I recently returned from a wonderful telemark festival in Italy, where I learned much about living la dolce vita. La dolce vita, for those of you who don't pretend to speak Italian, translates to "the drunk life," and should not be confused with the Latin-pop superhit "Livin' La Vida Loca" (loca meaning "crazy" in Spanish).
My education began before departure, when an Italian friend back home gave me an insider tip. "Take public transit," Fabio advised, "and on the way stop to see some of my friends and family." He then gave me phone numbers for every biped north of Palermo. For this I was grateful: One of Fabio's friends (Nicola, if memory serves) gave me a full ski outfit to replace the one that was lost with my luggage. I only hope that someday I can repay him with an equally fetching baby blue getup.
After the festival, I sobered up. Then, out of genuine concern for any would-be festival participants, I made this list. It is my gift to you.
1) Don't Question La Skieda's Existence.
"It was born just like mushrooms-poof poof poof," said founder Luigi Martinelli as he chain-smoked Marlboros at 8 a.m. in the bar of the Hotel Posta. "Problem was, the more work we did, the more people came, and the more work we did." In other words, rapid growth was a real pain in the ass. When boot manufacturer Garmont presented $100,000 in sponsorship money, Luigi knew he had hit rock bottom. "So in 2000," he continued, "we announced the death of La Skieda." But killing La Skieda proved impossible. The next year, 550 people showed up anyway. Luigi and friends folded. "Now," he chuckled, sucking on his umpteenth cigarette, "we realize we have no control."
So, the 10-year-old festival lives on. It takes place each March in Livigno-a lovely little Alpine village that sits in a box canyon just below the Swiss border. It draws a crowd that, by telemark standards, could be called sophisticated: Andean hats and patchouli-drenched body odor are conspicuously absent. What Skieda has is a thousand or so freeheel enthusiasts from 22 countries-everyone from American ski-movie stars to vacationing executives to a man who glues foam blocks to his skis so he doesn't have to wear kneepads.
2) Choose Your Events Wisely.
The festival schedule includes seven events of the type one comes to expect from a country where bodily-injury lawsuits are few. Take the Surprise Race, a daring slalom course that runs through a gauntlet of swinging heavy bags, which have been known to knock competitors out of their boots. Other events include the Valecia Golf Open, in which people who don't belong to country clubs demonstrate why this is so. Then there's the Free Heel Endurance Race, a.k.a. Chinese Downhill, in which some 500 telemarkers tuck down the open slopes of the resort, dodging snowplowing vacationers, to see who can complete the most runs in a day. (The record is nearly 200,000 feet.) And of course there's the Maxi Turn, also known as Crack the Whip on Skis. Here, telemarkers stand side by side on a steep hill, clasp hands, and make a large, sweeping turn. Last year, 210 skiers were flung face-first into the corn snow.
3) Don't be an Overachiever.
Climbing in Europe with a group of 100 isn't a problem, especially if the group is moving at the pace of rush-hour traffic-and you're at the back of the line. Which is exactly where I found myself after meeting and smoking with Luigi. Several times a day at La Skieda, a conga line of telemarkers follows a few guides up a small peak. In fact, everyone paid $165 for the opportunity to skin herky-jerky, nose-to-butt-to-nose up to a single backcountry chute. Bringing up the rear, I learned, affords one the luxury of examining the Skieda map, a most useful tool that depicts 28 lift-accessed tours radiating from Livigno like the spokes of a bent wheel.
On one excursion, I fell in nose-to-butt behind U.S. pro tele skier Kasha Rigby. By the time we reached the top, an hour and a half later, a guy named Giuseppe had descended with graceful arcs, the beautiful Angelika had completed a series of awkward sideslips and stem christies (but she looked great), and the other 96 people had turned the prime chute into a bona fide mogul field. I stalked Kasha to the edge of the couloir and we made a couple dozen turns in whatever deep, light snow we could find.
4) Drink With Extreme Caution.
Start your daily consumption with panacheé, the beer-and-Sprite mixture that your aunt probably calls a shandy. People sip two to five of these at aprés or, if the morning is really dragging on, for breakfast. It is truly a great drink: the sugar provides a quick boost of energy, the carbonation increases the alcohol's absorption rate, and the tan color allows men to drink them with impunity. Warning: If you are an American male, do not drink Bomba-a concoction of grapefruit or orange juice and sparkling white wine. It is pink, it's served in a champagne flute, and there are cameras everywhere. If you want to meld into the local culture without going the flamboyant route, order an espresso to chase your panacheé.
At dinnertime, the liquids naturally turn to red wine. But beware of fellow diners stealthily refilling your glass. Pace yourself, for the best and most dangerous part of the evening awaits. It's the focus of the festival, the core of la dolce vita-it's the Grappa Drink Clinic. For some reason the nightly consumption of grappa always led me into conversations about the fluctuating exchange rates of the Polish zloty and the Icelandic krona. Saliva would foam and harden at the corners of my mouth. Not so good: Despite their tremendous contributions to the sciences, Europeans still believe dehydration should be treated with the consumption of alcohol.
5) Know When to Go Home. Rent, utilities, car payments, and credit card bills cast a shadow long enough to darken even the sun-drenched grappa fest that is La Skieda. My head pounded. My sunburn peeled and cracked. My liver throbbed. The airline lost my luggage on the return flight, too. Back in Colorado-17 hours and four airports later-I met up with Fabio. We spoke of his friends, and the festival, and the heavy bags, and the Drunk Life, and of how I needed a month to dry out. To which he replied: "What! You mean you didn't see my niece?"