How learning to ski helped me shake off my German winter blues
The winters in Germany seemed longer for Michelle Purse than in her native Britain. Then she took up skiing, a pastime that helped her connect with Germans and the beautiful south German landscape.
I’m no stranger to the Winter Blues. I was in my late twenties and living in London when a friend first noticed that around the end of British summertime, the shorter days and darker skies had an adverse affect on my mood and turned me into a bit of an antisocial recluse.
It was about three years after I first moved to Germany that it started to become progressively worse. Add-in the standard ex-pat ingredients of feeling homesick and isolated and you have the perfect cocktail for depression, particularly SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Somehow German winters just felt longer and darker than back home.
My husband and I started floating the idea of moving back to the UK, hoping the change of geography would solve the problem, but I think we both had our doubts. So instead we decided to give Germany one last chance and in doing so we would fully commit to local life. That meant having another crack at learning German and embracing winter sports in an attempt to find something positive to focus on during the SAD season.
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I can’t deny that the retail opportunity of a new activity immediately put the spring back in my step. After a nostalgic visit to C&A (still alive and well in Germany) I got myself a ski jacket, trousers and gloves for the bargain price of €45. As for the rest of the kit, I managed to beg and borrow it so as not to completely break the bank on the experiment.
Upon reflection, the very first time we headed to the slopes we weren’t prepared at all. It was a Friday night, and along with two friends we drove to Feldberg, a very picturesque ski resort in the Black Forest and fairly easy to access from our base in Mannheim.
Not unlike most ski resorts, the approach involved driving around steep mountain roads, which after sudden snowfall had yet to be cleared and salted by the Winterdienst. Our summer tires turned into slicks and refused to gain traction on the now lethal road surface. I ended up swerving into a precariously placed lay-by in tears as my passengers fell into an uncomfortable silence.
Luckily another driver had seen our predicament and called for reinforcements. We arrived at our hotel about an hour later attached to the back of a tractor. I was too relieved to be embarrassed and enjoyed my first two Obstwasser in rapid succession.
So, arguably the first ski lesson I ever had was the importance of changing to winter tires and packing snow chains when heading to the mountains. I have never made that mistake again.
Skiers on the Feldberg. Photo: DPA
Learning to ski was every bit as challenging as I expected. Unless you are lucky enough to learn as a child when you are agile, light and fearless, then I must warn you that it’s just a case of persisting and pushing past the aches, pains, fear and self doubt (I’m not really selling this yet, am I?).
In some ways the physical challenge of staying upright, side stepping up hills, negotiating the tricky drag lifts and the painful attempts at a controlled snowplough stop, kept my heart racing and mind fully occupied - there simply wasn’t the time or the energy available to feel down. And because it was so challenging, every little success - like managing to ski in a chosen direction and then stop without falling over - was a cause for celebration.
Thanks to the patience of my ski instructor and several more weekend trips to the Black Forest, eventually I was confident enough to tackle a seated chair lift and ski down a mountain from top to bottom - albeit slowly, and in my own special style. I was ready for the next level. I was ready for Garmisch.
Progressing to a renowned ski resort like Garmisch-Partenkirchen felt like a really big deal and meant that I could at least ski with friends who were confident skiers and needed more exciting slopes and apres-ski options than the Black Forest could offer. As the purpose of the exercise was to feel better about German winters and feel more at home here, this then seemed like a great achievement - social skiing.
Aside from the social, physical and mental health benefits of skiing, a major attraction of being part of the German winter sports scene is the beautiful mountain huts that welcome you in with a roaring fire and a delicious selection of local food. A hard work-out on the slopes is the only excuse you need to fill up on carbs and cake; it’s a diet-free zone and apres-ski partying starts at 4:15pm on the dot!
From that very first time in Feldberg when I stumbled around on skis like Bambi on ice, I fell in love with the mountains. I felt (and still feel) a deep and beautiful connection to nature when on the piste; the scenery is always breathtaking and the physical exertion is exhilarating. I couldn’t give up on learning to ski because I was already reaping the rewards and knew it would only get better, and it did. I persevered to become a confident and (almost) fearless skier.
The Winter Blues will always be challenging for me, but now my calendar from December to March is peppered with mountain adventures waiting to unfold. This season has become the highlight of my year. And though I will always lack the grace and finesse that you see in a skier that has grown up on the slopes, I do have an almost evangelical passion for the sport and how it made me feel at home here in Germany.