Wednesday, August 10, 2011

People We See...And Don't See

Elena Hiatt Houlihan

© 2011 All Rights Reserved

We've all waved her away as we were chatting outside Andale's, laughing over margaritas while old rock music rolls out onto the sidewalk, and baby boomers writhe to the beat inside. She is so tiny and frail that she seems like a small bird pushing her way through the overfed Canadians and Americans who tower above her. Pressed to her chest are four or 5 round flat cakes on foam plates, each in a clear plastic bag.

"Bread?" she croaks in her almost inaudible voice. She puts the plates on the table or proffers them toward the waist of an adjacent drinker standing by the door.

"I've got four flavors," she says hopefully. "Orange, pecan, coco, and banana. Only 50 pesos."

We raise our eyebrows as if to say, 50 pesos? Five dollars for a layer cake, with no icing, because it does look like a cake she's thrust before us. "It's bread," she repeats.

It was my first week in Puerto Vallarta, and I'd already been besieged, interrupted and tapped on by peddlers on the beach hawking colorful sarongs, mothers carrying babies asking for milk money, and four-year olds holding up boxes of Chiclets. I didn't buy a cake. I don't need the calories, and if I'm indulging, it will be in ice cream, French pastry or flan, not cake of unknown quality.

Still I kept seeing her, slipping among the crowd on the sidewalk, or making her rounds in Nacho Daddy's while Sean wailed the blues in the background. Sometimes she had three cakes, sometimes five, four held close to her body with her left hand and one dangling at her side from her right. Several of us began speculating on whether she made any money.

"Five cakes a night at 50 pesos a cake, that's only 250 pesos. How can she support herself and buy the ingredients?"

I tried to forget her, but my curiosity and my conscience nagged me into investigating her story. One night, I saw her outside the sophisticated sushi bar on Olas Altas. Her sleeveless dress with blue and green flowers was crisp enough for a garden party, though it was 10 PM. I introduced myself, bought an orange cake and asked if she would talk to me.

"My name is Alicia," she revealed, peering up at me, "but, honey, I can't talk now. I have to go over there." She gestured down toward Café Vayan, "I'm working."

"Do you mind telling me how many cakes you make?"

"Eighteen, honey. Every day. I have to go now."

"How old is she?" I wondered as she walked away. She had to be at least 80, and she couldn't weigh more than 90 pounds. Her tiny legs looked almost too thin to support her, and she was wearing a stretch bandage around her left ankle.

One night after I trailed along, observing her many stops along Basilio Badillo, she finally disclosed bits of her story. Because she has light skin and speaks English well, I mistakenly thought she was a gringa who had perhaps married a Mexican when young and lived here ever since.

"No-o-o, I was born in Pachuca, Hidalgo, a mining town far from anywhere. They had many Canadian and American engineers then, so there was an American school. I studied English from the time I was little until high school."

By then it was 11 PM, and she left me on the sidewalk to make her way through the tables at Nacho Daddy's while strains of Tex-Mex blared over the dancers. Approaching the listeners, her demeanor was as hopeful and springlike as the pink and white flowers on her dress. From the stage, Joe "King" Carrasco addressed the crowd, "Hey, everyone, this is Alicia. She's 90 years old! Buy one of her delicious cakes. I get one every week."

That thoughtful gesture brought another sale; then an American couple followed her onto the street asking to buy a cake. "I have more, right over here," she said gesturing toward Café Vayan. They patiently followed her inside and paid with a five-dollar bill, as well as offering her additional money, which she didn't take.

Within Puerto Vallarta, she confines her route to the Zona Romantica, leaving her cakes in a wire cart that she parks inside the café, while she slowly walks up Olas Altas, onto several side streets, back along the Malecon, and then up Basilio. She does this for two to three hours every night, returning to Vayan to pick up more cakes if she sells the five she is carrying. Then she repeats her path, often stopping at the same place twice, in case she missed a potential customer. On Sundays she takes her cakes to the Marina.

"What propels her dedication?" I asked myself, marveling at her stamina.

Because she never has time to sit down, I bend over to listen as we walk along, hoping not to miss a word.

"After school, I left home and went to Mexico City where I had a good-paying job. I met my husband there and we married when I was 19.

"My husband was very very handsome! He was a big worker. We had a big house on a very good street. He liked the horses, and he went 'gaming' several times a week, but he was a great man. After 7 years I had a girl and after 7 years again, I had a boy."

Then her husband died, and she sold her house. "Honey, it was the biggest mistake of my life."

"I was in Cancun with my husband once, and it was very beautiful. After he died, I went back with my youngest son. He married a girl there and had 2 chil-dren." In the way she draws out the word I hear a bit of an accent.

"But his wife left him with the chil-dren. So I had to take care of them. My son started drinking."

Because he did not want his children to see their mother with another man, her son moved to Vallarta. Alicia came too. Then while drunk, her son had an accident, and now he can't walk.

"He used to play football, but in the accident, something happened to his leg. Now he's too fat. Sometimes he works, but the money is too low. The children can't work, so I pay for everything. I like to do that because I love the chil-dren."

In Cancun, Alicia had a laundry, but she had to start over in Vallarta. A neighbor suggested she bake banana bread to sell in the apartment complex where they lived out by Walmart.

Her day starts about 9:30, when she gets up and has her favorite peach yogurt, then starts baking the eighteen cakes she must sell that evening. In between, she prepares food for the family. For the past fourteen years, since the age of 75, long past most people's retirement, this has been her routine and her mission.

In the evening, her granddaughter who is 15, brings her into Vallarta in their red pickup truck. Sometimes it malfunctions, and Alicia is late or has to take a taxi. After her nightly rounds, Alicia waits patiently for her ride. They have no phone, so if the red truck doesn't pull up alongside the café by 11, she has to pay 50 or 60 pesos from her profits for the ride back.

"So what time do you get home?" I ask.

"I go from here to Walmart and I get all my things for the breads, and then I go home about 1:30." I picture her struggling with huge bags of flour. "No, honey, my granddaughter helps me."

The cost of her ingredients is between 400 and 500 pesos every night, or 12000 P per month, much more than her rent of 3000 pesos.

"I need to sell at least 700-800 pesos a day," she says, to pay the rent, light and water. That's 14-16 cakes. How is she going to do that with the tourist season ending, I wonder?

One night, from across the street I watch her small slightly stooped form approach three fair-haired women, and I find myself praying that one will buy a cake from her. At least they pause and listen, but they continue their stroll empty handed, and she shuffles up Basilio Badillo to the next restaurant.

At the corner taco stand, she embraces a chubby waitress twice as big as she is. Few people who buy her cakes can resist her genuine affection, and she rewards most of them with a hug and a kiss.

Yet late on Monday night, she told me about a disturbing incident. "Today I went to a table, and there was three men and two women, American. I told them 'Maybe you need bread for breakfast?' and one of the gentlemen, he was not a gentleman, he pushed me and he said 'We don't want you here!'"

"And I told him, 'Sir, it's my job. I'm just offering my breads to you. You don't need to get mad. So be careful!' And the others laughed at him!"

To me she explained, 'I'm protect by the association of old people and nobody is going to do anything to me because I'm so old. Honey, I'm 89 years old. They protect me. It's because of my age."

Despite her dedication and the seeming innocence that she exudes, not all establishments welcome her presence. I notice that she walks by without stopping at the busy taco restaurant, and the always-packed Café de Olla. And in contradiction to Carasco's hearty recommendation, one waiter up the street, laughed and said,

"Oh, yeah, those cakes? Buy one if you need a doorstop!"

After buying several, I admit they are a bit heavy, yet I hesitate to upset her or her system by suggesting improvements.

Though she has no extended family in Puerto Vallarta, she has another son who is 62 and has 12 children, and a daughter in Mexico City, who has invited Alicia to come live with her. Since Alicia's doctor thinks the altitude might not be good for her, she stays and continues supporting her son and granddaughter. Her 18 year-old grandson is now in Cancun, hoping to play football with a big league.

"Honey, I love my work," she said as we stepped up the curb to the Café Vayan. I was stunned. It was after eleven o'clock, and she could have been sitting calmly at home resting or reading, instead of keeping to this compulsive schedule.

"I love my work because I love my chil-dren," she said in her crackly little voice. She squeezed my hand and looked up at me, a glint of satisfaction in her eyes; then she trundled off to get her cart and head for home. But first she had to go buy flour and sugar.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


OK, I admit, I succumbed to the wiles of a charming younger man! When I stepped off the plane last Tuesday evening, I heard, "Taxi? You need a taxi, miss?" With a beguiling smile, tall, slender, handsome, Anuar beckoned me over to his desk where I presumed I could negotiate a prix fixe taxi fare into Puerto Vallarta. $20, seemed a bit steep, but I had no idea how far out we were.

"Oh, here's the possibility. I can get you a free taxi ride into the city, if you would like to come see this beautiful place called The Flamingos. Free transportation and free beautiful breakfast, all for 75 minutes of your time!" By the time Anuar (pronounced Ahn-war) and his equally handsome cohorts had beguiled me with their promises to help find an apartment, not to mention show me where to dance salsa, I gave in.

That's how I found myself the next day savoring the beauties of this elegant resort out past Nuevo Vallarta. Of course, that was preceded by numerous questions about my vacation habits (they didn't know I sometimes stay in hostels), and listening to not one, but two presenters, one a gentle young guide, and the other a savvy Russian named Marina whose toughness was no match for my slipperiness. When she couldn't sell me the timeshare, or in their lingo, persuade me to "Join the Club," whose exclusivity costs a mere $19,000, she tried to persuade me to work there. The 75 minutes stretched into about 4 hours.

However, this was my reward:

A swim in their lovely pool after the presentation
A discount card for numerous restaurants in town, plus access to the facilities at their other resorts if I choose to go there
A free taxi ride from the airport into town
Free taxis to and from the resort
A free taxi ride through Bucerias, a nearby town I wanted to explore.
A delicious FREE MASSAGE in their exquisite spa
AND, a bottle of tequila which is still sitting here in my new apartment.

Given my tendency to interview, I heard about my young guide's fiance and her need for freedom, as well as Marina's hysterical tales of her Jewish grandmother, who told her at the age of 7, "You vill suffer een zees life." Sassy and sexy Marina has survived 4 husbands (She doesn't date well. She just gets married.) and she's raking in commissions from gullible travelers here in Puerto Vallarta. I thought the day was worth it for the stories!

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Though it's taken a bit longer than I originally thought, I did sell my house in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2009 as part of my dream/vision/intention to find my place to live by the sea. Which sea? I don't know. Which country? I don't know. Fortunately as an artist, I seem to have developed an ability to live with the unknown. After all, we don't really know what is going to happen tomorrow. We just think we do, because we become so used to our routines that we think they will automatically continue.

Those of you who receive my newsletter know that I de-accessed everything except my art work, a few photography books, handmade dishes and favorite artifacts, now scooched into a 7' x 10' storage unit in Pittsburgh. I packed the remaining clothes, important papers, and miscellaneous paraphernalia I believed I might need into my van and headed to Indiana. Once there, familial concerns took over after my father's death, and we helped mom move into assisted living, then I coordinated the emptying of the family home and prepared it for sale.

So, two houses emptied, and Mom settled, I began my journey, returning to see dear friends and tie up loose ends in Pittsburgh, then up to Deer Isle, Maine. Once there, invigorated and inspired by views of the sea and contact with new and old friends, I began writing again. When the chill of Fall approached, I drove back to Indiana and then on to Houston for Christmas with my son.

Though I have been officially "homeless," and an artistic nomad for over a year, I have been ensconced with friends or family for most of the time, but now it's time for a leap into the unknown. Wanting to find a quiet place to write and also discover a new place to live, I first proposed driving into Mexico. This plan was denounced as unwise by all who heard it. Plan B was to fly to San Miguel on the recommendation of friends. When I heard how cold it was there in January, I switched to Plan C and booked a ticket to Puerto Vallarta. Now I was back to downsizing as I took a pile of clothes to Good Will, and packed one suitcase and a rolling computer bag for the trip. (OK, I didn't get rid of everything. The van and its contents remain in Houston.) Here's what it looked like in Houston as I was packing up. First the chaos!

So check in soon to hear what happened after I landed in Puerto Vallarta!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Landing in the Unknown: Recife, Brazil

From the plane window, Recife (pronounced Hay see' fay) was a mass of spires in the distance, skyscrapers diminishing to lower buildings, houses and shacks surrounded by green as the cify flowed inland. When I hurriedly chose it as destination from my parent's family room in Indianapolis, I pictured long beaches fringed by palm trees. On the map, it perched on the coast in northeastern Brazil. But my expectations were squashed by Robert in Florianopolis who said "Why are you going to Recife? It's just a big, dirty city. Go to Salvador instead." A website said that the ocean at Recife was brown. Inwardly my nose crinkled. Tea tinged water? Not in my dreamscape!

The Airtreks agent emailed that the tickets couldn't be changed, but I might try in person at the Tam office in Sao Paolo. I ruled that out when I saw the maze of convoluted streets, and learned that taxi fares were 80-100 reales to cross the city.

A young woman at the Backpackers Sunset Hostel had written Porto de Galinhas, on a scrap of paper. Voted the best beach in Brazil, I discovered later. But where to stay and how to get there? Internet research had not yielded any ideal lodging; even the Lonely Planet chapter listed only a few. I emailed the Beira response. It was November 4th, and I was too interested in the election and in visiting with Kathy, my new friend in Sao Paolo, to spend more time on it. Searching for a room was a distraction when election results were coming in.

So once again, I was landing in a city with no idea of where I would stay, and it was late afternoon. Waiting for my bags, I heard tambourines and drumming. Flashes of sparkling red and turquoise shone through the glass window. A row of dancers in sequins and fringed headdresses were swaying and stamping in the outer arrival area. Was this a festival? Were important people on this plane? It was like the art of Nick Cage whose installation of exotic beaded sculptures I had seen in Pittsburgh, only these were real. Dancers in the airport? What a great sign! I hurried to take photos.

Trundling my suitcases into the tourist office, I learned that they had hotels only for Recife, nothing for Porto de Galinhas. I had to go to the tourist office in PG to get that info. Fortunately there was a direct bus which cost only 5.5 reais and I could get it outside the airport. Great idea! After a few bumblings, and buying a snack, yet another type of empanada, at a glossy SWEETS bar, I headed out for the bus. On the sidewalk, a short dark man started talking to me.

"Do you need a taxi?"
"No, I'm taking the bus to Porto de Galinhas."
"Not a good idea. Very crowded. Dangerous. Mafioso on the bus. Long ride. You might have to stand up all the way! Somebody might take your stuff."

The short man conveyed all this in Portuguese with swaying gestures as if he were hanging on a strap in a jampacked bus bumping over treacherous roads. He repeated the word Mafioso several times. He would take me all the way to Porto de Galinhas, 70 km for 70 reais, about $35.

Transportation costs vary widely and disproportionately here. A 12 hour bus ride to Iguacu Falls costs about $70. A cab ride across Sao Paolo is about $40.

Okay, Okay, I give up.

We headed into the parking garage for his car which turned out to be a slightly dented and rusted white station wagon. There was a huge orange propane tank in his boot, so he tossed my suitcases in the back, and I sat in the front seat. The engine died as we pulled up to exit. Hmmmm, I could get stuck in the middle of nowhere with this guy. Still I felt calm and perfectly safe. When some of my mango drink spilled on the torn floor mats, "No worry, no worry!" Jose assured me while I wiped it up. An small open Bible lay on the ledge below the windshield. Ah, I was with a righteous man.

After crowded streets with car dealerships, battered signs, men lounging on street corners, we passed into green hills covered with sugar cane, reminiscent of Hawaii. Smoke rolled over and into the car where the cane was burning. Hacked brown fields of stubble alternated with fresh green shoots. Despite seeing an occasional tractor, Jose told me that the cane was still harvested by hand, as I had seen in the documentary The Price of Sugar,

It was after 6 PM when we arrived in Porto de Galinhas, and already dark. Clusters of teenaged girls in shorts, slouchy boys in baggy pants, beachfried tourists wandered alongside the dirt roads. "Am I in Thailand?" I thought, scanning the glaring Pizza signs, and Bikinis for R15! in tiny shops. It looked frayed and tacky, unlike the glossy images on the internet. "I may have made a mistake this time! And we came so far from Recife..."

"Pousada Flores. Berry nice. Go see?" Jose asked. He probably gets a kickback, I thought, but I'll go look. Have no idea where the tourist office is anyway. We pulled up to a dim and sandy front yard not far from the noisy town center. Where were the palm trees? The owners were florid but friendly, and the room adequate and a bit seedy. The beach, not in sight. They gestured down the street somewhere. What did I expect for $30? Slightly disappointed, I decided to look elsewhere.

In the car, we called the Beira Mar which was on my list. No vacancies. We headed off into the darkness. By this time Jose and I were on friendly terms. We had communicated in broken Spanish, Portuguese and English. He had 3 children, had driven a taxi for 30 years, and his car was a '96, like my Chrysler van back home. He had already warned me not to let people see my computer or my camera. People talk. I would be the victim of thieves. It now seemed to be his mission to find me a place.

We drove behind the gated walls of unknown pousadas that apparently faced the beach. The next one, was it Pousada Verde? had a beautiful garden and a gorgeous room painted in turquoise and rose, with only one small window opening to a wall. They wanted R150 plus a tax of 15%. About $86. High for my artistic budget. For that, I wanted more light. We decided to look one more place.

Jose headed down the highway further out of town, passing the Hotel Armacao, a highclass resort, past the Beira Mar which we had called and pulled up behind the EcoPorto Pousada. Yes! An ecological theme. This had to be it. The owner, Sueli, a slender blond of about 50 who looked German instead of Brazilian, said they had a vacancy. Only for 2 nights...then they were booked. It was a literary festival in Porto de Galinhas. R180. I offered !50, $75 She accepted. We went upstairs to look.
AHhhhh, my hammock!

The room on the second floor faced the sea, and palm trees waved below. Sea sounds filled the air, and I knew I would write on one of the tables in the garden. It was my dreamscape, an inner film, come to life!

Depite bright sun, turquoise sea and waving palms, Porto de Galinhas has a dark history. Though Brazil outlawed the trading of slaves in 1853, it did not abolish slavery until 1888. So slave ships disguised their cargo with crates of chickens and slipped into what became known as the Port of Chickens. Now humorous chicken sculptures and puppets adorn many businesses, once again Disneyfying history, just like Triora in Italy with its quaint witches. For that story, see below.

LINK to the Literary Festival in Porto de Galinhas:

You can find Pousado Ecoporto at I highly recommend this lovely inn. The breakfast buffet is excellent with fresh fruits, rolls, cakes, even eggs or tapiocas, if desired. The staff is uniformly friendly and helpful.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Absentee Voting in Argentina

I am one of the thousands of Americans who applied for but did not receive an absentee ballot. Yes, it was sent, assures my Board of Elections in Pittsburgh. But who knows where it is? What do you do if you are a loyal voter in Beijing or Buenos Aires and your ballot is lost in transit if not in translation? Fortunately a system exists online to make voting possible. Ex-pats and travelers can go to for instructions and to download a write-in ballot.

Now, wanderer that I am, I did not know this, but the Democrats Abroad, an international organization with a branch in Buenos Aires, headed by Yankee Mike, and the Ex-Pat Connection group have not only set up debate watching parties at a local café, but also informed Americans about these voting procedures.

On October 2, I was stunned to see hundreds of boisterous U.S. citizens crowded into the Sacramento café on El Salvador street for the Biden-Palin debate. Afterwards, several were interviewed by the Argentinian station, C5N.

So now, it's the eve of the final Presidential Debate between McCain and Obama, but for many of us, the voting is over. The American Embassy in Argentina hosted a voting party on October 8, complete with red, white and blue balloons, refreshments, and a speech by the ambassador. The lines stretched around the block. Americans who had lived in BsAs for years working for corporations, students, first time voters, from Pepperdine, here for a semester, retirees from New York or Chicago stretching their pension dollars, all patiently endured temporary confusion, filled out forms, drank Starbucks coffee, and put their ballot in the blue box. From there, the ballots would be sent by diplomatic pouch to various precincts in the USA. And the correct destinations were assured by a table of volunteers who looked up every single address no matter the state, and hand wrote it on the required exterior envelope.


The event and the embassy were carefully supervised by numerous staff and guards, and originally cell phones and cameras were held in airport type baskets until after the voting. But by the time I arrived, they had run out of storage and just scanned the rest of us. And now that I know the ballots have been mailed, I can admit to taking several surreptious photos. It was a very moving event and I wanted a record.

BALLOT BOX FROM A DISTANCE (note guard at far right)

And, at the end of the day, my new friend, Marta McLoughlin, born in Argentina but now a citizen of both countries, was interviewed by CNN.

Monday, September 29, 2008

On The Road Again

Hola! I'm writing this from a balcony high above Buenos Aires. I've left my studio and flower-filled garden in PIttsburgh and set out once again to collect stories for An Unrealistic Life. Unrealistically, of course, I put my house on the market, and began examining all my STUFF, tossing clothes, books, long unseen models of art work, Pakistani tablecloths, willow baskets, and so-called cherished mementoes on the floor and tables in preparation for the studio/garage sale. Confusion and a psychic re-examination ensued. Which stuff is truly important? Will I need this where I live next? Am I the same without the stuff I thought was precious? I'm an artist....I could make things out of this stuff! George Carlin and his riff on stuff had nothing on me.

In the end, I sold and donated all but the basic furniture, and dishes, packed the artwork in the loft and rented the house for a year. So begins my new blog on my nomadic/unplanned travels through South America for the next six months. And I'm supremely lucky to be here, reveling in spring as North America leans into fall. Insouciantly photographing markets and savoring flan and empanadas.

Yet it's a Dickensian scene in the world right now: the best of times and the worst of times. I dance tango here and try to ignore reports that the USA is going down the financial drain. (Is that carpe diem or carpe noche?) Argentinians view this crisis with sardonic smiles. It's deja vu for them. And understandable with 3 pesos to the dollar that numerous Americans like me are open to finding a new place to live, whether here or in another country.

No matter what, it's always art that enriches my life. Besides tangueros, I've been fortunate to meet several poets, Esteban Charpentier and Juan Daniel Perrotta. More photos of Esteban's recent birthday party are posted on my Facebook page, but here I am with Esteban and Daniel in the wee hours after the party.

It seems appropriate to include Perrotta's poem on the USA here:


I don’t know who said

that the truth doesn’t hurt.

The truth hurts me.

It hurts me to discover

at this point in my life

that I love America.

I drool after Gershwin

and Copland

and Joffre

makes me want to pee

until I’m empty.

A terrific pleasure.

Steinbeck was my first love

as were Hemingway and Whitman

It makes me nauseous to say this

but I love America

and its circus like spectacles

known the world over as



the Gulf War

Operation Freedom

Who is not moved

by its legendary cowboys

and Republican superheroes



Monkeybone Bush


Richard “The Penguin” Nixon

Or those pornoDemocrats

who have left their footprints

in the erotic anals

of Constitutional guarantees

Scardick Bobbit

the brothers who gangbanged Marilyn

cut down in their prime

blowjob Clinton

still alive


after reviewing recent history

and a past

illuminated by burning crosses
explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki

almost on the brink of hurling
embarassed as a hooker’s bridegroom

I am ashamed to admit

that I love America

© Juan Daniel Perrotta
(Translation by Paul Pines)

Saturday, March 04, 2006

AN UNREALISTIC LIFE: Notes from The Wandering Artist



It was minus 13 Centrigrade as we drove past Saltzburg, and Hohensteinburg (I made that up…can’t remember the name), a stone castle high on the hill, into the Austrian alps. The snow sparkled in the rare sunshine as Helga and Willi Hiebl, parents of my former housemate, Petra, took me on our long-planned ski outing. I reminded myself that I had once sworn never to go skiing if the temperature was below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. I remembered being so cold on the chair lift that I thought my fingers would fall off despite thermal ski gloves. Minus 13 C is 8.6 F, and I wondered what madness gets into humans that they feel they have to go out in such weather. Can’t we take a lesson from bears and just stay in? Despite eating my way across Europe, indulging in numerous tarte citrons in France and piling on the butter and cheese in Austria, I still do not have enough body fat to keep warm.

But dressed in several layers of underwear, none of it glamorous, wool tights, slacks, ski pants, a wool turtleneck, a fleece pullover AND a ski jacket, I felt and looked like an overstuffed bear. Unlike the downhill racers in their svelte outfits, sleekness and grace were not the defining adjectives for my current garb. I frankly had a difficult night sleeping, fearing that I would be so cold that skiing would be traumatic, picturing myself frozen in a an awkward stiff-legged pose, a la the Abominable Snowman, high in the mountains. I certainly didn’t want to have to stop after every run and hover in the ski hut trying to warm up, meanwhile becoming known as the Visiting Wimp from Pennsylvania. Petra’s dad Willi is the hale and hearty type, an excellent skier, and a born tease. He would not let me live it down if I didn’t measure up.

I had not skied for at least five years, so it was with some trepidation that I joined this family who were put on skis in kindergarten. During the drive, I prayed to the ghosts of skiers past, wanting desperately to channel the grace and speed of one who had hovered in the netherworld waiting for an opportunity to whip down the slopes once again.

We skied in the Altenstadt area, where Helga’s school sometimes comes for a ski trip. At 1571 meters high, that’s a bit more than 5000 feet, child’s play in the Alps. In Austria the slopes are rated blue, red and black, while in the U.S., the beginning slopes are green, blue are intermediate, and black are difficult. I think the so-called beginners’ slopes here are intermediate at home, but at least they weren’t so steep as to be terrifying. I concentrated on body position: knees bent, shoulders up, face the slope, instead of leaning back. To me, this is counter-intuitive. You’re hurtling downhill, but to gain control you’re supposed to lean forward when every cell of your body is screeching, “Lean back, you fool!” I hoped the balance I had learned in tango would lend me poise as I swooped from side to side. Alas, no. Tango and skiing are not the same. And, despite my prayers and meditation, my channeling abilities proved to be as limited as my skiing. I was not miraculously inhabited by a champion. Just when I thought I was improving, my skis crossed, I suddenly flipped onto my back and slid headfirst about twenty feet down the hill. Fortunately my bear-like padding protected me.

Later, Helga, who has the charitable soul of an elementary teacher crossed with a saint, said “We don’t call that falling, we call it resting. You were just taking a rest.” Some rest! In my tangled up position, I probably looked like a snow-covered pretzel. I hoped Petra’s dad didn’t see my ignominious landing. He was far down the hill at the time. But at some point during the day, he started calling me Batman; apparently referring to the flailing motions I made with my arms prior to take-off.


When my legs quivered, I stopped for a scenery break. Artistically, the day was a success. The sun deceived us into thinking it was actually warmer. Cobalt skies were brighter than the postcards. The evergreen branches wore clouds of snow. Nearby were mountains which had bred Olympic champions. Unfortunately I showed up a little late in life for downhill racing, or even high competency.

Miraculously, I remained vertical for the rest of the day and truly enjoyed myself. I even regained some rhythm and balance on the last few runs, feeling like I was finally in charge of my legs and the skis. Petra’s mom said that if I had a few more days I would become a good skier. Well, I was dubious, (she probably tells all the kids that.) but it did raise my spirits.

A highlight of the day came when we joined the Hiebls’ friends, the Dufts, in the lodge at the bottom of the slopes. Rock music blared, and everyone shed jackets and gloves in the steamy bar. Finally we looked like people again instead of multicolored puffballs. I was ecstatic. I had neither frozen to death nor broken any bones. In the lodge Willi treated us to vodka feigges, small glasses with vodka and fig juice, in which floated a fig on a toothpick. It must have been invented by the gods as a reward for survival. What a way to end the day!


No luck on finding an actual recipe for Vodka Feigges, but here’s what I was told:

Pour a hearty shot of vodka into a glass. Add a splash of juice from canned figs.
Spear a fig with toothpick and add to the vodka. Serve.

Sounds too simple to be fabulous, but it was. And you don’t have to be half frozen to enjoy it!

I didn't have my camera on this adventure, but thanks to www.FreeFoto.Com I found some great photos on the net.
Photo Credits:
Photographer: Ian Britton
Snow Covered Mountain, Carinthia, Austria




Eze Bord du Mer, France
January 20, 2006

Dear Family and Friends, old and new, near and far:

Due to the complexities of email on the road, it’s been awhile since I’ve communicated. I am still in southern France where I am continuing to write and collect interviews for my book, An Unrealistic Life, which features people who are creating unique lifestyles by following their passions outside the nine to five “system.” Since leaving home in early November, I have been in London, Paris, the Cote d’Azur, Munich, Austria, and back to the Cote d’Azur.

As some of you know, the pattern of my travels has been determined by the generosity of friends and even remote connections, who are lending me their apartments on this venture. The Paris chapter was made possible by Marie-Laure Ilie, my artist friend in California who also has an apartment on the Left Bank. In Munich and Austria, I shared a traditional Christmas and Sylvester (the Austrian name for New Year’s Eve) with the Hiebls, the family of my former housemate, Petra. Besides eating every type of Kekse (cookies) in sight, I even learned how to make Knodeln and Schnitzel. Here outside of Nice, I am the beneficiary of Dr. Robin Van Der Molen’s generosity, as I write from the balcony of his apartment with a view of the Mediterranean.

I was supposed to leave here on January 10, but once again, serendipity ruled. The honeymooning couple who were due to arrive changed their plans, and simultaneously after an amazing string of connections, I met and began an interview with an English producer, Jon Acevsky. Originally from Macedonia, Jon is a man of vision, accomplishment and dogged determination. Stone by stone, all imported from Portugal, he is currently restoring an ancient fortress between La Gaude and St. Jeannet, north of Nice. Last Wednesday, he gave me a tour of the work in progress. Portuguese sculptors were just finishing the carved stone stairway. I came away totally stunned. It has taken 4 years, and will open this summer. The full account will appear later.

Rather than clogging up your email with my stories and photos, I have finally figured out how to post them on the Net. For my latest adventure, a trip to the medieval town of Triora, Italy, where “witches” were tortured in 1588, read the account below.


I am tantalized by these ancient villages perched on the cliffs, by the light that inspired Monet and Chagall, by the amber and coral houses in Vieux Nice, and by the unique individuals I continue to meet. But most of the time, I sit on the balcony, write, and revel in the sea. I am living in a world of blue and gold.


The Wandering Artist

All photos by Elena Hiatt Houlihan