Sunday, June 10, 2012

You're probably tired of hearing about cycling.

You must be really tired of hearing about biking. But it's just so new for me. Until a couple of years ago my biking experience dated back to when I was ten and I had the most beautiful purple and silver Schwinn. It had sparkly metallic paint and a silver seat (also sparkly) and big fat tires and the only speed it had was determined by how fast I pedaled. I shouldn't really say "had" because I still have it. It's rusty in places and the gigantic white wall tires are flat and the seat is losing what little stuffing it had and the chain is frozen in place, but I still have it. No, not here in Italy, but I have it.

I write about my cycling experiences mostly because I seem to find myself in the strangest situations. I just don't know how I get convinced that I can do some of the things I try to do. Probably some kind of weird brain disease caused by the consumption of too much olive oil. Since I'm not going to stop eating olive oil the stories will continue, and this brings us to Thursday.

I got a call that morning from a woman who got my name from a friend (who I've never met) who got my name from another friend (this one I've met) and she was wondering if I could come babysit that afternoon. She sounded a little desperate and I felt bad for her. I said OK because I remember what it's like to be the mother of two toddlers. We all sound a little desperate sometimes because we feel that way a lot of the time. I asked what time and she said maybe 5 or 5:30. Hmmm, that's verging on evening in Minnesota. Calling it afternoon is pretty bold. But she said I would be done by 8 (I didn't want to ride home in the dark) so I said yes and told her to SMS me the address. She asked how I was getting there and I told her my bike, as I don't have a car.

She hesitated a moment and then said that her house was up a pretty big hill. Now, one thing I've come to understand is that everyone's idea about what constitutes a "hill" is different. Leif's hills seem like mountains to me, while my hills seem like mountains to some of the women I know here. So I did some mental calculations, threw in a little psychology, grossly overestimated (as usual) my ability to handle the situation and said "Oh, I'm sure I'll be fine." I should have that printed on a t-shirt. And FYI, she downgraded her mountain to a hill. But there would be no story if she hadn't called it a hill.

We agreed on 5 as the meeting time. I left at 3 giving me two hours to find the place and cool down a little before knocking on her door. Nothing worse, I think, than showing up at a new client's door with sweat pouring off of me like Niagra Falls and glowing like I'm nuclear powered. The map (here it is if you want to see the ride) said it was less than 6 kilometers. I wrote my directions on a piece of paper, highlighted the street names and turns and placed it carefully into a plastic sleeve. This is important, the plastic sleeve. Eventually that paper will be stuffed between my bag straps and my body and I don't want it to get wet. My directions would become blurry lines on thin wet paper and cease to be functional. Not good when heading out into the unknown with nothing really except for a great deal of unsupported confidence in oneself.

The first half of the route was a piece of cake. Flat, in town and with plenty of streets and traffic to maneuver around in. At about 3k though, things changed. I started to head out of town which surprised me. I didn't really expect that. Traffic became lighter. Which one might think is a blessing, but even though they scare the crap out of me on a regular basis it's comforting to know that there are other people out there with me. Because the roads outside of town become small.

Maybe at this point some of you need to know what the roads are like where I come from so you can understand how difficult I find the streets here. I come from a flat place, divided into mostly neat and geometric 1 mile square sections by wide gravel or paved roads.So if worse comes to worse, you drive maybe an extra mile before you can turn around, less if there are driveways on the road. A driver can usually see for at least a mile, sometimes waaaayyy more. One way streets are rare, reserved for those freeway messes and older parts of towns where it's impossible to upgrade a street without moving some historical landmark.

Back to the Italian countryside, where the roads are small. One car and maybe a bicycle wide. There aren't shoulders and more often than not they are actually roads with traffic in both directions, even if the road isn't wide enough for them both. The roads hug the curves of the hills/mountains, making visibility sometimes less than the hood of your car. Oh, did I mention that many (many, many) of these roads also have picturesque stone walls on both sides that are probably over two meters tall? They're like a cattle chute for people.

So I'm in this chute tooling along, wondering if it's a one way street or a two way street because I don't like surprises. And I'm hoping that I don't miss my turn because there are only two exits off this street (seriously). And suddenly I start to climb. On a paved road not wide enough for me and a car. Between two picturesque stone walls that look very unforgiving. Suddenly a break in the wall appeared next to me and I turned quickly onto the next road, hoping the incline would be less steep.

No such luck. If anything it's even steeper. But it's the right road, which totally makes up for the fact that I'm still climbing, for now. Except for one or two turns I really didn't even need the directions; the road would come to a T and I just had to pick the right direction. This was a blessing because I became totally focused on climbing the hill. I did all the correct gear changes (whew!!) and so I wasn't climbing fast, but I was in fact climbing. I didn't see any other bikes on the road and the drivers of the few cars I saw looked surprised to see me there.

I overtook an elderly woman walking uphill...I'm kind of ashamed to say that I felt a small thrill of victory when I passed her. She looked at me, looked down the hill, frowned a bit and then decided to go all superior on me and ignore me, so I said a polite "Salve" as I passed and she grudgingly gave me one back. Yes, there was plenty of time for all that to happen as I passed her. I was going, like, 1 mile an hour. Actually in my memory it's almost a slow motion kind of event. All I know is I left her eating my dust and that gave me the confidence to go on. Then again, I was an obviously foreign woman (Italian women don't ride bikes in the hills) on a fire engine red mountain bike wearing a pretty flowered skirt, a Timbuktu bag and a very, very determined look on my face pedaling madly up the road to the top of a mountain. Add in the sweat pouring off my body and the bright red glow on my face and, come to think of it, I probably terrified that poor woman. No doubt she evil-eyed me till I rode out of sight.

And so I continued to climb, hemmed in on both sides by picturesque and really hot stone walls except for those times when houses crowded the side of the road in their place. Occasionally the wall lowered for a stunning view of the valley, which I couldn't truly appreciate because my breathing was getting pretty labored and my legs had started burning a bit and my mouth was drier than a desert. I think the air was thinner up there.

Suddenly I remembered that she mentioned that her house was the second #54. Holy cow, I totally forgot to look at the gate numbers! The numbers at the bottom of the hill started with #8 (very disheartening) and only advanced in fits and starts. I got excited when we jumped from #12 to #20, but then there were #'s 24A, 24B, 24C and 24D. If this kept up I'd be at the top of the mountain before I reached #54, which I'd only now remembered I should be looking for. For the last eternity I had been so focused on getting to the next flat spot that I completely forgot to look at the few gate numbers I passed. That's right, in my single minded devotion to making it up I forgot that I had a definite destination to look for. Which, in fact, might be well before the top of the mountain. At that moment the road curved slightly and before me was a gate with the number 54 mounted on the picturesque stone wall next to it. Of course I didn't know if this was the first or second #54, but I was hopeful. Well, as hopeful as someone who has given up all hope of surviving the climb can be.

My guardian angel (who was probably as light headed as I was from the altitude) was on the job, because yes, this was the second #54. There was her name next to one of the bells. But it only took me 45 minutes to get there so I had over an hour before she was expecting me. Haha, did you hear that? I said "only". Yeah, by then I was getting a little giddy from the lack of oxygen, the heat and the stress of trying to climb a mountain by myself and find a complete stranger's address on that mountain.

Once I confirmed that it was her address I did the logical thing. I looked up the road and saw a medieval and, yes, picturesque tower above the trees. I figured that had to be the actual top of the mountain and that it wasn't very far away. It would have made no sense for me to ride all that way and not go that last little bit to the top. Besides, I figured there would be shade up there, and maybe, if my guardian angel hadn't passed out from the lack of oxygen, a cafe bar.

While I will mourn the loss of my guardian angel and subsequent lack of coffee, there was shade and a breath taking view. I looked down on the entire city of Florence, it's suburbs and the surrounding countryside. In fact, I looked down on practically everything. There was very little that I looked up at except the sky. I sat on an ancient stone bench in front of an equally ancient church and eventually I stopped sweating and my face no longer felt hot. My legs stopped shaking. I'm pretty sure I looked like a completely normal person when I met her at the gate an hour later. She probably thinks I'm some kind of cycling maniac because I arrived looking as if I rode across the street instead of up a mountain.

So that's my little bit of pride for Thursday. I took a job with a complete stranger in a place I'd never been to and ended up climbing almost 450 feet up the side of a mountain by myself. Wow, when I put it like that....if I were your teenage daughter you'd ground me for life.


  1. I love reading your blogs. I feel your pain along with your sense of acomplishment. You should be writing a book. Really!

    1. Thanks Kathy! I have managed to accomplish some strange things, this is true.