Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: When you can't ride

I'm sure there's a great joke somewhere in this about a cyclist who can't cycle (even if it's only temporarily) but at this moment  I can't think of one. Not even a totally lame one that only garners a groan from the crowd.

I've been sick. Every year Florence goes into a collective tizzy about the current influenza for the year. People talk about it like it's an invading army and in truth it probably is. Whole classrooms are empty because all the children are home with something. Social engagements are cancelled because of it. Friends sound hesitant to talk to you on the phone, like germs have discovered the secret to traveling via satellite.

When they talk about it you can hear the quotation marks. It's an "influenza." To call it a bug or the crud lessens the terror factor for them, I guess. I really have no idea what it is I have, but Leif and I have decided it's probably a light dose of the dreaded influenza and the lingering cough is due to spending my first January in a city noted for closing isolated city streets when pollution levels rise, rather than deal with pollution on a more city wide scale.

Since I can't seem to control my breathing right now, riding has been out of the question. It really sucks, because I was finding a rhythm and enjoying the experience so very much. I haven't ridden in a week and a half. I feel, I don't know, anxious somehow. Like I should be doing something but I'm not. I hate the idea of starting over from the beginning, but it will probably come down to that.

And what does a cyclist do when she can't cycle? She arranges and rearranges her cycling clothes, checks her bike for dirt, pumps the brakes (not that I'd know if they were working right, or how to fix them if they weren't) and spends endless minutes that add up to probably hours a day looking out the window assuring anyone who'll listen that the weather isn't right for riding anyway. I must be driving Leif crazy, because I think I'm a little nuts right now. Seriously....I'm talking about the weather stopping me from riding while he's headed out the door for a ride. It's pathetic. I really need to get out of the house, you know, farther than the grocery store.

So the first halfway decent day that comes along I'll be out on my bike. Due to my preoccupation with riding and the endless rearrangement of clothing, just like a fireman, I can jump into my clothes as soon as I spy sunlight and be downstairs before you can say "This woman is crazy."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

It's been weird lately

Sometimes life is very, very weird. I've been worrying some about money and simultaneously yaying and bemoaning the fact that all I can find are babysitting jobs.

Yaying because while the pay is truly terrible at least it's money coming in the door. Really, if you paid the rock bottom prices for child care that is paid here in Florence no one would be doing math on whether or not it's worth it for both parents to work. It's a no brainer.....but there are still those who hand you the money you more than earned with comments intended to make you feel like you're taking food straight out of their mouths.

At the same time I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd be babysitting at my age. Actually age has little to do with it. I just never really thought I connected will enough with kids to work with them full time. Turns out it helps to be pretty much a kid yourself. Connection made without really trying.

Today I feel like I did when I was single and waited forever for someone to ask me out and when someone finally did men started coming out of the woodwork. Weeks could go by without the need to make or pay for a meal if I accepted every date. But of course it takes that all-important first one to start the avalanche. The same thing happened today with babysitting. Last week I firmed up a two month schedule with one of my moms and today I met with a new mom who wasn't adverse to the possibility of a sort of regular schedule of days and then my first mom sent a request for two months of set days.

So thank goodness there'll be food on the table for the near future. I'd be doing a happy (yet confused, where were these people earlier?) dance but I feel pretty miserable physically. I got the latest bug that's going around and I was feeling pretty bad about it because I was sort of brought up to think that getting sick was really more a character flaw than a physical problem. Leif told me that it takes a few years at least to get used to the strains of colds and flues that happen here so I no longer feel like I could have avoided this bug through determination and a strong mind. My current goal is just to survive it and build up those anti-bodies so that next winter I can skip this whole mess.

Last Friday I started out just feeling tired, woke up feeling nauseous, stayed that way for a couple of days basically not eating because I couldn't keep anything down, then was able to eat a little by Sunday night but I was so weak from two days of starvation. My body doesn't handle starvation well when it's healthy, when it's sick it's exponentially worse. Monday my appetite came back and Tuesday a cough settled in.

This is no slight cough or gentle clearing of the throat tickle.  It's a whole body, toe curling, hair tensing, eyeball bugging cough. I'm sure some perky nurse out there would say "At least it's a productive cough," but that's not very comforting at three in the morning. My core is getting the workout of it's life. I'll have washboard abs from all the coughing and if I can avoid putting on the pounds I lost during my two day starvation/purging period I'll look pretty darn good come summer.

Right now I'd just kill for an uninterrupted 4 hours of sleep. Not the kind I've been getting at the tail end of the night when I pass out from exhaustion, but real restful sleep that will fix all that is currently wrong with my body. My throat feels as big around as a redwood tree and I'm certain just my throat and only my throat is running a fever. My stomach is beginning to hurt from the standing (or sitting or lying, depending on the time of day) crunches I've been doing for the last 48 hours. Just today the veins in my temples have shrunk from the size of garden hoses to a much more attractive earthworm size. I'm hopeful that by the weekend they will have gone back to where they came  from and my face will no longer throb in cadence with my heartbeat.

To sum this up in true Minnesota fashion...(said in a perky voice) I'm sure things will improve now and it certainly could have been worse! Just don't ask me to explain how, because it involves phlegm and exploding blood vessels and a hazmat cleaning crew.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Our first, first wedding anniversary

The first wedding anniversary is a milestone in every marriage. It's something to celebrate and yet it feels strange to celebrate reaching a point that, given the vows we spoke a mere twelve months ago, should pretty much be a given. Our first American wedding anniversary will be 21 January and at this point we have absolutely no great plans made for a celebration, public or private. I think this sets an excellent precedent for our first Swedish wedding anniversary in August.

None of our cakes came with a top layer to be frozen and consumed on our first anniversary (a tradition of sorts in the United States) nor would it have made it from the States or Sweden to Italy in any shape to be eaten a year later. To be perfectly honest, I wouldn't want to eat a dry and stale cake that's been frozen for a year; a static reminder of who we were a year ago. I'd want to share something fresh and lovely and sweet....something that acknowledges that a year has passed and life has changed for us both.

My research, limited to asking Leif's sister if there was some kind of Swedish tradition around the first anniversary tells me that there are no traditions so I can't incorporate something Swedish (except Leif) into our anniversary. I haven't researched Italian traditions at all but I'm guessing that if there is one it involves his mamma making dinner, because she knows exactly what he likes and how it should be made and this is the perfect time to remind him that she can't be replaced by some pretty face. We won't be including this charming tradition either, as I can feel inadequate all by myself, thank you very much.

What we will be doing is eating dinner at home. Without gifts, flowers or dramatic gestures, all of those props we've been convinced embody romance, he will make me feel like I'm the only woman in the world. Together we'll cook dinner with all the courses and wine (very Italian) surrounded by candles (very Swedish) and spend the evening all by ourselves (very American). It will be amazing because we'll share it joyfully and completely, like we share everything else in our lives.

I'm guessing there are those who want to think that passing our first year together in Italy, land of romance and love, somehow magically guarantees bliss.....rainbows and roses and happiness everywhere we turn. Then there those others who insist that marriage is some kind of torment (whether you live in a paradise or not) that changes both people so much that their nearest and dearest hardly recognize them anymore; a life of unmet expectations and reluctant compromise. The truth is somewhere in between.

We both know that the only guarantee each day is that the sun will rise in the morning and set at night. The rest is in our own hands and hearts. Happiness is a decision and we decide each day to be happy, to be content and to love each other. If we have an unmet expectation you can be sure it's one that hasn't been voiced. Hurt feelings and disagreements are inevitable but never reach critical levels because we confront them head on, the sooner the better. Cultural and language differences will probably always be with us, but the longer we're together the easier it will become to work them out quickly.

When it comes to romance, living in Italy isn't any different than living in Minneapolis. Or Hawaii. Or Sweden. Romance happens whenever we're together, so much so that we don't even notice our surroundings sometimes. So this first, first anniversary is really just a good excuse to make something just a little fancy and burn candles with great abandon and acknowledge to each other that this has been the first of many wonderful years together.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: Only a little broke, I hope

That tangled mess of chain and metal used to be my derail-er.
It looks worse in person. Trust me.
Until I hear differently, I'm going to assume that my bike has suffered a mere flesh wound and the only thing standing between it and a full recovery is a good mechanic and the right parts. However, to my untrained eye it seemed to be one of those Monty Python flesh wounds that should have been spurting chain oil and Gatorade all over the road. Leif spent a little time trying to prepare me for the worst; the possibility that the actual frame might be damaged too, then quickly said  (in what I'm sure he thought was a perky manner) "But you'll still have the wheels and the saddle and the handlebars!" I wasn't comforted. It's just a flesh wound people! I refuse to think anything else till we can get her to a mechanic.

Yesterday the forecast was for warm temps, if not actual sunshine, so my friend Barbara and I started out for a ride. Being the enthusiastic hill-loving cyclist that she is (she might argue, but don't listen) she chose a destination that included a long, steady climb. She was quick to point out that it's a great training climb being long and mostly straight and only about a 5% grade.

This is all information that I don't want to know. It just scares me to hear the grade, even if it's single digits and practically flat. I also don't want to hear that it's x-number of kilometers of climbing and prefer the kind of ride with lots of switchbacks so I can't see the the road rising endlessly in front of me. I'm still easily intimidated by hills. I hope I never have to climb an actual mountain. What am I saying? I'll never have to do that because if I see one coming up I'll just faint after hyperventilating for couple of miles and be done with it. Pick me up on the way back down folks.

All I need to know about this route is that I can handle the hills no problem and the views are absolutely gorgeous. The sun was just coming out and the air was warming up as we made our slow and steady climb up to Impruneta when my bike made a strange clunking noise. I immediately stopped pedaling (I'm cautious....and terrified that something exactly like this would happen), looked down at the mass of twisted metal that used to be my derail-er, remembered that I was clipped in so removed my foot from the pedal and stopped. Said to Barbara "I think something's wrong with my bike," and dragged it off to the side of the road, which wasn't far as this road doesn't have ditches or shoulders but those quaint stone walls that keep everything on the road, well...on the road.

This is the kind of thing  you really would prefer to have happen in town where there are numerous options for getting home. Ten miles from home in those rolling Tuscan hills is not where you want to be.

Every other time I've stopped on the side of the road for trivial reasons like changing gloves or drinking water I've gotten numerous offers of help when no help was really needed. Now I was standing at the side of the road next to a bike that obviously needed help and no one stopped. Barbara quite rightly pointed out that they were on the downhill side and it's tough to stop so we headed up to the top so we could catch someone before they were free falling down the side of  a mountain.

As I walked my bike up the hill I realized where we were and after a quick phone consultation with Leif we decided to leave my bike at our landlord's house as they live only a short walk (relatively speaking) from where the bike broke. The bus runs on this same road so I could catch the bus home and we could figure out how to get the bike later. No, you can't take a bike on the bus here. Sad but true.

A brilliant plan I thought. But Milvia and Luigi thought taking the bus wasn't a great plan.....they could loan me a bike to get back down to town! Luigi took me to a house nearby and in the cellar under the house we unearthed an old mountain bike with flat tires, a rusty chain and only one working brake. He found a pump and filled the tires with a little air and sent me on my way. I met up with Barbara (we went separate ways for a bit) and we spent some time trying to get just a little more air into the tires because I wasn't comfortable riding a strange bike (which may or may not have working gears and was already short one brake) down a mountain on mostly flat tires.

We went back the way we came, slowly because I wasn't sure if the brakes would hold on the downhills and climbing with a mountain bike is just slow going. Barbara was great, sticking with me the whole time and very graciously saying that this is the way it goes sometimes. Some days you get to ride and some days you have to deal with problems.

I'm guessing I handled this the way I handle all problems. Inside my head I'm running around in circles waving my hands in the air screaming "Oh my God, what do I do now?" perhaps even crying and stamping my feet a little, while outside I seem to be calmly assessing the situation and reviewing my options, then making a decision and creatively solving said problem, or at least getting to the next step efficiently. I have everyone completely fooled.

In fifteen minutes or so Leif and  I had found a place to leave my dead (or possibly only dying) bike,  found me a way home and had a plan to pick up the broken bike the next day. Barbara said that if this had happened to her she'd be sitting in a taxi right now instead of heading back down on a borrowed bike. Then she offered me the use of her extra bike until mine can get fixed. If I was a crier that would be the time I'd have started tearing up. Her bikes are very important to her.

She's so right, you know. Leif and I (but mostly Leif) have such a network of fantastic friends that when the shit hits the fan we aren't alone. From riding with Barbara to breaking down practically outside our landlord's house, to our friend Dominic with a big car, to the use of another bike till mine recovers, to one of my moms offering an advance so I can get back on the road sooner we always have friends watching our backs. And just so they know.....we're watching out for them as well and all they have to do is say the word. We'll be there with whatever we can give as quickly as we can get to them.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: My Pavlovian response to the sun or just warm weather

I started this post way before New Year's and here it is the ninth of January and I haven't finished it yet. Mostly because this was going to be a little recap of the few rides that would happen while the sun shines. Damn if the sun doesn't continue to shine, for the most part. Even when it doesn't shine, the temperatures have been so warm that it has been a pleasure to ride even under a gray and dreary sky.

I'm from a northern place, where there sun disappears for weeks at a time, and even when it does shine it has no more power to warm than the sunshine you see on television. Not to mention the shock of walking out into a sunshiny day and being instantly frozen by sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures. So naturally, when the sun shines and it's not freezing outside my Minnesota brain screams at wasting the day inside, when it knows (in Minnesota at least) that the dark and colder days are right around the corner. So we go out  and enjoy the sun to it's fullest and I continue to do that here.

Except that those beautiful warm and/or sun filled days just keep coming. And quite frankly my body is  getting a little tired. Let's face it, I'm not getting any younger and I started this whole cycling thing several decades later than I probably should have. In the last two weeks I've ridden a lot.

I've taken all of three days off from riding in the last two weeks. I've rung out the old year and brought in the new year with rides....I've ridden with Leif and with Barbara and (gasp) with complete strangers. All in my quest to chase the sun before it disappears. I've eaten some wonderful pastry. I've climbed hills. I've started riding clipped in. Learning to ride has accomplished everything I hoped it would. I'm getting to see more of Tuscany than I ever did before. I see my friends more often and hopefully with time I'll make more friends.

Riding has other benefits that I hadn't really considered but probably should have. It's really more than just my body getting into a different shape, although even that has surprised me a bit. I'm physically stronger and able to do things that even two weeks ago were hard for me. It's also that I'm out in the world more, not just in the same places I always go and am comfortable with. I have to talk to strangers and find my way around an unfamiliar landscape and try not to let my mind stop me from doing the things I want to do, like climb the big hills. I'm stronger inside and outside.

Yesterday I started to wonder just how much I've ridden so Leif helped me add up the numbers. I probably shouldn't have done that. Starting December 29th and ending with today's ride I've put over 500 kilometers (over 300 miles) on my bike and body. It just sounds like a lot a lot of miles for one middle aged woman to be riding.

I'm torn between wishing the sun and warm weather would go away so winter could start in earnest (thereby taking the decision of whether or not to ride out of my hands) or hoping for the sun because it's just so wonderful to be out in it, flying across the hills of Tuscany in body and spirit.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Epifania (Epiphany) and La Befana

Two separate yet totally Italian events were celebrated today. Florence's Cavalcade of the Magi and La Befana.

La Befana is a witch who leaves good children candy in their stockings and bad children get a lump of coal. The story is that when the three kings got to Italy they asked her for directions and when she didn't know where Jesus was, asked if she wanted to come with them. She refused, but after they left she regretted saying no. She went looking for them, couldn't find them or Jesus. Now every January 5th she comes in through the chimney, leaves gifts and sweeps the floor before she leaves. Like Santa, kids either believe completely or know the truth and don't care, because candy is candy regardless of who delivers it.

Epiphany is a Christian holiday around the world, but being Lutheran I've never seen a parade to celebrate it; we just went to church. It's possible I suppose that the Catholics in my community celebrated this way, but one would think I'd have heard about it....maybe even seen it. Here in Italy I saw my first Epifania and it was something. It's a recreation of an event that was held in the 15th century during the height of the power of the Medici family and is therefore properly sober and distinguished and everyone in the parade is very serious about it.

If I understood what I was seeing (and no one actually Italian was there to tell me if I'm wrong or not. I mean someone I actually knew. There were tons of Italians there.) Mary and Joseph were set up in the little stable in front of the giant church. With great fanfare, the three Magi and their entourage came all the way from the Pitti Palace on the other side of the river to pay their respects to Jesus.

The start I waited almost an hour to see.
Jealously guarding my position from
pushy Italians.
Here in Florence the three Kings arrive accompanied by drums and fanfare trumpets and flags and small cannons. They ride into the piazza at the Duomo on horses, but this year as luck would have it there is a circus in town and they loaned the event three camels to bring a note of realism to the whole thing. They were led by a handler a few hundred feet after the Magi. I would have liked to see the kings actually riding the camels, but maybe they aren't the kind of camels one rides. Who knows? The kings were also accompanied by all the important people of the area around Florence. Everyone brought gifts. Everyone was in Medieval dress except for Mary and Joseph, who were appropriately garbed in robes.

Villages (and/or their contrade, which are kind of like neighborhoods that compete in a variety of ways) from around the region are represented by their flags and drums and their most illustrious citizens dressed in all their Medieval finery. They all gather in front of the church for a small ceremony, then parade back out again. It was the first real "period" event I've been able to actually see here (after two years!) and I enjoyed every crowded, cold and crazy moment of it.

One of the regal ladies. There were many.
Lots of flags...
...and drums.

Noble men struttin' their stuff.

I think the feathers are to make
the enemy think the cannon
shoots pillows instead of cannonballs.

More drums.

They start very young learning to throw
flags. It's one of the things contrade compete in.

Ah, the kings.

The kings arrive.

The camels are awesome.

Did I mention there were a lot of drums?

Various people out to protect and serve.

Many, many couples parading
through town in their finest.

Each village sends gifts.

Bread and fritata.

Live chickens. In case they get hungry?

Gathering before the church and the stable scene.

It's not a parade without bagpipes.

Falcons. These were amazing.
In a scary kind of way.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: What hill?

I've been riding a lot lately, sometimes with Leif and sometimes with a girlfriend. At last count I've ridden 7 of the last 8 days with another ride planned tomorrow. Olympic athletes probably train less. I need to slow down, at least long enough for my clothes to dry completely.

One day this week, I can't remember which one anymore, I was following Leif and huffing and puffing down hill. You heard me right. It sure looked like it was down hill. Leif, meaning to be supportive I'm sure, said, "It's OK. It's a false climb."

Which I'm sure is a super-cyclist term for a hill that's a figment of my imagination. A climb that's all in my head.

I'm not sure what's worse, working super hard to pedal down a hill or being told that the sensation of pedaling super hard down a hill is a figment of my imagination.

I guess it doesn't matter, as long as he doesn't start luring me up large hills with imaginary pastry. Then there'll be trouble.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

I resolve...

I have been asked by a friend to address the issue of New Year's resolutions. Specifically, she wants to know if it's different in Europe than in the States and if Leif and I are resolution makers. So here is my guess regarding cultural differences, informed only by  my own experience and not based in any reality other than the one I currently inhabit. It's a question that really would require me to have a working knowledge of  many of the -ologies that can be studied, none of which I'm an expert in. Remember that as you read on.

I think that modern New Year's resolutions are most popular in the United States but that there are some European countries that are following the fashion and making New Year's Eve a kind of watershed moment like many Americans do. If I was asked my opinion I would say that celebrating the new year is common to every culture, but the idea that the last year needs to be eclipsed by the next year is a very American idea. In the United States there is always room for improvement and satisfaction with your life somehow implies that you don't care about success. 

We draw a line in the sand on New Year's Eve and proclaim  our dissatisfaction with some aspect of our lives and resolve to live differently. We assume our own brokenness and then make a (usually) over-zealous plan to fix ourselves. Then, because we're American, we go out and just do it, convinced that we can't fail and then we often do fail, because we're human. Then again, maybe failure happens because most New Year's resolutions today are to look better or become more successful (ie. money, position or possessions) and the standard for success is defined by other people, not ourselves.

On a personal level, Leif and I don't make New Year's resolutions. He just isn't the kind of person to choose a random date to change something about his life. Like me, he doesn't find it necessary to draw that line in the sand and say that on one side is the person we were and on the other side the person we want to become. We're constantly in the process of becoming, in small ways and large.  It matters not one little bit to me if someone thinks my butt is too big or my house is too small or my work isn't prestigious enough. I suppose it sounds terribly unromantic and uninspired to simply wake up each day and remember that I want to be the best person I can be and to feel gratitude for the chance to live such a blessed life but that's what I do and will continue to do as long as I keep waking up.

I will say that here in Italy New Year's Eve is a celebration of life. It's filled with friends and family and food and wine. It happens in homes and restaurants and in Florence they've moved it out into the streets by staging live music performances in some of the major piazzas. I don't even think they're celebrating anything specific, like surviving another year. Italians just like a good party and they're very, very good at them.