Home (away from home) for the holidays | AspenTimes.com

Home (away from home) for the holidays

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

The lyrics of a classic holiday tune carry an extra dose of poignancy for the thousands of lift operators, restaurant workers and ski instructors who are working today.

For many of them, home and family are far away. Aspen at Christmastime has become a tradition, of sorts, but they’re not here to play. They are working one or more jobs this winter and Christmas Day, more than anything else, is a workday.

Veterans of the seasonal job scene shrug with equal parts resignation and acceptance of their holiday toils. Homesick newcomers, sometimes on the verge of tears, put up a brave front. All turn to their long-distance calling cards to reach out to loved ones from afar, and they turn to one another.

At Aspen’s Burlingame/MAA housing complex, nearly 200 seasonal workers are holed up for the winter in small, sparsely decorated apartments. Foreign workers, here on short-term work visas, swell the population of this complex of buildings across the highway from Buttermilk Ski Area.

Their digs are often short on extraneous decor, but some sport Christmas lights in the windows or a red bow on the front door. Christmas stockings adorn the walls of one apartment; a diminutive Christmas tree is tucked into a corner in others.

The Aspen Skiing Company’s signature black jackets hang from the backs of the furnished, plastic chairs in many an apartment. Ski and snowboard instructors, lift ops and other resort employees abound. Many, it seems, hail from South America.

Pablo Arismendi and Karina Alder may call Argentina home, but this is their seventh winter in Aspen. Both are ski instructors at Snowmass.

Even now, Christmas away from home elicits a twinge of longing, Arismendi admits.

“It is a big deal ” you’re away from family,” he said.

“You’re here, you get used to it,” Alder added with a shrug.

Christmas Eve is actually the bigger celebration in South American culture, according to Alder. The evening is celebrated with a family dinner and a midnight toast. Then, gifts are opened.

Since Argentina is four hours ahead, Argentineans all over Aspen and Snowmass called their families at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve to share long-distance toasts.

Anabella Bianchi, also from Argentina, is away from home for the first time. She works at the Merry-Go-Round restaurant at Aspen Highlands and spends much of her free time with her brother, Alex, and his roommate, Pablo Viera.

Bianchi, who arrived in town last week, immediately felt the pangs of separation.

“It’s really hard. I miss all my family and my friends,” she said. “I really am asking myself what I’m doing here. This is the first year for me without my family. For me it’s very hard. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Because the dollar is so strong against the peso in Argentina, seasonal workers can earn enough money during the ski season to live without a second job back home, or make enough for another semester of university study, according to Viera.

A Buttermilk lift op, Viera is here for his third winter, but his mother is still having a hard time with his absence.

“Mom ” talking on the phone ” that’s the worst. They start crying all the time,” he said. “She always wants to know, ‘Are you eating enough? Are you warm enough?'”

Next door, 18-year-old Ignacio Rios is away from home for the first time, too. Viera has taken him under his wing, but it’s Bianchi who tousles his hair and throws an arm around him when Rios’ shy smile fades at talk of Christmas. His mother died on Dec. 24, 2000, he explains in halting English.

Rios works in guest services at Buttermilk. It’s his aim to earn enough money to throw his father a birthday party when he returns home.

“I think that’s very sweet,” Viera teases.

Matias Fraternali, working as a lift supervisor at Buttermilk, is away from his home in Argentina for the fourth year running.

“I’m kind of used to it, but yeah, sometimes it’s tough,” he said.

Friends from Peru have invited him to a traditional Christmas dinner ” a potluck affair. Fraternali will make dessert ” caramel peanuts ” a favorite from home.

His roommate, Juliano Marchiori of Brazil plans to get together with some of his countrymen after he wraps up a day’s work as a snowboard instructor at Buttermilk. Everyone is drawing names for a gift exchange, he said.

The group will probably dine on a traditional American dinner of turkey and mashed potatoes, with City Market roasted chicken as a substitute for the turkey, Marchiori said, since the Burlingame apartments aren’t outfitted with ovens. Residents have only stove tops and microwaves at their disposal.

Because of the limited cooking facilities, a group of Australians will feast on pasta and vegetables, just like they do at every home-cooked meal.

Stuart Kennedy of Melbourne is spending his first Christmas in Aspen, but his third one away from home. He works in ski rentals at Pomeroy Sports at Buttermilk.

“I think we might have a bit of a party,” he grinned in anticipation of Christmas. Kennedy and his mates, gathered in his cramped quarters after work one night last week, may even exchange gifts.

“You’re only allowed to give beer or spirits ” just to make present-giving easy,” he joked.

Aussie David McNamara, working as a concierge/valet at the Aspen Mountain Club during his first winter in the States, is philosophical about Christmas away from family.

“I think, because we’ll be working all the time, it’ll be fine,” he said. “If I was sitting home, I might get a little homesick.”

Buttermilk snowboard instructor Lisa Perry is spending her first winter in Aspen and her third in the States. Home is South Africa, but her family is scattered.

“It is quite hard, spending Christmas away from my family,” she conceded. “But Christmas is a good time to make money over here.”

When the ski season ends in Aspen, she will head to New Zealand to work as an instructor there.

It’s not the lifestyle for everyone, Perry said.

“You have to set yourself up every six months with all the stuff other people take for granted, like pots and pans and dishes,” she said.

The Burlingame housing does come with basic furnishings, however, including cot-style beds in each of the two-bedroom apartments.

“It’s living out of a backpack,” agreed Chris Knowlton, an American who grew up in Canada. He and his wife, Chilean Lissette Knowlton, are here for their sixth season, working at the Snowmass Ski School. Then they will head to Argentina to work as instructors when winter comes to the southern hemisphere.

The couple rent a storage space in Aspen to keep their belongings, including a small Christmas tree.

“Christmas Day is pretty much a workday,” Chris said. “As long as we’re together, that’s the main thing.”

“You are here, you’re with friends and you’re working, you’re not with family,” added Delfina O’Grady of Argentina. “You don’t realize it’s Christmas.”

“It’s just another day,” agreed Jeremy Mirfield of Massachusetts, a third-year ski instructor who, for the first time, has spruced up his apartment with a small Christmas tree (at the urging of his girlfriend/roommate).

His neighbor, Adam Dooney of New Zealand, will celebrate the holidays with other “kiwis” from his homeland.

Like many of the foreign workers at Burlingame, Dooney received gifts from his family before he left for the States. He did not, however, wait until Christmas to unwrap them.

“I opened them straight away,” he admits with a grin.

When the lifts shut down this Christmas Day, ski-area workers will trickle home to gather with their extended families of friends from home or, simply, other seasonal workers who are ready to celebrate.

Home doesn’t seem so far away with so many other South Americans in the neighborhood, noted one Argentinean.

“It’s like here, you don’t have your family, but your friends replace the people who aren’t here ” your brothers and sisters,” Pablo Viera concluded.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com

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