Opinion » Alta States

Doing the Whistler juggle — work, family and fun in the 21st Century

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"The one who moves a mountain begins by carrying small stones."

- Confucius

I always laugh when people describe Whistlerites as "laid-back." I mean who's kidding whom here? Unless you have an independent source of income, there's nothing remotely laid-back about trying to get a toehold in this community. Whether it's the three jobs you juggled as a newcomer just so you could afford a season's pass and a new snowboard, or the financial contortions you now have to undertake just to keep your business solvent and your kids in university, well, making a go of it in this valley can defeat all but the most determined.

That's not to say it isn't a fun place to live. As we all know, the Whistler corridor is a pleasure palace for the outdoor-sports minded. And many locals are indeed masters of their environment — skiers, riders, runners, climbers, paddlers — who settled here to pursue their passions. But mastering such sports takes up inordinate amounts of time and energy too. I mean you don't get good at these activities by sitting around and talking about how good you are.

So laid-back? I don't think so. Outgoing. Energetic. Spirited. Robust. Enthusiastic. For sure. But placid? Passive? Uh-uh. And I guess that's my point here. Argue all you will, you know, but Whistler residents are unique. They're risk-takers with a sense of humour, mountain people with one eye to the sea. They're irreverent innovators, strong-willed, outspoken and a little bit alternative. Confident too. Did I already mention busy?

Peggy Vogler laughs when I bring up the "b" word. The mother of three teenagers, the longtime Whistlerite is keeping more balls in the air these days than a Cirque du Soleil juggler. You see, half the week she's in Vancouver running the cosy Kits café she inherited from her father, the rest she's working at the Whistler Waldorf School that she helped launch 12 years ago.

But she says she wouldn't have it any other way. "I really like being involved with things that I feel passionate about," she explains. "I like the challenge of it, you know. The feeling that I'm helping." Still, it's not like she's taking the easy path...

As we learned last week, Vogler was one of three Whistler moms who decided in 1999 to launch an alternative school based on the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. Although the cards were heavily stacked against them, the trio quickly attracted other Whistler families to Steiner's holistic approach to teaching. And a critical mass was established.

It was when the school moved to Spruce Grove Park in 2002, says Peggy, that its true identity emerged. "We prepared the site, put in all the services, and assembled the portables... all in six weeks," she continues. 'It was amazing! Hundreds of volunteer hours..."

More importantly, the Whistler Waldorf School now had a physical reality.

While she's much too diplomatic to comment on the relationship the school has had with past councils (other than to admit that there was always "lots of politics"), she's quite enthusiastic about the current administration. "Today's council is amazing," she says. 'Their attitude is super-positive. It feels like they're doing everything they can to ensure the school is around and serving the community in the future."

Of course, there's still another chapter to be written in the Whistler Waldorf story. "Our big dream is to build a real school one day," she says. And sighs heavily. "But finding the right site is a challenge in this town. Still, I'm confident we'll get there."

More laughter. "It's funny, you know. I always thought that when my kids were done at the school I'd leave too. But I can't. It's just too exciting right now."

So what about Aphrodite's, her Vancouver restaurant? And all the time and travel and responsibility and hard work that it demands of her? "Oh yeah," she says. Laughs. "That's a whole other story..."

It all started with a midlife crisis. "When I was growing up," starts Peggy, "my dad was a businessman working downtown." And a successful one too. But somewhere along the way, Allan Christian got disillusioned with his life, said fug it and dropped out of the rat race. By this time, his son and daughter had grown up and were leading adult lives of their own. So he decided to start all over again. "For a while there," remembers Peggy, "he was living in a crappy basement suite in Vancouver. He had no money at all..."

But he was happier, she says, than he'd been in a long time. "He left the downtown business scene behind with no remorse," she says. "Suddenly health and wellness were playing a much bigger role in his life."

Allan had grown up on a farm in Saskatchewan. And like many of his generation, had never lost his touch with the land. "My dad eventually moved to Glen Valley Farm, an organic cooperative in the Fraser Valley," remembers Peggy. "And he loved it!"

Her dad, she tells me, was always full of ideas. And his time at the farm was no different. "He kept looking at all these amazing fruits and vegetables they were growing and wondering what more he could do with them." She smiles. "So one day he just up and decides 'I'm going to start an organic pie shop!' We all thought he was nuts. Sell pies? No way...

But Allan was determined. "He eventually found a tiny space near Fourth and Dunbar and opened up his shop." She laughs again. "But when the corner location on the block became available, people started saying that he should launch a restaurant there."

So that's what he did. "But he had no money," says Peggy, "so everything he bought was miss-matched, second-hand. As for the renovation, he did all the work himself."

Aphrodite's opened for business in the fall of 2002. "It was fun you know. I used to come down to the city with the kids to 'hang out at grandpa's restaurant.'"

Still, the restaurant's success was far from a slam-dunk. "He'd bring the fruit and vegetables from the farm himself," says Peggy. 'All he had for help was a cook and a server... and they did everything." She can't help laughing at the absurdity of it all. 'It was a total guerrilla dining experience," she adds. "I mean, dad didn't even have an electric dishwasher there. Everything was cleaned by hand..."

No matter. Allan's timing couldn't have been better. Buoyed by the "100-mile diet" movement and other alternative foodie trends, Aphrodite's slowly began to build a reputation for itself. Peggy's father should have been on Cloud Nine. He'd totally re-invented himself; had launched a successful venture at a time when most of his peers were busy planning retirement.

Instead he had to face the biggest challenge of his life: oesophageal cancer. A year later, in April of 2008, Allan Christian was dead. And Peggy and her brother Derrick were suddenly owners of a restaurant running more on enlightened passion than conventional business sense.

Peggy was still working as a trainer-recruiter for the W/B ski school at the time. "But it was already late spring and I was off work at the mountain," she says. "So thankfully I was able to come down and work full-time at the restaurant." But once the snow started to fly she had no choice — she had to go back to Whistler.

"So Derrick was left alone to run the restaurant." And she already understood that wasn't sitting too well with her brother. "By the end of the year, Derrick said 'I can't do this anymore. We have to sell it.' So I agreed... my family, my life was in Whistler. How could I run a restaurant in Vancouver?"

But for some reason, she couldn't let it go. "It was about a week later," she says. "And I was like: 'No way! I'm not giving up. We're not selling it.'" She laughs. "So I hired a manager and took it over myself."

Today, Aphrodite's Organic Café boasts a staff of 40 — with 75 per cent of that number hired as full-time employees. "It's quite a handful," admits Peggy of her duties there. And some days, you know, are way harder than others." She smiles. "Still, I'm very proud of what we've been able to accomplish here. I get a real sense of satisfaction from it."

As I said, busy...

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