases locally and the resort remains open. Quite literally quoting the local tourist board! It was quite an odd feeling to be the source of knowledge for people when we ourselves have so little information available.

It was also quite an odd feeling to wave goodbye to a group of guests who had been in our little bubble for the past week and welcome a new group of people who felt far more aware of the real world. Their fears and worries didn’t seem to gel with how we were feeling in the resort bubble. It was confusing. Their concerns were real but not at all representative of the voice of our local authority.

It was hard to put my finger on it at the time but it’s almost like these new arrivals brought with them the real world and their arrival was the stimulus for change in our mountain bubble.

Within the team, the worry levels are relatively low even with this influx of concern. There is not much we can do until we get clear direction so we just keep plugging along. Talk soon turns to a celebratory beer at the end of the shift at our local pub. This had become a weekly tradition.

However, as the evening shift progresses the news starts to filter through that effective midnight tonight all bars, pubs, restaurants etc need to close.

Perhaps we were naive in retrospect but this decree came from totally left field. It seemed like such a huge shift in approach.

Our end of shift drink became very quickly the last drink in our local (potentially) ever!

At 23:35 the local police came to the pub and ordered it to shut down. The atmosphere was so very surreal. A tangible mix of apprehension, celebration, fear, inebriation, joy and sadness.

I vividly remember standing there with the team and being a little overwhelmed by emotion. Confused would be a very good way to describe how I felt. We could all speculate as to what was coming but honestly as wild as our speculations felt at the time we underestimated the magnitude of change that was coming our way.

The local ski domains started to announce on social media that they would be closing. Notably, ours (Meribel) made no such announcement. We went to bed on Saturday evening without any real clarity but fully expecting the worst. There was no way that one of the 3 valleys could remain open if the other two had closed!

March 15th (Sunday)

Came as a shock to the system.

We finally got the news we had anticipated from Meribel. The pistes are closed until further notice. Again little finality and also very low key. The message didn’t release on all social media platforms and was scarce in its information to help guests make decisions.

In 48 hours we had gone from everything being open and the ‘we are open’ message being positively reinforced at every possible opportunity to literally everything being shut and we have a resort full of tourists!

Up until now, we had made every effort to refrain from gossip but with the fundamental lack of information coming from the local authorities we gleaned what information we could from some of the big tour operators. It started to become a case of watch what the big boys do and follow the leader.

Some of the bigger companies were already booking flights home for their staff and guests within hours of the pistes being closed! They were shutting their operations down indefinitely and making assumptions that the country would soon go into full lockdown so get out while you can!

At the time it all seemed so bonkers. It felt like people were acting rashly. Surely we wait until we have clear direction and then all form an orderly queue?!?

That morning we visited all the guests to share what we knew and called an emergency team meeting.

Everyone was anxious to say the least but the one overriding feeling was the need to have clear direction. Make a plan and stick to it regardless of whats going on around us. So that’s what we did.

All the staff were given a weeks notice to terminate contracts. To be blunt for a moment, no guests and no resort meant that we became surplus to requirements.

The last working day would be the day the current guests check out. Saturday March 21st.

Just to point out here that whilst the decision to terminate our contracts was a shock it was also logical and considered. It’s incredibly sad but shit happens. You just have to get on with things. The team were amazing and did exactly that!

March 16th (Monday)

Dan and I had a day off. Our normal Monday off work so we went for a hike into the mountains. We couldn’t ski but at that stage walking socially was still allowed so we took ourselves away from the madness with a packed lunch and chilled.

We returned (sunburned) to the news that some of the team had booked flights for the following day to return to the UK.

A shock to the system! I thought we had a week left together before we had to say our goodbyes! Turns out that some wanted to go sooner rather than later as there was speculation that borders would shut in their home countries.

Everything started to happen super fast. The team was breaking up, we still had guests and nothing but a loose plan that seemed to change every hour.

The rest of the team were due to finish on Saturday 21st. Dan and I were staying on until the end of March to close down the accommodation but now everything was up in the air.

That night as we ate cheese and drank wine to commiserate and reminisce with the team before it started to disintegrate the announcement came through that effective tomorrow midday all non-approved movement would be banned.

We would require a document to move outside of our homes.

Very quickly the team plans to pull forwards departure dates seemed eminently sensible.

March 17th (Tuesday)

With the constant changes being announced at a local and national level one of the few things our guests felt like they had any control over at all was their departure dates and times.

Many made the decision to pull their travel plans forwards in anticipation of border and air travel restrictions being imposed. The Euro-star put on special trains with very little notice to clear the stranded holidaymakers.

It was a very odd situation to be in. The resort is effectively closed but there had been no formal announcements made regarding accommodation so tourists were in limbo reference their insurance.

Our last guests of the 19-20 season checked out 90mins before the movement ban came in force.

All the while some of the major tour operators were chartering planes to remove their workers and guests from the closed resorts.

Now that we were officially guest-less those of the team that remained set to work to clear out all the perishable items from each chalet and secure the buildings. We would take stock tomorrow and make a plan for the rest of the week. The thinking being that we had all had a hectic and stressful few days so let’s take a little break and then work out what’s next.

With 20 mins before the movement ban came into force we all had a team meeting. All change again.

March 18th (Wednesday)

Dan and I left Meribel. Our 2019-20 season over.


Our decision

Ultimately the decision to leave Meribel and our jobs was ours.

Even though we never sat down with our boss and had the difficult chat about what’s next I think in reality had we opted to stay put the paycheques would have soon stopped even if the roof over our heads remained for a little while longer.

We are both old enough and wise enough to know the score and fond enough of our manager to not take the piss or make things unnecessarily difficult.

Just the thought of being in lockdown for 15 days in a resort with literally nothing open was enough to make us shudder. Having lived such a free existence previously I am not sure I would have coped very well in a 1 bedroom flat for 15 days with nothing but the TV to entertain us.

Luckily the prospect of lock-down with not much else to do other than clean chalets before handing them back to the owners seemed to genuinely please our boss so we knew her encouragement to do what is right for us was legitimate.

Thankfully we had options. Not a lot of options but options all the same.

Locked Down

In less than 2 hours we had the bones of a plan and had begun packing…

Our motorhome was happily stored in the Dordogne and whatever happened we really needed to get back to it. Its represents our home, our sanctuary, our security.

We didn’t want to go back to the UK and don’t actually have any bricks and mortar over there anymore now anyway so no logical place to go. Also, we didn’t want to sit around for the next two weeks twiddling our thumbs.

The threat of the two weeks lockdown turning into something much longer loomed over us. Eventually, we would lose our accommodation in the mountains and it all boiled down to us making a decision as to when not if we leave. Leave now with a set of known criteria or leave later when the situation may not be so clear cut.

We arrived in Meribel back in November in a hire car. Hire cars were now like gold dust with multiple requests daily from seasonaires to get lifts back to the UK with people.

We eventually found a van big enough to take all our gear 2 hours away in Lyon. Our boss very kindly sourced a local transfer driver who could still work with all the right paperwork to load up all our belongings and deliver us to Hertz at Lyon Airport at 06:30 the next morning.

The Lockdown journey

It was not nearly as extreme as I was expecting it to be.

I hadn’t slept the evening before with worry over being stopped by the police and trying to explain our situation. I am a big worrier! Not one of my most productive traits!

Turns out, I needn’t have worried….

We didn’t get stopped once. In fact, we didn’t actually see any police at all. No one asked us to show our paperwork and everyone we did see seemed totally chilled.

It took us about 8 hours door to door. 700km in total. Rather anticlimactic in a good way!

Retrospect

Its been a little over a week since we left the mountains. We ultimately made the right decision for us.

Some may feel our strategy to move across the country does not sit well with them and that’s ok! We can’t please everyone but we are confident that we made sensible choices to protect ourselves and others. Physical and mental health go hand in hand.

We are settled in the Dordogne for the foreseeable and we have our motorhome back. We are very lucky to have some amazing friends that have taken us in like family for the duration of the lockdown.

A lot of motorhome full-timers are struggling right now to find somewhere safe to call home while the world fights this health war. We are so very fortunate to have a safe place to isolate.

Our first season at 40 still has so much to share with you all but for now, we are just taking a little bit of time to acclimatise to our new normal.

We are also taking a little time to work out how the current circumstances are impacting on our big life plan.

Writing this all down has actually been a challenge. Reflecting on the past couple of weeks and realising just how stressful it was. Not having any of the answers not only for myself but also for our guests. The situation changing almost continually. I know am not alone in this feeling.

The level of change and the unknowns are unprecedented so lets just all try and be good to each other.

Stay safe and well!

Love & Hugs Katie and Dan xxx

A quick stop to buy coffee on our 700km drive….everything was shut except for a small hole in the shutter of the shop where you could purchase food. The available options were written on bits of cardboard stuck to the shutters…
Just us at the service station. Quite a surreal feeling.

4 Comments

  1. All roads lead to Dordogne 🌞

  2. Good luck Katie & Dan. Hopefully the ski resorts will open again next season , loads of people depend on them for a living, as do I.

    • Muffin

      April 10, 2020 at 8:41 pm

      Hi Miranda, Thanks so much for your message! We have our fingers crossed! What do you do within the ski industry? 🙂 Bonne santé

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