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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Prince and I

It was my very first day as a preschool ski instructor at Aspen Skiing Company. As the rookie, I was last on the totem pole for being assigned students, so that first day, I did not have a class. My boss told me to just hang around and help inside in case someone showed up late.

Soon after that, a group of what appeared to be Saudi Arabian men in sequined one-piece Bogner ski suits, furry Moon Boots, and radio head sets came into our lobby.  My bosses' ears pricked up: major, big time serious client coming in!

This was the fall of 1993--eight years before 9/11.  In Aspen at that time, everyone loved the Saudis, and they in turn adored Aspen.   One time when I was working at the Aspen toy store, a teenage Saudi Arabian girl hopped out of a limo in front of the store and came in and spent $800 on plastic mood rings. My friend Jency got 3 carat diamond earrings as a tip for serving cocktails; one of the ski instructors got a Jeep. Everyone in Aspen knew they could ask Prince Bandar (later Saudi ambassador to the US) --who had a house in Starwood the size of a small shopping center --for money for their boy scout troops, senior class trips, or lost cat fund.

The man in the front of group inquired politely about getting a getting a lesson for a four year old girl--right now. My boss looked at the assignment board in a panic and saw that everyone was already out on the hill--except me. She eyeballed me is dismay. Not only was I brand new, I was not even from the West.  I had learned to ski at Mt. Wachusett for God's sake.  My boss said yes, absolutely, they had one of their finest instructors ready to give a lesson right now!

The man stepped away and spoke into his microphone; the rest of the entourage then began to speak rapidly into their own headsets. Some of them ran out onto the Snowmass Mall, others positioned themselves by the door. My boss, "Deb,"  hurried into the back. My other boss, "Jen,"  came running. They stood in front of me looking panicked, sizing me up, and probably wishing desperately there was someone else--anyone else!!-- around to take the lesson. They had never even seen me  actually teach.  For all they knew I was a complete incompetent! But, it was me or no one.

"Her father is Prince Farud*,"  Deb hissed, grabbing me by the arm and steering me toward the back door. "Don't worry, they're always very nice. The whole group will stay and watch--probably the whole time. Don't get rattled. Don't push the little girl too hard. And SMILE! You'll do fine. " Then she kind of gave me a pinch like or else!

I hustled outside to wait by our tiny little bunny hill--a slope of about 100 yards where the kids took their first steps on skis. From the bunny hill, first-time skiers could see the other kids gleefully riding the Magic Carpet further down the hill, which motivated them to learn to stop as soon as they could. Most kids stayed on the bunny hill for an hour or less until they learned to snowplow. Some kids managed it their first time--for others it took a few runs--but everyone made it to the Magic Carpet by the end of the morning. Or so I thought.

Ten minutes later, a bevy of sparkly-jumpsuited, fur-boot wearing Saudi Arabian women began wandering into the corral, accompanied by bodyguards, nannies, grandmas,  and more guys with headsets and walkie talkies. The entourage lined the fence surrounding the bunny hill. There was my first client: an adorable four-year-old girl in her own brand new, bedazzled snowsuit and brand new, top of the line ski equipment. Accompanied by two women, she came laughing over to the red mats where kids put their skis on. The ladies all smiled and took pictures and then politely got out of the way, going to stand on the fence with the bodyguards. Another woman stayed nearby to translate.

With approximately twenty-five Saudi Arabians watching me, not to mention both my supervisors and the translator, I started to teach the little girl how to ski. She obligingly stepped into her skis like I showed her and practiced stepping down on the bindings so that she was buckled in. Then she practiced getting out of the skis, and getting back up from being on the ground. Next, she stepped out on the snow. She giggled with delight, slid her feet back and forth, and tumbled down. We practiced getting up. So far so good.

Maybe an hour into the lesson, all the walkie talkies began crackling and the bodyguards and guys with headsets all started freaking out. They shouted at each other across the corral, "He's coming! He's moving! He's on the move! The Prince is coming!" The bodyguards fanned out from the corral and up to the mall. The women all started chattering and rearranging themselves. Cell phones--so rare at the time that if someone whipped one out in the lift-line, everyone would actually hiss at them!--were produced, and rapid conversations undertaken. Everyone waited in tense anticipation for the arrival of the Prince.

I tried to focus on my little student (whom I'll call Salah, although I have no clue what her actual name was,) while all this was going on. The bodyguards started to shout out the Prince's location: "He's gotten out of the limo! He's passing the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory! He just passed the Stew Pot!" --as he made his was down the Snowmass Mall.

Meanwhile, to my dismay, Salah didn't appear to be making  any progress whatsoever on learning to snowplow. She just giggled and coasted to the bottom of the slope, making absolutely zero attempt to point her toes together. I caught her every time before she crashed into the fence--where several of her aunties were taking videos--and asked the translator to point out that the other kids got to go on the Magic Carpet,  because they had learned how to stop!--this usually did the trick. We even attached Edgie Wedgies to Salah's skis--these pretty much made it impossible not to snowplow--but  no luck. On top of that, Salah had no inclination to walk back up the hill. The kids were supposed to walk back up the red plastic mats themselves--another motivator for getting off the bunny hill--but Salah just laughed at us and waited for us to tow her. It crossed my mind that this tiny child had probably never really had to do anything, and was probably not going to start now.

By now the prince was entering the corral, and I was sweating from chasing and catching Salah and towing her back up to to the top of the slope every 5 minutes. The prince came over and said hello --my supervisors nimbly jumped in between us and introduced themselves before I could say anything unfortunate!--and patted his daughter's head.  With both Jen and Deb staring at me in grimacing agony, I explained the progress she was making and what we were working on. The prince just smiled and waved his hand as if to say, "It's all good!" After a few minutes he went to the fence to watch our progress with the rest of the family.

My supervisors had noticed by now that Salah was not even close to snowplowing. She seemed perfectly happy to coast down the hill, have me catch her, and then have me tow her back to the top.  Jen gave me a look like, just let it go and keep smiling! So I kept at it--chasing, catching, and towing--for another stultifyingly dull hour and a half, at which point, thank God, Salah got hungry and opted to quit. I thought my back was going to give out. The Saudis and their entourage gave profuse thanks and meandered away from the ski school, walkie talkies crackling, body guards sprinting ahead, and no doubt, stretch Hummers warming up somewhere in the basement of the Ritz Carlton. I was completely exhausted and aware that her lesson had pretty much been an epic failure!

The next day, when the royal family came back, my bosses were ready. No more taking chances with a rookie who could not even teach a four year old to snowplow in two and a half hours! They had our best, most patient, most experienced and amazing male (by request) instructor, "Mike," ready to take Salah out. After a few days, "Mike" hit the jackpot: the royal family invited him to spend a month at their house in Chamonix, pay him like $10, 000 a day just to be on call for Salah,  and let him bring his girlfriend. (You really can't exaggerate the stuff that happens in Aspen.)

When Mike got back from Chamonix we all asked him how it went. He said he only had to work an hour a day, the family was incredibly nice to him, and Chamonix was fabulous.

The only thing that made me feel better was that he said it took him two weeks to convince Salah to snowplow.

* Name has been changed!

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