We are just human, after all

I’m on a skiing holiday with my husband in Japan. It’s reset my thoughts about independence. When you’re in an extreme and foreign environment, you sometimes need to admit, you need help.

We’re staying in a lodge. It feels a bit like summer camp (except it’s -14c outside). It’s not a hotel, it’s not dormitories, but we’re sharing a dining room, men’s and women’s bathrooms, and there’s a kind of unspoken and unexpected camaraderie that as a fiercely independent and organised person, I found challenging at first to accept.

We arrived in from our transfer bus late last night. It was a 6-hour journey. We had very short stops along the way, and a delay because of snow across the road. It was nearly 10pm by the time we arrived, and we’d not eaten properly because what we thought was fish skewers turned out to be cold, semi sweet bean curd that we decided not to eat. I digress.

We arrived. It was dark, cold, and we were tired and hungry. Walking into the foyer/entry area, several people were chatting and imbibing their favourite spirit of choice. This is der rigeur at après ski, but we hadn’t been there for the ski, the dinner, the drinks, the warm up; we’d just walked in. And I was annoyed. The conversation I overheard seemed a bit blah to me. We were shown to our room. It was freezing cold. No-one had been kind enough to think ahead and turn the heater on in our room in preparation for us. A small gesture, but coming from a cold climate (England), it’s something that I learned to do to make people welcome. You put the heater on in their room, you put the electric blanket on in their bed, it’s called being considerate. Our room is not large, or modern. So by now I’m hungry and tired and cold and pissed off. And the only thought in my head is ‘what possessed me to agree to come on this trip’

I leave the husband in the room to undress and unpack, and head back up to reception, where there is still a few deep and meaningful conversations happening in the foyer, to ask if there’s anywhere we can get dinner. And there’s nowhere. No. Where. Not this late, it’s snowing, and the closest place in walking distance to buy anything is a liquor store. The lady behind the counter asks one of the people chatting, “do you think the liquor store would sell noodles or something?” They all think for a minute. No, don’t think they do. More gloom. Can my night get any worse? “Well,” says one young scantily dressed inmate, “they can have our noodles can’t they?” What? “We’ve got some instant cup-noodles in the kitchen, and there’s hot water, you’d be welcome to have them”. That took me aback. I misjudged these people. In fact, it wasn’t that I’d mis-judged them, I had just judged them. 5 minutes later, hubby and I were slurping hot curry-flavoured noodles and drinking down a beer from the vending machine. And the heater in our room was on and working. Things suddenly got brighter. I was overwhelmed with gratitude to this young lass who’d offered us her and her friend’s noodles. Turns out, they both work here. I was almost reduced to tears by their kindness. I have the money to repay then 100 fold, but that wasn’t the point. “No problem, you’re welcome” they beamed. I felt old, ugly and shrewish.

Next humanity check: I came in from the first day of skiing, muscles aching. I haven’t skied for 3 years, and despite working hard in preparation at my pilates classes, I’m not going to make the winter Olympics. I’m back at the Lodge early. I heaved my boots off. Forgot how hard these suckers are to get off your feet. Took 3 goes. Exhaustion. I un-kit, find my 1000 yen note in my pocket, grab a beer from the vending machine and head down to our room — I’d left the heater on when we went out this morning so at least it’s warm. I’m tidying our room and go to put my boots in the drying room. And there’s a toughened snow boarder sitting on the bench trying his hardest to get his boots off. “It smells real bad in here” I said. “Yes” he said, “it’s not my boots though.” “Funny,” I said, “because I thought the smell got worse after you came in.”

As an Aussie, you have to get used to our ironic sense of humour. We think of it as repartee, a conversational duel. It invites the other participant to spar with us in words and thus reveals something of their character by their response and somehow creates a rapport with that person in the process. It doesn’t always go off well. He looked up with his jacket all zipped up and some kind of head wear/neck warmer up to his ears and says “You wouldn’t be so kind as to give me a hand to get this boot off, I just sprained my wrist and it bloody hurts”. Of course I would help him. He looked helpless. Over I go, grab the back strap and together, we pull, and pull. He’s embarrassed to have to ask for help, and in pain. And now, even more embarrassed because we’re both trying really hard to get the boot off, he’s even using his sprained hand, and the goddam thing still won’t come off. “Ok,” I say, “let’s stop and re-group for a second. Show me your wrist. Oh yes, I can see, you fell on it like this?” Yes. “And it effing hurts” he says. He’s at least 35, probably approaching 40. I’m almost 50. I guess it shows, even though I don’t like to think it does. I feel about 25 inside. “Ok” I say, “let’s give this another go.” One. Big. Pull. I almost fall backward as it gives way. Now the next one. Ready for another fight, I back up and pull, but this one comes off straight away. We laugh. I say “the first baby is always the hardest, the second comes easily”. I’m unsure as to why I made a mid-wifery reference to childbirth, but that’s how it totally seemed to me at the time. He’s up now and putting his boots on the drying rack. I say “You need to get ice on that straight away.” “Yeah” he says, “I was hoping they’d have an ice pack in the freezer.” Thinking about how unequipped this place is, I thought to myself ‘I doubt it’ so I said, “well, if they don’t, get a plastic bag, grab some snow from outside and wrap it around your wrist like this. Do you have any pain relief?” Yes, he said, ibuprofen. “Perfect” I said, “it’s an anti-inflammatory. It’ll work a treat.” He was listening to me. Really taking notice of what I said. I continued, “It’s too soon to strap it, but tonight, you could try to strap it. And have a beer, for medicinal purposes, of course.” He smiled, and thanked me. And off we went. And just like that, I remembered that to survive in extreme conditions, human beings can’t do it alone, as individuals. It takes a collective approach, not an individualistic one. We need to help each other, even if it’s just words of reassurance or as cheap as a cup of instant noodles. That’s why human beings first adapted into villages or tribes. It’s good to remember sometimes, we are, just human afterall.

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